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Former Labor Secretary Offers NIH'ers a 'Practical' Survival Guide By Carla Garnett Photos by Ernie Branson On the Front Page...
As Black History Month, February offers a perfectly appropriate opportunity to wax poetic about pioneers of the past, but according to former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, keynote speaker at NIH's 2003 salute to African American history, employees should use the occasion for more than remembering.
"Yes, I want you to reflect," she said. "But more than reflect, I want to bring four other 'Rs' onto your plate: I want you to retrench, I want you to rearm, I want you to replenish and then I want you to rejoice."
Using the theme "Reflections from Our Past, Building for Our Future," the annual observance held on Feb. 25 featured flashbacks a small contingent of Buffalo Soldiers' ancestors briefly told the audience about several who served in that early all-black regiment (see sidebar) and forecasts, as the assembly also heard inspiring words from newly appointed NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington.
"This program is an important and powerful reminder of the value NIH places on diversity," he said. "By fostering and recognizing diversity we create a more vital and more complex biomedical research enterprise. We seek out talent wherever it is and realize that we can't afford to squander any of it...Our current pursuit and embrace of diversity is essentially just one point in the continuum: Today somewhere between the past of systematic exclusion and the future where there is truly a level playing field for all. Today is where we are. We must never forget our past and where we've come from, nor should we ever take our eye off of our future. But, today is where we make changes for the better."
Leading off the celebration was Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, senior advisor to the NIH director, who never misses a chance to encourage the workforce at special emphasis programs and was greeted with a standing ovation.
"Never has a group who began with so little contributed so much to the building of a nation," Kirschstein said, noting the pre-program slide show highlighting achievements of black scientists. "African American contributions have come in all phases of our society, and I am proud to know more than a few [of those shown in the slides] who have made or are making their contributions right here at NIH."
The observance was planned by a committee with representatives from several NIH institutes, centers and components; Kay Johnson Graham of NIDCD/NINR chaired the group. Music including such selections as "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," "Amazing Grace" and "Precious Lord" was provided by pianist Wydell Croom and saxophonist Brian Mills.
"Next to family and faith, the most important thing in our lives is the work that we do, because work is not just a source of income, but also a source of dignity," began Herman, who was introduced by NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox as "the Queen of Smooth" in reference to the title Herman acquired throughout her career for her effective and relatively painless manner of resolving business disputes.
Acknowledging the nation's economy in recession and the potential impact of plans to restructure the government's workforce, Herman, the first African American to serve as head of the U.S. Labor Department, said she came bearing "practical advice" for employees facing fewer opportunities to advance and possible layoffs or job losses.
"I'm particularly troubled when I see the increasingly high rates of unemployment among African Americans," said Herman, who while serving as Labor Secretary from 1997 to 2001 presided over the country's lowest unemployment rate in 30 years and the lowest rate ever among African Americans and Latinos. "We all know that this economy is powered by knowledge, fueled by technology and transformed by globalization...We also know that with limited economic growth projected for at least the near term, we must be very clear about what we have to do to prepare ourselves for this unique labor market that we find ourselves in."
Retrench, she advised. "Focus on your own individual career path," she said. "Realize that you cannot take the future for granted. The best time to take stock of the future is before something happens. Get clear on your financial and work situations right now. I know that saving money is hard. Most of us are really only one or two paychecks away from not being able to meet tomorrow's bills. But in times of transition, it is important that you have a financial plan for yourself."
Next, she suggested, employees need to rearm themselves to highlight their value in the workplace. "Be proactive," Herman continued. "Take charge of your own career. Don't wait for the annual performance review to determine how you are progressing in assignments, because by then it could be too late to make necessary improvements. Make your performance an ongoing process."
Cultivate networks, coaches, partnerships and mentors at all times and in all settings, formal as well as informal, she advised.
"We play by the rules more than most," Herman said, urging development of more creative collaborations that often are found outside of the usual, structured teams. "It is informal systems that drive many relationships and opportunities. I encourage you to take advantage of informal relationships."
Thirdly, she added, reach back for others once you find success. "We always need to replenish. You have serious pipeline challenges before you," she said, citing the low mumbers of minorities in medicine, science and research positions. "You have to be concerned about organizational regeneration. I can tell you that how well you replenish is going to be a direct correlation to how well you are treating your current workforce."
She cited an annual survey of students enrolled in top colleges and universities that asks them to list the most important criteria in selecting an employer.
"Guess what was new on the list?" Herman prompted. "For first time, respondents said 'diversity.' They said, 'We want to work for organizations that look like us. We want to know that there are opportunities for us to move to the top."
Finally, she said attendees should cherish the tremendous progress made by a people who started out with little more than pride.
"Rejoice in the legacy of where we have been," Herman concluded, "how far we have come and what the future holds. We come from a community of heroes and 'sheroes.' Within us there's a rich tradition of values that spoke to courage, values that spoke to resilience, values that emphasized a sense of family and of faith. I want you to leverage some of those values. Times change, but values don't."
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