This has been a challenging year for our country. Amidst the already unprecedented pandemic and stress of an election year, racial injustice and unrest culminating in protests and riots over the summer shined a spotlight on longtime disparities in our society.
But the events of this year have also created an opportunity for our nation to have honest conversations about sensitive topics that have been widely ignored — and to make changes in areas that are long overdue.
As the Community and Citizenship Director for Turner Construction Company in Memphis, I am proud of how seriously we take our commitment to diversity and inclusion — something I witnessed firsthand prior to my employment here. In a previous role with the city of Memphis, I watched Turner get deeply vested in diversity and inclusion while overseeing a program that worked to ensure that minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) could participate in local government contracts. Turner was heads above other general contractors in its commitment to working with the MWBE community in a meaningful way, to ensure that they had access to and could participate in construction opportunities across the country. That experience encouraged me and made my transition from the public to the private sector easier, knowing I was going to work for a company that did more than just talk the talk.
For a company to foster an inclusive attitude, it has to be more than a directive from company executives; it’s got to be baked into a company’s DNA. At Turner, people are open to listening and learning what others have to share, and team leaders encourage members to actively seek out a range of perspectives. While there is always more we can do to foster diversity and inclusion, both inside our company and throughout the community, it starts with a commitment to having open an open, honest conversation.
Turner built its first project in Memphis in 1986, and we’ve had a continuous presence in this market since 2005. Memphis is a minority-majority community, with Black residents making up roughly 64% of our population. However, the demographic accounts for a smaller piece of the economic pie than white residents.
At Turner, it’s extremely important to us to cultivate and maintain our relationships with MWBEs in Memphis. We look for ways to elevate MWBE trade partners so that they can develop strategic business relationships throughout the industry. Through our successful, long-running Turner School of Construction Management (TSCM) program, we teach MWBE owners essential skills and knowledge they need to grow their companies including scheduling, procurement, safety, business development, and a range of other topics — resulting in numerous success stories. On our construction projects in Memphis, we’re intentional about involving MWBEs in our trade work, reaching up to 40% MWBE participation on some projects.
In 2018, we established a new annual event called Talk True, A Real Conversation. Each year, we bring in panelists from MWBE construction management firms outside the Mid-South region who have achieved great success. The speakers discuss their careers and participate in an open conversation with attendees about the challenges of scaling up their businesses toward the top of their trade or field. We’ve been very happy with the response from attendees as well as the quality of the perspectives shared. The experience has spurred some attendees to grow their businesses through joint ventures with other like-minded companies. Talk True is a community conversation that can be shared with all trade partners and business owners everywhere.
We also work to foster a culture of inclusivity inside our company, and that starts by finding specific ways to increase the diversity of our team. To do that, we look for recruitment opportunities that attract a larger pool of candidates who might bring different backgrounds and perspectives to Turner. We recruit job candidates from historically black colleges and universities, as well as candidates who have degrees or skill sets outside of what might have been considered ideal in the past — engineering instead of construction management, for example. We’re also careful not to let bias come into the interview process by making sure that a diverse group of individuals from Turner participate and offer their opinions. Once candidates are hired, we stay focused on growing their talent — talking to them regularly about how they’ve performed and where they want to be, then offering them opportunities to challenge themselves and excel.
For our existing employees, we continuously work to challenge our preconceived biases about race and privilege, and become more empathetic individuals. We want Turner team members and trade partners to feel safe (both physically and mentally) coming into the office and onto job sites every day. They should not be at risk for any kind of harassment. To that end, we’ve created a toolkit for handling bias-motivated events that we’ve made publicly available to other businesses — even our own competitors. It includes protocols on how to react to bias in the workplace, as well as a list of best practices to ensure that every employee in a place of work is protected from harassment.
We’ve responded to the concerning events of this summer by instituting a series of mandatory racial awareness training sessions for Turner employees. These trainings are focused on creating a deeper understanding of the experiences of others, with individual sessions covering such topics as empathy, anti-racism and fighting privilege.
We’ve also invited our employees to go a little further by discussing these topics in small groups or one-on-one in an initiative we’re calling Courageous Conversations. Each of our offices has a facilitator who employees can email about continuing a conversation on any subject related to race.
For most people, discussing race, and differences in race, is inherently uncomfortable. People suspect that when you have discussions on differences, there’s going to be conflict. In Courageous Conversations, we help our team members understand how we’re all more alike than different and that we can celebrate those things that do make us different. We don’t necessarily have to agree on everything at the end of the day, but we do have to be respectful.
Though it might feel at times that things are out of control in the outside world, we work hard to maintain a welcoming, civil space on our job sites and in our offices. We’re not perfect — it’s a learning process, as is everything in life. But we’re open to changing and becoming better — and that’s an important first step.
About Mary L. Bright, Esq.
Mary L. Bright has been Community and Citizenship Director for Turner Construction Company’s Memphis office since 2018. Her responsibilities include overseeing company partnerships with minority- and women-owned businesses as well as promoting employee involvement in Turner programs that impact the community. She is a licensed attorney in the state of Tennessee, earning her J.D. from the University of Tennessee College of Law.