On Feb. 10, 2016, Highmark Health had the honor of sponsoring a Black History Month event with an esteemed guest, Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP.

Cornell Brooks Group Photo

Highmark’s BNet leaders with Cornell Brooks at the Feb. 10, 2016, event. From left to right: Robert James, Leesa Sheppard, Cardelle Banks, Angela Wiley, Dr. Cornell Brooks, Sharon A. Woodward, JaColby Kent and Leslie Preston.

This event originated with Highmark Health’s Black Network Business Resource Group, also known as BNet. Among many other activities, BNet participants form a committee each year that formulates ideas and programming for Black History Month. In 2016, BNet’s theme for Black History Month was “Hallowed Grounds” — calling for reflection upon the many sites across the country that played key roles in African-American history during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Along with articles on that theme on HighWire, the employee intranet site for most of the Highmark Health companies, and weekly soul food menus in Highmark cafeterias, BNet wanted to make an impact this Black History Month by showcasing an African-American speaker. Through a personal relationship, BNet participant Robert James, program manager in strategic sourcing excellence, was able to invite Brooks to be the guest speaker at a Feb. 10 event in Pittsburgh. Highmark Health’s office of diversity and inclusion was also instrumental in planning and executing the event.

Dr. Cornell Brooks

Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP

Brooks, who spoke in front of 150 Highmark Health employees and leaders of the local community, stressed that health care needs to be more equitable. For that to happen, he asserted that the health care industry must work with schools, social justice organizations and the business community to create a “culture of health care.” He also noted that, “Pittsburgh is a great American city … a city of ingenuity and innovation, a city of enterprise and entrepreneurship. It is also a city, like many American cities, wrestling with how you ensure the health and well-being of our citizens.”

After the event, several BNet leaders had the pleasure of speaking with Brooks to discuss his accomplishments and ask questions. I’ve pulled together some of the highlights from our interview session to share with the Highmark blog’s readers.

Angela Wiley (community outreach chair, BNet): We currently have many young folks motivated by the killing of Michael Brown and other incidents like that. How do we motivate beyond a tragic event?

Cornell Brooks: With millennials, we have to engage them by doing something. It’s a quiet secret that 1 out of 5 people who attend an NAACP convention are under the age of 20. This is the reasoning behind us adding spoken word poetry, rap, artwork and so on to the convention center lineup. We have hundreds of young people waiting outside, wanting to get involved, because they saw us doing something that really spoke to them.

NAACP has more young people involved than any other nationally recognized organization, by far. We use Twitter and other social media to keep them engaged.

The millennials are also looking for us as the previous generation to show up, instead of just telling them what to do. It’s not beneficial to tell them things that happened in 1965 — that’s long before they were born and they really don’t have an interest.

As an example, there was a rally held in Chicago surrounding police brutality. The young people were willing to fight for the cause and even go to jail. People of my generation showed up and were able to guide the youth on how to handle the situation peacefully and with non-violent protesting. But we only had the credibility to give advice because we showed up.

Our main challenge is that we don’t have credibility if we don’t show up; we have to get on the younger generation’s level, be part of what they’re doing, and also know when to step back and let it be “their thing.”

Sharon A. Woodward (chair, BNet): We see that with the National Black MBA Association’s Leaders of Tomorrow program as well. When you’re working with high school students, you have to use language they can relate to, for example, if you want to get your point across.

JaColby Kent (workplace committee chair, BNet): We use Highmark Senior Vice President Evan Frazier’s book, “Most Likely to Succeed,” as a basis for BNet’s Mentoring Matters program. The book outlines Evan’s personal formula for success, which includes a vision, a plan and the right attitude. Mr. Brooks — what is your formula for success?

Cornell Brooks: I would agree with all of Evan’s components. He talks about envisioning, planning and having a circle of mentors. I would add that it’s important not only to network “upwards”; it’s equally important to network at every level, from every angle. Young people don’t always fully appreciate that.

JaColby Kent: What advice are you giving to the youth you work with on how to get ahead in life?

Cornell Brooks: We have to be honest with young African-Americans. I tell them to run faster. Don’t believe in the myth of equality. You have to work harder and drive yourself harder, plain and simple. We do them a disservice if we say they have to work “as hard.” They in fact have to work harder to get ahead and stay ahead. They have to do more. We should be upfront about it.

JaColby Kent: Does that also apply to the “sidelined youth” you mentioned during your speech tonight?

Cornell Brooks: Yes, it is the same message if someone is coming out of prison, or is on the streets — you have to be real with them. Don’t lie. If you come from the wrong zip code, people have issues with that and so you are at a disadvantage. These “sidelined youth” that come from disadvantaged backgrounds will have to run faster and work harder consistently just to stay in the game.

Cardelle Banks (vice chair, BNet): There was a paper available at tonight’s event titled “The 2015 NAACP Opportunity and Diversity Report Card: Healthcare Industry,” which highlights the industry’s challenges in ensuring diversity, particularly in senior management. What is your advice in terms of raising the bar and putting more African-Americans above middle management?

Cornell Brooks: We have to size up what a company looks like — and we also have to deliver a message when we aren’t represented at those higher levels of management.

As I can tell you from my time as a trial lawyer who helped take legal action against companies that did not have sufficient levels of diversity, it’s in a company’s best interest to have diversity within their workforce and to adopt diversity and inclusion as an organizational philosophy. Companies that do not will always be more susceptible to litigation. Conversely, when diversity is prevalent all through the company, there is obviously less exposure.

I am still surprised at the dumb things companies do just because they don’t have someone to tell them they can’t do it in terms of diversity. It clarifies the thinking when it’s a matter of doing something because it’s just the right thing to do.