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Respect Yourself, Others Will Join You
NAACP Chief Mfume Offers Thoughts on Workplace Respect

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume

A new campaign for workplace harmony is just getting under way with a simple theme: "Respect — Give it to Get it." During the campaign's kickoff event on Mar. 30, keynote speaker Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, told employees it's important to lay the groundwork for the theme: Develop self-respect first; respect from others will follow.

Continued...

"The workplace that we know, like the country that we love, is changing," Mfume said. "It is not today as it was yesterday and it won't be next year as it is today. You bridge the change by accepting it, but also by respecting it. Differences between [racial, religious, cultural] groups are not novel or new, but our approach to those differences must be both."

Mfume's visit to NIH was sponsored by the EEO advisory committee of NIH's Office of the Director. Composed of 18 representatives from OD components and facilitated by the OD EEO office, the committee devises an annual plan for improving life in the workplace. At this year's all-day strategy session, the concept of respect emerged as an overarching theme, paving the way for a campaign that although only weeks-old is already reaching outside OD. Masur Auditorium was pretty well filled to capacity (in addition to a number of employees watching via NIH videoconferencing) by a little past noon, when Mfume took the podium.

Before he uttered a word at NIH, the former radio host, college teacher and politician Mfume had been recognized as a model for respect. Rising from poverty and escaping a rough adolescence on the streets of Baltimore, he was first elected — by a 3-vote margin — to the Baltimore city council in 1979. By 1986 he had been elected to Congress, where he served 10 years before leaving in 1996 to assume the helm of a then financially troubled NAACP. During the last decade, the name of the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus has become nearly synonymous both with civil rights and with the outspoken defense of such rights.

OD EEO advisory committee cochair Dexter Collins of the Office of Financial Management gives opening remarks.

"The remarkable life Mr. Mfume has experienced reminds us of something that we as health professionals already know — that there is not one America, there are multiple Americas," said NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, in introductory comments. "There is not one standard of health, there are many standards and some of them are deplorable. That we do not live in a country that provides everything we'd like for all of its citizens, but that we have many challenges ahead. That's the problematic side."

The good side that Mfume's life demonstrates, Varmus continued, is that "by his own talents and drive, one can move from one economic level of society to another, and achieve this kind of prominence and leadership that we all strive to see in our most talented citizens."

NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus (l) shares a moment with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.

An hour or so before his speech, Mfume was greeted at a small reception where he said he met and heard the concerns of quite a few NIH'ers regarding respect issues in the work environment.

"We really ought to understand that none of the things we face now in 1999 just fell out of the atmosphere," he explained. "They are all interconnected and interrelated with a long history of social practice and acceptance of norms that were not so normal, with approval in a tacit way of things we knew were wrong but failed — regrettably, for one reason or another — to speak out against."

Our parents had it right, Mfume pointed out. Many of the simple lessons taught to children have as much or more value when applied in the workplace, he said. Especially because the workforce is constantly changing, he stressed, lessons such as "if you don't respect yourself, no one else will respect you," "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "if you can't do it right, don't do it at all" need to continue to be practiced and passed on to incoming employees.

Much of the ongoing tension between scientists, administrators and support staff, he surmised, is probably rooted in the fact that people feel disrespected. Whether the person's feelings are right or wrong, Mfume said, even the perception of disrespect presents a real problem and must be addressed.

On his first visit to NIH, Mfume (r) is welcomed by (from l) Hilda Dixon, EEO officer for the Office of the Director; Dr. John Ruffin, NIH associate director for research on minority health; and NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.

"We have to have at least a modicum of respect for ourselves," he suggested, noting that employees can exert a great deal of control over how they are treated by first recognizing their self-worth. "We've got to find a way to respect ourselves so much that people can't continue the practices of old" or risk revealing themselves for what they are. "When you establish yourself at a certain level, all that other stuff falls away — because you won't tolerate it and others won't bring it to you."

Referring to the nation's history of civil rights disputes and to current incidents of hate crimes, he acknowledged that it may sometimes be hard for affected individuals to put faith in the remedies for disrespect. "For many of us," he noted, "because of our race or our sex or our religion, the gate to the American mainstream often remains a bridge and ultimately results in discussions on the discussions, proposals on the proposals, studies on the studies and then another plan B for the plan A that failed. As a result of that, respect is lost. The lesson of mutual respect is never learned." Nevertheless, he said, citizens should "never give up on coalition-building," because it is that interdependence among different people that gives the nation its strength.

"America at her very best has treated differences with a blend of common sense and compassion," he said.

Finally, Mfume delivered a mini history lesson on his institution and its commitment to the topic at hand. The NAACP has a legacy of basic respect, he said, recounting that the organization has seen America through many tough battles with unfairness including eras of Jim Crowe laws, legal lynchings, securing the right to vote for all citizens and segregation in the armed services. "It was based on a very basic principle of respect for a person because of what they could do, not what their zip code was or what the color of their skin was," he concluded. "We found a way to help a nation divided against itself through the confusion and turbulence of the 1960's and later through the indifference and the all-too-familiar 'I-isms' of the 1980's. So we stand as an organization on this issue of respect, which has guided us, to help the nation face challenges now that are educational, economic, institutional, social and systemic."

Members of the OD EEO advisory committee greet guest speaker Mfume (front, third from l).


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