AAFEA continues fight during crucial moment

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Perhaps this is the big moment for the African American Federal Executive Association. The group has been advocating on behalf of black federal civil servants for nearly 20 years. For what progress it has seen and the challenges yet ahead, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to AAFEA president Dr. Reginald Wells.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: 
Dr. Wells, good to have you on.

Dr. Reginald Wells: Good to be on Tom. Thank you.

Tom Temin: So let’s talk about the issue of diversity at the senior executive ranks. That seems to be kind of a ceiling that minority federal employees that may start out at the lower ranks and move through the years seem to have trouble clearing. What is your perception?

Dr. Reginald Wells: Well, I have a pretty good vantage point having spent close to 40 years in the public sector, the lion’s share of it at the federal level, and having had the opportunity to testify before Congress on two separate occasions on the subject. I had to do my homework in those days it was a while back 2003. In 2007, when congressman Danny Davis was heading up the committee on Ways and Means and was particularly interested in that specific issue, you know, why is it that we don’t have people ascending to the Senior Executive Service in the same proportions as we have them moving up the career ladder in federal service? A lot of reasons for it, some, I’m sure, related to some of the things we’re seeing in terms of our current events. But it is a challenge. People tend to get to senior management levels in some cases, or just before they get to the senior management level, and they seem to stall in terms of their careers at times. And so from their vantage point, it looks like a glass ceiling.

Tom Temin: Sure, and let me just ask you this. I mean, because discrimination is outlawed in statute and regulation, and there are several enforcement mechanisms for it in the federal bureaucracy. Do you think that the reason is bigotry? Or what else could cause it do you think?

Dr. Reginald Wells: Well I think laws and statutes are one thing and people’s behavior decision making is another. And so you have people who will operate to the letter of the regulations than to processes we have for screening and evaluating talent. And I think the literature is pretty full of instances and examples of where people just have a sometimes unconscious bias to select people that look like them. People that remind them of themselves at earlier points in their career. Sometimes it is open bigotry, and sometimes it’s an unconscious bias

Tom Temin: And open bigotry, I guess maybe is easier to deal with because it’s easier to identify and isolate, I suppose.

Dr. Reginald Wells: To some extent.

Tom Temin: In the subtle bias, I guess, presuming it’s more difficult, what can be done about it? Do you think is there some way of getting people to, I guess, look into their hearts and ask themselves tough questions?

Dr. Reginald Wells: Oh, boy, we’ve been looking at that and talking about that for for quite a while, great debates about whether you can legislate the hearts and minds of people. And I think there’s a tremendous amount of evidence that in a very simple way, no. But what you can do is expose people. The classic example I sometimes cite is the desegregation of the military. I mean, that did wonders to break down the barriers between white and black troops at that point in our history. When you consider how African American troops, you know, going all the way back to the American Revolution participated in that, but the way they participate in today’s world is tremendously different than what they experienced in those other eras. And so it’s a classic example of how desegregating things can result in people being seen as people, being seen as equals. And so that very often is what breaks it down. It’s not simply legislating it, but having people work together and break down all the myths and prejudices that they might have toward each other.

Tom Temin: And what was your own experience like coming up through the ranks?

Dr. Reginald Wells: I think my experience was atypical. I came up through the public sector from a position of having a PhD in social and organizational psychology. And so with that credential, it really did open doors, which is why I am so passionate about the importance of training and development and people taking a real sort of control of their advancement that way. But I entered the public sector in a leadership role in my early days, I was fortunate enough to be in a place where I was given those kinds of opportunities. I was in Essex County, New Jersey. After working for a national aging organization, National Center on Black Aging in Washington and, you know, sort of downhill from there. I got an opportunity to showcase myself, people took an interest in my development, and I was allowed to ascend. It wasn’t easy, I don’t want to make it make it sound like I didn’t have to work hard and in some cases, perhaps break down barriers that others might have put up for me. But that’s not the typical opportunity. So by the time I got to federal service proper, I had already been in executive positions. And so I was recognized for both my credentials and my prior work. Coming up in the pipeline, though, very often people are appreciated for the work that they do, technically, but they aren’t always developed to be in leadership positions. And so they may get that first promotion into supervision. But then their careers sometimes stall because they aren’t developed more fully. They aren’t given those kinds of opportunities beyond that. And what I’ve seen for a lot of employees is that they have to move out in order to move up — they have to go to other agencies, get their due there and maybe even come back to the agency they left. But it is not a straight line from most of the employees I talked to who feel like they’ve hit a glass ceiling

Tom Temin: Yeah, I guess that’s one of the challenges for anyone of any stripe that becomes management is to be able to see beyond yourself once you start supervising and having control over other people’s work and futures.

