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You Can't Respectfully Disagree

The Rosoff Awards were created by Arnold Rosoff 23 years ago when he retired from the agency that he had created. He wanted to inspire change in our advertising community and he imagined that there would come a day when we wouldn't need to have a night to honor and talk about diversity in advertising because the work would have been done. We all know that we are still working on it. It's daily work and we all need to actively participate.

It was amazing to share this night with Darius Simmons an 18 year old phenom who taught himself to play the piano despite or maybe because he was born with only 4 fingers. He taught himself, and he learned by ear because as he says - all music is written for and taught by people with all 10 fingers. He inspired every single person in the room to do more with what we have.

Rachael Rollins, District Attorney for Suffolk County spoke to us about our responsibility as leaders to show up every day and use our power to help raise up others, to share our failures with pride as lessons for others to follow. Since she took office we have had 14 homicides in Boston and she guaranteed us that every single one of those people woke up that morning thinking they had more time. We all need to use the time we have, the power we have, to be present and aware and do the most good we can everyday.

I was so proud to share the night with my teammates, many of whom were recognized as Rosoff Nominees for their passionate work to create impact in their communities. Congratulations and huge wave of gratitude for all that you do every day; Francisca Moliere, Byron Morgan, Steven Frey and John Wolfarth.

Thank you to everyone who emailed or texted asking me to share my full speech - much of it is a reprint from a blog post from 2017. It's one thing to type it and hit publish, it was another experience altogether to read it to a room full of inspiring people who share the same passion for equity & inclusion. There were some tears. And, I know that my white tears aren't what anyone needs. An ally sheds tears, an accomplice holds your hand and walks along side you constantly saying - how can I help, how can I be better, what do you need? I want to use my days to be an accomplice.

Here's my speech:

Thank you to Kathy Kiely, the AdClub and the Rosoff family for creating the Rosoff Awards and consistently raising the dialog about equity and inclusion. I am humbled by the invitation to speak to this group. Kathy read one of my blog posts from 2017 written a few hundred days into the current administration and she asked me to read it to you tonight.

For context, I am the oldest of 6 children and I am the only white child in my family. I was born in Detroit and the woman my Mom shared a room with at the hospital was having her 13th child and she left the hospital days earlier than my mother to go home and take care of her family. There was a nursery ward filled with babies awaiting adoption or placement in foster care – my mother and father walked out of that hospital holding me, their first child, with the determination that they would build their family a little differently than all of their friends.

My sister Maria is 10 years my junior. This is me holding her when she arrived from Colombia and her holding my youngest Troy. Of all of my siblings, we are the closest. This is an open letter of apology to her:

Dear Maria,

I have loved you since the moment you came home to us from Colombia. I have laughed and cried with you. I have watched you outrun and outplay everyone you competed against. I was witness at your wedding and celebrated the adoption of your two sons and their homecoming from Haiti. I have been lucky to be with you for many of the big and small moments in your life. But this is a letter of apology for all that I missed. I didn’t really understand what it has been like for you to go through the world. I am trying to understand that better. I want to acknowledge and take responsibility for my white privilege. I want to be better. Not just love you and hope that is enough.

I am saddened and frustrated with what’s happening. It is keeping me up at night as I am sure it is doing to you. And if I really dig in to this feeling, and get honest with myself, I am frustrated with me. Frustrated that I continue to be surprised by the toxic, racist, anti-Semitic happenings.

I am white. That’s why I continue to be surprised. It’s that simple. You know this. I am learning, forgive me.

I went back to the Unitarian Universalist church of our childhood the Sunday after the election looking for comfort in that sanctuary of love and kindness where we were raised. The minister looked out at our faces and was confronted with the tough job of comforting us. She said that she didn’t think the election was evidence that things were worse than we thought they were, she said that she thought that the election was evidence of things being uncovered.


I sat with that for a long time. Uncovered. Things that I had thought were in our past- things like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, hate — had they just gone underground? Had they been covered up, not solved? And, now do they have license to come out? This wasn’t a comforting thought.

Uncovered. You knew this, I am learning, forgive me.

Now 200+ days into the new administration, the minister was right. Things are being uncovered. And, it’s awful. And, I am scared and worried about you and your sons and for every person of color. I need to wake up. I need to stop being surprised.

I am starting by apologizing to you because as enlightened as I like to think I am, I was fooling myself. I can be more aware, I can be better.

You knew this, I am learning, forgive me.

I found an essay from Peggy McIntosh, written in 1988 the year I graduated college. Written not 100 years ago but 30 years ago and she could have written it today. She wrote, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In it she says;

"I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."

She goes on to list 50 ways we can be more aware. Reading this helped me to see the world through your eyes, Maria. Reading one of these a day might help me to wake up and stop being surprised.

Number 34. knocked me over. 34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self- interested or self-seeking.

Number 27 helped me to see what I need to do differently as a leader: 27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

I am beginning to understand that we are the ones who are covering things up. We are the ones need to do the uncovering. We need to name and denounce racism, sexism, anti-semitism. We need to acknowledge and take responsibility for our white privilege. That is how we start.

You knew all of this, I am learning, forgive me. I will do better.

Love, Kelly

Since writing that letter in 2017, I have worked hard to be better. Here’s what I have learned:

Building a diverse organization means that we can create an environment that demands a need for engagement where questions are asked and there is an openness for them to be heard. I have a rule at work that ensures that this environment respects all questions but demands that you do not “respectfully disagree” with the person who is sharing a point of view that they come by from their ethnicity or sexual orientation.

If a person of color tells you that what you are about to do offends them, you cannot respectfully disagree with them.

Instead, you can thank them and say, how can I help, how can I be better.

I learned this from my colleagues in Black@Mullen. Black@Mullen is a community of people who have come together to support one another as they grow in their careers. My job as a leader is to support them. My job as a leader is really to shut up and listen. To make sure they have what they need to do the things they feel are important to create a thriving culture. “Kelly, you’re really good at inviting everyone to the table but you never ask us what we want to have served.” So, one of the things we did to celebrate Black History month the way this team wanted to was we hired only black-owned caterers for all of our meetings in February. (and shout out to Rachael Rollins who recommended Beyonce's HomeComing as required viewing for all - we watched it together in our cafe' at work.)

The last thing I will share, is what I learned from Jonathon Jackson; it is not enough to be an ally. We all need to be more than that – we need to be accomplices. We need to take responsibility and not only do the work to create diverse organizations but we need to show up every day, acknowledge the invisible backpack of special provisions we were given and work to take the heavy rocks out of the backpacks others are carrying.

Thank you

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