Every February, millions of people across the U.S. shine a spotlight on the life-changing contributions and rich history of Black Americans in recognition of Black History Month. While this month is a celebration of the achievements and central role of Black Americans, it is also a time to acknowledge how Delta can strengthen and accelerate plans to truly live up to the company’s shared values of opportunity, equity, fairness and respect for all.

In August 2020, Delta shared the steps and current actions that it is taking as part of its commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-discrimination organization. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day in January, the airline shared an update on the progress it has made thus far.

Now, in honor of Black History Month, Delta is sitting down with Black leaders across the business to learn more about their personal and professional journeys. The airline will share six conversations throughout the month, each of which can be found below once available.

Delta showcased Charisse Evans, V.P. – Employee Relations; Marlon Sullivan, S.V.P. – HR; Henry Kuykendall, S.V.P. – Airport Operations, East; Dwight James, CEO — Delta Vacations and S.V.P. — Customer Engagement & Loyalty; Shawn Cole, V.P. — Global Sales; and Byron Merritt, V.P. – Brand Experience Design.

Three Questions with Charisse Evans

Charisse Evans

Are there any traditions or routines in your family or friend group that you do each February to honor and celebrate Black History Month?

I grew up with a family full of educators. For us, learning and celebrating Black history wasn't limited to the month of February – it was 365 days a year. My grandparents and parents made sure we had conversations throughout the year about our history. They shared their own experiences growing up during segregation and under Jim Crow laws, how my father served in the military as a Black man, and how when he returned to the U.S., he wasn't treated as an equal. My parents and grandparents made sure we were grounded in our family history, Black history and culture.

Who has been a personal Black "history maker" or person of inspiration in your life, and what advice did they give you that still rings true today?

I often say that my career at Delta started somewhat by accident. I was in college and needed a part-time gig because the allowance from my parents wasn't cutting it! I started out with a part-time role in Reservations, which ultimately led to a full-time position. It wasn't until I met Claudette Harper – the leader of our Atlanta Reservations team at the time – before I started to see Delta as a true career versus a job.

Claudette was the first Black leader at Delta that I worked with. She was also tougher on me than anyone I'd ever worked with. I remember asking her one day why she was being so hard on me, and I'll never forget her response. She told me it was because I was capable of so much more. She told me to be bold, courageous, and not to let others hold me back. She told me that she was tough on me because I could take it, and because I was worth it.

What do you wish others, at work or in our industry, understood about your community?

As we're talking more and more about diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, I hope people understand that minorities – whether they're Black, Brown, male or female – aren't looking for a "give me." We're simply looking for a fair chance. It's not about getting something just because of the color of our skin. It's about starting at the same starting line, with the same access and fair shot as the others lined up for the race. It's about being judged by the "content of our character" – not the color of our skin or the kink in our hair. It's about learning and respecting the economic impact and power we have. 

Three questions with Marlon Sullivan

Marlon Sullivan headshot

Who has been a personal Black "history maker" or person of inspiration in your life and what advice did they give you that still rings true today?

​There have been so many impactful Black history makers who have inspired me through their own life achievements. A few examples include: Dr. Maya Angelou, influential activist and poet; George Washingto​n Carver, whose studies of the pea plant significantly contributed to agricultural plant science; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize awardee; and Paul Revere Williams, renowned architect who influenced the iconic look and feel of Los Angeles.

The most inspirational person in my personal life has been a primary school educator in the South. She was not only the first person in her family to earn a college degree, but she also earned a master's in education and dedicated 30 years of her life to educating, uplifting and inspiring generations of future leaders. She was known for taking her own money to buy supplies for the classroom, inviting students and their parents to her home for intervention discussions, and setting high standards in the classroom that lead to above average district and state standardized test results. Her tireless commitment earned her several awards over the years, including Teacher of the Year.

I was one of the biggest benefactors of her leadership because she is also my mom, and while she shared a lot of wisdom over the years, there were three pieces of advice that she consistently repeated and still rings true for me today. First – you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Second – no matter how much you achieve in life, you are no better than anyone else. Third – you were created for a purpose, and you are never done until you fulfill it.

What's the best career advice you've ever received?

"You must first demonstrate that which you seek to become."

​When senior leaders are seeking to fill a critical role, they not only consider who is performing well, but also who is currently operating at the level of the position they are seeking to fill. For example, if I'm seeking to fill a VP level role, I'm more inclined to consider and select a Director or Managing Director who is already operating at the level of current VPs.

The challenge then becomes – how do I operate at the next level if I've never been given that opportunity? It starts with your personal philosophy on career pathing and self-development. As you pursue your career aspirations, it's logical to look at the structure and hierarchy of an organization to chart a path to where you want to be. In some cases, you may need a lateral role to give you experience in another discipline, or it may be a next level position which allows you to expand your span of responsibilities. While it's helpful to have clarity about your career and its timing, we often get too focused on "that next opportunity" and forget to focus on ourselves. Clear aspirations and strong performance in your current role are necessary, but often insufficient to adequately prepare you for the next opportunity.

