Saturday, February 4, 2012

America's Story (part 6) - GI Joe Tuskegee Airmen

This February 2012 has been designated African American History Month.

And one of the recent movies released last month was so timely in celebrating African American history - Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War Two.

(It has not played yet in my neck of woods. I know. I'm really out in the sticks.)

And the story of the Tuskegee Airmen still resonates well beyond the war throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Back in the days when I worked outside the home for pay, I was employed by a big company with a diverse workforce. Before long, diversity training got phased in considered as serious a business as safety or security training.

In fact, diversity training had become a requirement in all major companies - especially those that get government contracts.

Frankly, I thought the mandatory diversity classes were very good. They boiled down to the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It's not all about you.

Try to empathized with your fellow co-worker, who may (and most likely has) come from a different culture than yours.

All this was very good stuff ... if only everyone would put these principles into practice, instead of just going through the motions to present a good image to the public and our customers.

Diversity on one particular project

On one of my stints at the turn of this century, I was on a project composed of many small teams. My small group was lead by an African American, who conscientiously worked hard to get us to bond and focus on the common good of the project. Looking back, that was something I really respect him for doing. Frankly, I had some leads, who I swear were working for the competition. Their poor management skills and big egos divided and totally demoralized the team.

Happily, this was not the case this go around. Though small, our team on this particular project was diverse. One programmer was of Hispanic origin. Two of the engineers from different parts of Asia - one a young man, whose family had been one of the Vietnamese Boat people that sought refuge in the United States, and another a very sharp immigrant from Sri Lanka. Then there was little of me - a girl from a small town in Montana.

Individual space

In our space in a common cubicle, we had some room to express ourselves. Our computers back then used CRT monitors - not the thin flat screen. They were more clunky, but the tops of the monitors allotted much space to park things on. I had a small collection of stuffed cats that perched on my monitors looking down on me and my computer mice. It earned me the nickname - Catwoman.

Gosh!I would kill to look like Michelle Pfieffer in the movie, Batman Returns (1992) .

My African American lead also had his personal stuff - a collection of GI Joe dolls ... er ... I should say "action figures."

GI Joe Action Figures - Barbie dolls for guys?

Here is the skinny on GI Joes dolls ... er ... action figures -

My lead just didn't have any old GI Joe collection. He had a special collection of GI Joe action figures - the Tuskegee Airmen - as show here: GI Joe Tuskegee Airmen. His were still in the collector's box.

I could tell that these action figures meant a lot to him, especially when learning about their story of the pursuit of excellence against great opposition (stuff legends are made of) as seen in this video clip:

Equal Opportunity?

My company promoted that they were an equal opportunity employer and respected diversity. A few times, I saw pictures of my lead in the company newspaper shaking hands with someone in upper management. My lead was being honored for his work in reaching out to the African American and other minority communities. That press was worth a lot to the company in PR capital.

But reality can be different than the image.

In my early years with the company, pictures of management in organizational charts gave the impression that it was an exclusive white males' club. And indeed it was. Some seemed blessed with "the look" and had an easy and fast track into management. Yet, many had to prove themselves over and over, again. Only after much time and perseverance did the glass ceiling finally start to crack.

To the company's great credit, overt racism has been obliterated and severely sanctioned. But prejudice and discrimination are equal opportunity maladies that cross all races and genders. Prejudging individuals just becomes more covert and so it's much harder to detect and sanction.

As a casual observer, I could see that my lead was not given an easy pass and had to prove himself over and over, again. I see why he identified himself with the Tuskegee Airmen and their struggles, which were much greater than his. Yet, their story inspired pursuit of excellence and gumption to keep on keeping on in face of covert prejudice ... even if doing the right thing would go unrewarded or unrecognized in our lifetime.

Never give up. Keep on keeping on. Do the right thing.

In the spirit of African American History Month, I salute my lead with the GI Joe collection of Tuskegee Airmen! The way he quietly pushed on without complaint still inspires me as I face new challenges in the next stages of my life. Frankly, he was one of the best leads I had in my working life, who believed in building up people, instead of tearing them down.

The Tuskegee Airmen's pursuit of excellence in face of great adversity is part of America's story

which is to be continued. ...


For other posts in the America's Story series:

America's Story (part 1) - The Speech that redefined us, November 19, 1863 (2011)

America's Story (part 2) - Savages! (2011)

America's Story (part 3) - Over There - 1917, 1941 (2011)

America's Story (part 4) - Christmas 1944, when we said NUTS to the enemy (2011)

America's Story (part 5) - Amazing Grace (2012)


For other posts about February:

Groundhog Day - Time for a do-over? (2010)

The US Presidents Remembered in February (2010)

Who said George Washington will be the Greatest Man in the World? (2010)

3 birthdays, 3 presidents, 3 centuries, 3 defining wars ... (2011)


Photo from Tuskegee Airmen

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