Dr. Reginald Wells: That is true.

Tom Temin: Alright, so what advice would you give to say young African American individuals who join the federal service that want to get to where their potential and talent can take them? What’s your advice to them?

Dr. Reginald Wells: First and foremost, I tell them to keep the faith. I tell them to have that vision of their future and never lose sight of it. Because that can happen to you over time. If you’re not patient, if you’re not resilient, you can be beaten down by some of your inability to get to where you want to go. But I would also encourage them to have mentors. Don’t be shy about seeking those people out. There are many of us who do that. And we do that because we believe in public service and we believe that every employee has the potential to rise, how far they rise is very often up to the. How much they invest in themselves, how much they take advantage of the opportunities to get training and to be developed the coaching. Look within your agencies or even other agencies for people who are willing to vouch for for the work that you do and your excellence and just keep plugging at it. It also means doing things the right way, operating with high integrity, making sure that you remove all of the potential reasons for not selecting you for that opportunity that you are seeking. And then when you get it, hold on to it and do the job to the best of your ability, which I’ve seen many people do. It’s an important thing to pursue, and I think it can be within people’s grasp if they’re willing to do the things that are necessary to get there and stay with it as long as they have that dream.

Tom Temin: And what should one do if they encounter a piece of bigotry? I finally worked up the fortitude to watch the Irishman only because it’s a three and a half hour movie. And there’s a scene in which the character playing Jimmy Hoffa is addressing one of the mafia figures that’s in prison with him who is Italian and refers to him as you people and that causes a big ruckus. But that phrase, I think we’ve all heard it at some point in our lives. If f you encounter something like that, what should you do? Especially if you’re not in a position to say, hey you know you’re fired, or get down to HR, that kind of thing?

Dr. Reginald Wells: That’s one of the reasons that so many African Americans historically pursued public service and federal service, because I remember all the way back to my childhood hearing my parents and grandparents talk about, you know, the best job in town was working for the post office. I grew up in Philadelphia, and because you had the GSA schedule, and that cut down on the ability to pay an African American less at a particular grade level and step than somebody else. And so public service has been one of those very positive destinations for us historically. But obviously, it’s important to do things you need to do to make sure you are able to be promoted and advance. But yes, I think most people have, most groups of people have experienced discrimination and prejudice. And there are mechanisms within government to address that. There are very formalized methods and very often you get stigmatized for using them, which is one of the reasons why some people don’t use them. That’s classically a challenge for women in the workplace who are experiencing discrimination and harassment, you have those mechanisms. But you also have organizations, at the executive levels anyway, or the aspiring executive levels, organizations like AAFEA, like the Senior Executive Association, where you can talk with people about the challenges you have. Blacks In Government is another organization that is sensitive to the experience of African Americans in federal space. And you can be gas-lit in a way that you’re made to feel that you are not the individuals who are holding you back, or sometimes the way the system operates. And you need people to be sensitive to what your experience is like and how your experience has been because we’ve all walked that path and we’ve all had that experience. People are shocked when I talk about my experiences of growing up in Philadelphia and having my challenges just walking the streets of the city. When I was a young man, if I was in a part of the city, that certain people didn’t expect me to be the police would roll up to you and and ask you, you know, why are you there, as though you were doing something wrong. We still have that that’s still problematic, how certain groups of people get treated in our society is very different than how other people get treated. And so you have some sense of folks just don’t understand. They just don’t get it because they don’t live that experience.

Tom Temin: Dr. Reginald Wells is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, former deputy Social Security Commissioner and president of the African American Federal Executives Association. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Reginald Wells: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Tom. I’ve enjoyed your show and I appreciate all the information you bring to us.