Being prepared requires you to reflect not only on how you're performing today, but also what skills and experiences are required to be successful in the next opportunity. This means reflecting and acknowledging your strengths and development areas. With this insight, you can determine what skills you need to develop or improve to operate successfully in the next opportunity. It could mean seeking to work on cross-divisional initiatives, fundraising for a local sports league team or perhaps volunteering in a leadership role at your place of worship or a non-profit organization. Gaining these "beyond current role" experiences allow you to build skills and demonstrate your effectiveness and readiness for the next opportunity.

What advice would you give allies looking to extend the charges of Black History Month throughout the year?

Be authentic, knowledgeable and vocal. One of the benefits of inclusion is we each bring our authentic self to work every day. Since none of us are perfect, authenticity in the context of being an ally means being transparent about those things you may not understand and may see as really different about the Black community.

To effectively support any community and their culture, it helps to understand it. Be comfortable asking questions about history, music, food, attire, hair styles or any other trends or practices of the Black community. The action of seeking to understand is a positive gesture. It often allows you to see more commonalities than differences and empowers you to help others see the same.

While being an ally is great in the presence of members of that community, it's often more powerful being a vocal ally when members of that community are not present. Help others to understand when a comment, gesture or behavior is inappropriate, whether those referenced are present or not. Speaking up reinforces your personal values and Delta's culture of diversity, equity and inclusion for all. ​

Three questions with Henry Kuykendall

Henry Kuykendall

How has your personal background and identity strengthened your ability to succeed in your current role? 

It has always been important for me to take advantage of any opportunity to become a cross-divisional leader. When you work in different departments, you learn a lot about the company. Just like diversity, equity and inclusion, the diverse background helps further your education.  

Knowing what my peers do is important, because I understand the complexities they face. If they know you started in their shoes, or that you can relate to their background, they are willing to understand and listen. It helps you identify with them. I try to sit with, talk to and learn from different cultures and different experiences. 

What professional challenges do you think members of the Black community often face, and how have you overcome those challenges? 

If you think about the Black experience, at least the way I look at it, there's a good chance not a lot of people around you look like you. In 2017, I was invited to a ceremony by Black Enterprise honoring the 300 Most Powerful Executives. We really thought the invitation was a joke. When we arrived, for the very first time, I was surrounded by executives that all looked like me, 300 of the most powerful corporate executives. I have never been in a room with that many people that looked like me. 

You often hear the question, "how do I get a seat at the table?" And to get a diverse table, you have to be able to insert yourself with leaders that don't look or talk like you or may say something you don't want to hear. The more that you do that, you create opportunities to learn. 

My mom told me to not worry about enough people not looking like you. There are people that will recognize your talent. Don't worry about getting at the table, worry about people at the table seeing your talent. 

What do you wish others, at work or in our industry, understood about your community? 

We all have the same goals and want the same things. We want our kids to go to good schools, we want our kids to be in healthy and safe societies, we want access to opportunities. We all want the same things; we just don't all have the same color skin.  

My mom always taught me that life will never be fair and to not expect it to be. As a teenager, my vantage point was that I just have to work harder. When you look at me and other Black officers, we are the first generation in our families with more rights than family before us. We don't want a pass, we want people to understand our past. We want our jobs based on merit, not because of the color of our skin.  

We know that you cannot change 400 years of history in 50 years, but we can pass along the equity that we've learned and that we've gotten, and hopefully our kids will have a different experience. 

Three questions with Dwight James

Dwight James headshot

How has your personal background and identity strengthened your ability to succeed in your current role?

As a first-generation college graduate who grew up in a lower-middle class working family in the South, I saw the importance of hard work and faced adversity at a very young age. The concept of hard work was ingrained into my way of living when I was in grade school. When you experience financial hardship in your family and racism before you enter middle school, it provides a different lens on the world and forces you to rely on faith and family. It has been rare for me to experience anything in my professional career more daunting than certain events within my personal life growing up. Although since that time, I have been able to see the world, experience different cultures and obtain a fantastic education. The core values instilled in me at a young age are my foundation and that will never change. 

Who has been a personal Black "history maker" or person of inspiration in your life, and what advice did they give you that still rings true today?

Both of my parents have been instrumental and inspirational throughout my life, but my dad is so wise and always provides perspective on how life can be simple, only if we don't overcomplicate it. He often tells me, "you can only control what you have control over," which is applicable personally and professionally. Stress usually comes from what we cannot predict and when we dwell on the past, which is something we cannot change. I think it's one of the many reasons I try to maintain my composure in the present moment, regardless of the situation – especially as a leader, when your teams are counting on you. 

What advice would you give to allies looking to extend the charges of Black History Month throughout the year?

Earlier this month, Delta leaders joined together for a virtual town hall in honor of Black History Month. During the discussion, I encouraged everyone to conduct a self-assessment of where they fall on the scale of being an ally.  Proclaiming allyship can be cliché without having a perspective of the journey and what it really means, because it truly does vary. To me, the spectrum of allyship can be summed up into three categories: supporter, advocate and champion. 

