Q&A: FareStart’s Marcus Bryant talks about equity, inclusion and antiracism
Over the past year, Marcus Bryant has faced one unprecedented challenge after another since joining FareStart as chief people and inclusion officer in late March 2020, shortly after COVID-19 hit. The pandemic upended FareStart as we knew it. We shut down our restaurant, cafes and catering, put all training on pause, reorganized and redeployed our staff to feed people in need on a larger scale than ever before. Then came the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that impacted staff acutely and galvanized global uprisings against police violence and systemic racism.
We are grateful for the deep level of understanding and expertise Marcus brings to FareStart, informed through his lived experience, his tenure as chief diversity officer at Charleston Southern University and leading his own firm in addressing inequities across various industries.
While everyone has a role in advancing racial equity at all levels of our organization, Marcus is guiding organizational strategies that will positively impact our actions for our students, graduates, staff, volunteers, partners and the communities we serve. We caught up with Marcus to talk about his first year on the job. Here are a few highlights.
Why is racial equity work important to you, personally and professionally?
From a personal standpoint, this work is important because of my daughters – all three of them – who have kinky curly hair and beautifully melanated skin. Someday they will enter the workplace, where they will face criticism for the same things that I deem beautiful. I want to be a frontrunner in changing that narrative in this position.
I am also formerly homeless and grew up in a family of very low means — I know intimately the pain associated with feeling worthless, forgotten and unwanted. I often wished for opportunity or feared that I’ve used up all my chances to get out of where I was and to be successful.
Black and brown people in the U.S. have faced overt oppression in various professional sectors and it has had clear impacts both personally and professionally. When we consider redlining, racist lending practices, discrimination in land distribution and job attainment, voter suppression, the “war on drugs,” harsher prison sentences for people of color – and the list goes on – we have to be clear that people of color are entering workplaces and professions that were in many cases not designed to benefit them. I want to change that.
Human Resources as an industry is dominated by white women. I rarely saw myself reflected in key leadership roles, even as I progressed in my career. I want to be a better representation, and I want to see better representation in senior HR roles across various sectors, and not just in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) roles. People of color are more than the diversity they bring to organizations.
I have to show up every single day, because there are people who will see me or meet me for the first time and say, “That guy is an executive and he looks like me!” At FareStart, I’ve been fortunate to have a CEO that I partner with every single day who utilizes me for my business acumen, not my blackness. That’s something I’ve always longed for, something I’ve always wanted. But let’s be clear I love being Black and it informs the job I do every single day and makes me a better HR and DEI professional.
How have you adapted this past year, which has been so fraught with challenges, from COVID to the economic fallout and protests over police violence and racial injustice?
We remain in the midst of a global pandemic. And Black and brown people are in a second pandemic, where people are literally waging war on our bodies. Over the past year, I’ve had to continually process my own grief and pain to be effective in helping to lead the organization. There is a dualized burden that comes with this position. I’m not just the diversity guy. I’m also the HR professional. My job is to lead and guide the workforce.
After I arrived at FareStart, my objectives shifted to three things: listen, remind and rebuild.
First, I held listening sessions. I really wanted to hear directly from our staff, some who had been with FareStart for up to 20 years and others who were just starting their careers at FareStart. Staff from various departments and positions across the organization shared their experiences, positive and negative. This information was incredibly useful and powerful in helping me understand the issues before making any changes.
Next, I had to remind. I moved from Charleston, South Carolina, all the way to Seattle to take this job. When I got here at the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was sort of in flux. We were pivoting our business model, temporarily pausing our adult and youth programs, and scaling down our social enterprise businesses.
I had to remind myself why I was here, because some of the things I loved while interviewing, like teaching students and transforming lives, were not things that were immediately happening when I showed back up. I had to remind myself that I am here for our current students and employees and the students and employees who haven’t shown up yet.
Not only did I have to remind myself why I was here, I had to remind the staff as well. Our staff are some of the most passionate and resilient people I have ever met – and I’ve seen a lot of employees over the course of my career. I had to remind our staff that without them we are simply a set of buildings. We, the people, are FareStart. I have shared with countless staff that “I remember the tears you cried when a student graduated, I witnessed the love you poured out when preparing the student and staff lunch, I remember the pain you felt when you lost a student to substance use.” People who aren’t passionate, people who don’t care or love what they do, don’t experience this level of emotion and commitment to the work.
