Ferguson’s Wake: Utility Shines Light on Diversity

May 12, 2016 4:00 pm

Ameren’s diversity council spearheaded program to help city heal, share lessons with the nation.

By Eve Tahmincioglu


Captain Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, lends his voice to Ameren’s national diversity initiative.

It’s been nearly two years since riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, and with the swearing in this week of the city’s first Black police chief – Delrish Moss – many are hoping it’s a community on the mend.

Moss stressed in a recent interview, however, that he didn’t have a “magic pill or magic solution curing all the problems of Ferguson.”

Indeed, many in Ferguson realized early on there was a need for many magic pills and solutions from many members of the community, including business leaders from companies like Ameren Corporation (No. 1 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 7 Utilities), a power company based in St. Louis serving the residents of Ferguson.

Ameren’s leadership wanted to play a role in “healing and rebuilding our city,” said Sharon Harvey Davis, vice president, chief diversity officer at Ameren. Harvey Davis has been at the forefront of the company’s efforts to help people in the Ferguson area.Sharon-Harvey-Davis-Ameren-142

What started out as an internal discussion about race and diversity among the company’s diversity council, fueled by a community in turmoil, ended in a national campaign to foster diversity awareness.

Earlier this year, Ameren introduced “Discussions Across Differences,” a free diversity training video series, including discussion guides, that “explore and encourage honest dialogue around the issues of diversity and inclusion.”

It all started in early 2015, when the company held its annual retreat for its diversity council — which has 15 members including senior leadership, middle managers and union members — and the topic was Ferguson.

“We wanted our diversity council and leadership to understand how Ferguson could happen in our community and what should be Ameren’s priorities in addressing this crisis,” Harvey Davis explained.  “Our focus was on understanding the Ferguson Commission report and how we best impact the issues identified in the report.”

The two-and-a-half day retreat was unlike other such meetings. About 200 people were in attendance, including all managers who were director level and above.

“It was the first time we brought the entire leadership together to talk about a crisis in our community,” Harvey Davis recalled. “It was something different and a real stretch for our leadership.”

It featured a panel of experts: Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, Director of Racial Justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis Amy Hunter, retired Assistant Superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant School District Dr. Jon Wright and St. Louis University Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Kira Hudson Banks.

Out of the retreat — which included panel discussions and one-on-one breakout brain storming sessions — came a desire to share what they learned with all Ameren employees.

“We achieved our objective of helping our leadership to understand what were the issues in our community,” Harvey Davis said. “And it gave them a voice to what they want to do as part of Ameren’s leadership to help our community heal and rebuild.”

Leadership, she continued, got a strong understanding that education is an area critical to rebuilding the community.

As a result of that learning, she said, Ameren developed a $2.5 million Ferguson community giving initiative to assist with rebuilding, including everything from child well-being to job readiness.

The leadership also wanted to take what they learned and heard to all Ameren employees. The speakers at the retreat were then video taped, and the videos were incorporated into required diversity training for all staffers. The decision was then made to create a series that Ameren could share with the community and beyond to share in the learning and promote a diversity dialogue. It includes free facilitator guides, participant booklets, PowerPoint presentations and five video interviews with the panelists from Ameren’s retreat.

One of the videos from the series, titled “What Respect Looks Like,” includes an interview with Captain Ron Johnson.

To the question “What are you personal biases and how do you get beyond them?” Johnson answered:

“I don’t think people are colorblind. When people say they are colorblind then I say they’re blind to the differences in people. It’s those differences that make our community great, that make our nation great.”

That type of dialogue is what Ameren wants to foster, said Harvey Davis, adding that companies cannot risk staying on the sidelines when a community suffers. “One of the things that Ferguson made even more clear to us, is that we have a responsibility to our communities and the success and growth of our communities impacts Ameren because everyone here is our customer,” she noted. “For us to grow as a company and be financially healthy, our community has to grow and be healthy.”

She shared two of her best practices when it comes to creating such involvement at an organization:

  1. The shadow of the leader is important. If your leadership is comfortable and demonstrates that they are willing to be involved and tackle these issues, it’s an easier process to trickle it down to the rest of the organization. But you need to help leadership by providing them with the tools to have the conversation.
  1. You don’t need a grand diversity plan. Sometimes people want to start with big things, such as multi-day training, or consultants. And while she believes there’s a time and place for that, sometimes the starting point is just getting people to sit down and talk to one another.

“We often overlook that place as the starting point,” she pointed out.

Related resources:

• Don’t miss a discussion with Ameren’s CEO and president, Warner Baxter, who spoke about the company’s community efforts with Luke Visconti, DiversityInc’s CEO, in 2014 soon after unrest broke out in Ferguson.

• A webinar on diversity councils at Northrup Grumman and Prudential Financial:

Web Seminar: Diversity Councils With Northrop Grumman, Prudential Financial

• And information on how to start a diversity council.