If you are a "supporter," it means you don't say "no" to initiatives or efforts to push for social injustice, but might be rarely involved or active. The "advocate" is someone who not only says "yes," but is active on the frontline with initiatives to impact social change. And lastly, there is the "champion," which is the individual breaking down barriers, proactively speaking up about social inequities and unapologetic in their views, because they only care about doing the right thing for society. Frankly, it's not plausible to assume everyone will be a champion, because everyone's journey is different. The key is moving individuals from supporter and advocate toward being a champion over time.  

Three questions with Shawn Cole

Shawn Cole

How has your personal background and identity strengthened your ability to succeed in your current role?

My father passed away from cancer when I was ten years old. That really shaped me as the person I am today and taught me that things are going to happen in life that are out of my control.

I was a shadow under my father's tree, so I challenged myself to think about what I could do to be that tree for other people on a hot day. I became focused on being an optimist and making my father proud – I wanted to leave a good footprint. I'm realistic, but optimistic. I pride myself on being a good mentor - if I can be a bright light for someone, I will.

What professional challenges do you think members of the Black community often face, and how have you overcome those challenges?

When I go in a room, I recognize if I'm the only one that looks like me. It's daunting and unfortunate, but it's reality. What that tells me is that I always have to show up. I have to not only represent me, but the others that are going to come after me.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. shared, we want to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. We want to be respected for what we bring to the table. I often ask myself what I can do to be best prepared when I have that seat at that table. It's reminding yourself that you're here for a reason, not to get discouraged and to represent.

What advice would you give to allies looking to extend the efforts of Black History Month throughout the year? 

Allies should continue the work they are doing – we need as many allies as we can get. We need people to be educated, we need people to ask questions when they don't understand.

May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn. opened everyone's eyes to demanding change and doing better. For a long time, the only people demanding that change were people that looked like me, so we can't miss this opportunity. Seize this moment to make a change and make it sustainable. For a better tomorrow, we need everyone going in the same direction.

If you're a person of color, make yourself available to talk. If you're an ally, talk about it. It's the little things that are going to make a big difference and cause a cumulative effect. Talk more, read more, identify mentors and mentees. Ask really deep questions, see what you can do to make a difference, then make the change.

Byron Merritt

Three questions with Byron Merritt

You bring world class experience to Delta from your background with other beloved consumer brandsIn your experience, how is Delta's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) mission similar to other global leaders? 

Based on my time at Nike, I see a lot of similarities with Delta – such as the deep passion, understanding and belief in what the company delivers. Nike is about enabling people to be better athletes, no matter what level of athlete one may be. Our mission at Delta is to connect the world. Both are mission driven, consumer centric brands focused on making people's lives better – giving employees and myself a great reason to get out of bed each morning. When I think about Delta and Nike, there is a commitment to the organization delivered through people, and both companies' biggest strength is their people.  

In terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, like Nike, we don't serve just one group — we aim to serve all people. To be a global brand, to be a brand that people respect that people can see themselves in, you must lean into these difficult conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion and have that dialog lead to meaningful action. Today, you can't stay silent just because a conversation is uncomfortable. Brands have to be willing to speak up, express their values and act against inequities present in our society. 

Delta is on a journey of publicly standing up for our values in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion – and it's a point of pride for all of us that Delta CEO Ed Bastian is taking the lead in being outspoken about our commitment to being an anti-racist, anti-discrimination organization. We are collectively on this journey. By encouraging focused, unflinching dialogue to gain a shared understanding of the inequities Black people have endured for years, the company is allowing us to get to sharp and sustainable actions to address it.   

From your personal experiences, what advice do you have for Black professionals? 

When I was very young, my father was a Naval Officer. At the early part of his career, Black officers were few and far between. He often found himself being the only, or one of very few, Black leaders in the room or at the table – but he never let that be his focus. He kept his focus on being a great leader and not worrying about what others thought of him.    

The best advice I can give to professionals, but particularly Black professionals, is to strive to be the best in the world at what you do. I have found that in my experience and in my career, focusing on being the best allows you to burn through the biases that people may have based on the color of your skin.  

A second piece of advice is something I truly believe in. It's the aspect of being an energy taker or energy giver, and we all know who those people are. The energy takers are ones who suck energy from those around them through negativity, prejudice or bias. Energy givers, though, are the ones who bring positivity, openness and acceptance. You can choose who you want to be. You can choose who you want to surround yourself with. For me, the choice is clear for both.    

What advice would you give to allies looking to extend the efforts of Black History Month throughout the year? 

For me, it comes down to not just expressing that one is, or has the desire to be, an ally. It's about having the courage to find their own path to action. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's killing, I was overwhelmed by well-intentioned, white friends and colleagues asking if there was anything they could do to help. In those early moments, I couldn't formulate a good answer, but there was also something about the question that bothered me. It wasn't until that evening when another friend asked me the same question that I actually had a moment to think about what was bothering me and to formulate an answer.  

The answer was 'don't ask.' Make the attempt to DO...and not to be afraid of "is this the RIGHT thing to do?" or "could this be misinterpreted?"  There is courage in action.  When the intentions are coming from the right place, there is forgiveness for the potential missteps. To be a great ally, don't put it on those that have been affected the most to tell you what you can do. Take the steps to empathize and formulate some actions to take and suggest those without fear. 

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