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'Inclusion Has To Be Intentional': A Q&A With Wichita Business Leader Junetta Everett

Courtesy Wichita Chamber of Commerce
Junetta Everett is the first person of color to serve as chair of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

Junetta Everett says her hero is Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, helped spark the civil rights movement more than 60 years ago.

"She took a bold step, and that was leadership," said Everett, vice president of Professional Relations at Delta Dental of Kansas. "She didn't even realize it. She didn't know that she was going to be making history.

"However, she took a bold step in leadership … [and] took a stand that changed the life and added a path for so many of us."

That would include Everett, who this year became the first person of color to serve as chair of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. In 1979, she became the first African-American to graduate from Wichita State University’s dental hygiene program.

Everett sits on numerous boards in Wichita and sponsors a scholarship for dental hygiene students at WSU. She won WSU’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016 and was named a Leader in Diversity by the Wichita Business Journal.

The death of George Floyd has sparked the need for more discussion about race and inclusion, including in the workplace. Everett talked with Tom Shine and The Range about what steps businesses should take to start that conversation, the difference between diversity and inclusion, and facing racism in her own career.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Let’s say I own a business … and I want to have a discussion on the topic of racial divide and diversity. How do I start that discussion?

You gotta be first willing to educate yourself by listening and by speaking up. Now when I say educate yourself, you're going to have to … understand where people are coming from. If you're not a person of color, then it's a reality that you wouldn't understand. And it's a pain that one has never felt. So they can't even say, "I know how you feel."

So what do you do? You have to start by listening and learning, trying to figure out why people feel the way they are. And the other thing is having that hard conversation with a person of color and be willing to learn from that.

I've seen you say a couple of times in different interviews that I've read that inclusion is different in diversity. Can you explain a little bit more of what that means?

So, I am of the belief that diversity is … automatic. You walk out your door, you walk into a store, you go anywhere, you're going to have automatic diversity in people, in gender and economic status. ... That's all diversity is.

The inclusion is making those diversities work together. It has to be intentional. So you've heard the old adage, I'm sure: "You can invite me to the party so that I can be a diverse person, but if you don't ask me to dance, I'm not included." So the inclusion part … has to [have] intentionality about it.

And that is one of the … things that the Chamber is working on as part of our diversity [and] inclusion initiatives is to make sure that there are businesses that are inclusive in their hiring practices or inclusive in their retention practice and their RFP [request for proposals] practices.

What’s a common mistake that businesses sometimes make when it comes to dealing with inclusion and diversity? Where do they stumble a little bit?

The way they stumble is because some of them have a check the box mentality, which means if I hire two or three people of color, I have met my goal. And if you're hanging your hat on meeting a goal, then you're totally missing the whole inclusion perspective.

What they have to do is to learn how to make sure that ... once these people are in place, maybe you challenge … your employees to go and talk to people of color; to maybe go and sit with someone that they've never met. Maybe you intentionally ask them and show them how to be inclusive.

You joined Delta Dental in 1987 and now, as you mentioned, are vice president of professional relations. Have you faced challenges in your career because of race?

Especially back in the '70s and '80s, I'd have to say yes.

For example, my job as professional relations is to make sure I build relationships with all the dentists in the whole state of Kansas. … That requires me to actually go into the dental offices some time to meet with the doctors. And it's been many years ago, but … once I [walked] in the door and they meet me, see my face, I've been asked to leave. I've been told the CEO back then was told that I could not come into their office.

Now, I am a person who accepts challenges. So that was challenging to me, as it was when I was in dental hygiene school when I was told that I shouldn't be in dental hygiene because of my race. However, my CEO then stood behind me — as employers should do now — and said, "You don't get to say who comes in. We have a contract with you. And she is coming in." And for my safety, he went with me, but trust me, I wasn't afraid. And so, yeah, that was a simple racism at its best.

You were the first person of color to lead the Wichita Chamber's board of directors. And you said there was an interesting story about your path to that position.

So basically I have to give credit to [former High Touch Technologies president and CEO] Wayne Chambers, who actually saw me at a Business Journal event. He actually came up to me and said, "Why don't I know you?" And I didn't know him either. … And he goes, "You are somebody I would like to have appointed to my board." And … he appointed me to the board for the chamber.

From there, we ended up celebrating … our 100th year anniversary for the Chamber. I'm taking a picture [and] I'm like, "Something's wrong with this picture." There was one female that was in the picture and everybody else were all white men.

Barry Schwan, who was the chair, had come to me and asked, "Would you consider chairing the diversity and inclusion program for the Chamber?" Because he recognized also that there was something missing. And not knowing what that was going to look like, I agreed to it. And here we are. It was never my intent to be chair. Trust me, that was not the intent. It was just to make sure that we were inclusive and the Chamber has done such a great job of being inclusive and walking the talk.

You mentioned earlier about the Chamber's work with W, the young professionals group. What advice would you give to a young professional of color who is maybe two or three years into their career?

My advice to any young person of color would be venture out. Don't stay in your own little cubicle; venture out, find a mentor or two. And make sure you can network the heck out of whatever you're doing because it's not just people who you know, it's people who get to know you as well. So I tell every one of them try to — don't stalk anyone — but find and identify someone that you would like to be mentored by.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.