Lastly, we needed to rebuild. FareStart had been on its DEI journey in earnest since 2018 and there was a framework in place prior to my arrival around DEI staff work groups. However, these initial work groups started to dissipate. I wanted to revamp that model to gain buy-in of the organization, not to prescribe the work, but for us to create this work together. We aren’t waiting on diversity, we are diversity. I let our staff know that I would be there with them, that this would be a journey, and that eventually we’d see movement. Rebuilding was not just about the framework, although very important, it was more about continuing to build trust and safety so that the work would continue.
It’s been incredible. We have about a third of our organization actively engaged in DEI work groups and about half that are participating in our overall DEI Taskforce. Our journey, like most, has been hard to navigate, ambiguous and unforgiving at times, but filled with a lot of learning, rebuilding and grace. Every day this work is worth it.
What’s a specific situation that has challenged you in uncomfortable ways, and how did you use the experience to inform the work you do?
One day last summer, as I was leaving, one of the police officers outside our building got his baton and was hitting it in his hand and staring at me as I was walking past him. In our current climate where racially motivated violence is at the forefront of our minds, this behavior was unsettling. I talked to some of my colleagues to find out if this was a normal thing. Being in a new city, I wanted to know if this was a scare tactic. My colleagues confirmed, ‘That’s exactly what that was. They were trying to intimidate you. They were trying to scare you.’
I came into work the next day very challenged by the fact that our staff, walk out of this building every single day and are experiencing this behavior just like I am. Knowing the narratives of our student and staff populations who have been justice involved, it broke my heart. Days later I noticed that same police officer and his partner at a nearby restaurant placing their lunch orders. I waited until they went to pay and provided the cashier with my debit card so that I could pay for both officers. The officer said “What’d you that for?” I shared with him that love is stronger than hate. A familiar line that emerged from the families who forgave Dylann Roof, who killed nine people attending a Bible study, in Charleston.
Protests were abundant in Seattle – and rightfully so. We talked about whether we needed to board up our windows. In the end, we decided not to do this. In fact, we put Black Lives Matter posters across our building to show that we’re going to show up for our people, our community and the people we serve. When people walked past FareStart, they knew they had our support.
What are some of your proudest or most memorable moments this past year?
There have been so many moments big and small that made me proud and kept me inspired with this work. For example, for the first time ever, our entire senior leadership team has DEI focused goals. Staff curated an antiracism statement to provide explicit clarity to our community and to serve as a guide for how we go about our work and realize our mission, which was unanimously endorsed by our board of directors. We also closed FareStart in solidarity of a statewide strike and staff marched side-by-side in support of Black Lives Matter. We’ve created a framework to measure and evaluate our DEI work to ensure we are making progress toward goals. There have been some really hard and brave conversations, but we’re starting to see progress. Black and brown representation on our board of directors has increased to 38%. There has been a 15% increase in staff promotions from historically under-represented groups. We have a lot more work to do, but we’re being intentional about integrating race equity into everything we do. We’re working on our three-year strategic plan, which will be a critical driver of this work as well.
What are your hopes and dreams for FareStart as we continue our journey to becoming an antiracist organization?
I don’t know that there is a finish line. There will likely always be more work to do as we begin to and continue to address systemic racism within our organization. FareStart in and of itself, is not an organization. It’s the people that make up the organization.
Over the next five to ten years, my role is to help bring students, staff, volunteers and partners to the organization who align with our mission, vision, values and antiracist philosophy. We will make headway as a result of the day-to-day decisions that are made. We must continually ask ourselves if we show up for our community in a way that recognizes peoples’ value and creates a sense of belonging. Do we believe in them like someone believed in us?
FareStart defines antiracism as the clear acknowledgment that racism permeates organizations, communities, and industries, including our own. We recognize that we have a duty to be vigilant in addressing and confronting racism in how we make decisions, show up in our communities, build business practices and policies, and engage in intentional partnerships and philanthropic endeavors to fulfill our mission and vision.