On June 19, 1865, US Army General Gordon Granger, along with federal troops, rode into Galveston, TX to read federal orders proclaiming all enslaved persons in the state of Texas were free, effectively ending slavery in the US, more than 200 years after it had begun, and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is a celebration to commemorate that day in our history as a country. In the 155 years that have followed, through many hard-fought battles, we have made progress in expanding the rights of Black citizens, including the establishment of civil and voting rights as well as expanded access to education and housing, to name a few. In spite of the progress we’ve made, there is still a lot that needs to be done.
The events of the last few weeks offer a sad and stark reminder of how much more work we need to do to achieve true social equality for all our people. Systemic racism continues to exist in our country in many of the institutions and industries that we count on to protect us, represent us, educate us, shelter us, and heal us. The effect, of course, is discrimination, social inequity and unequal opportunity for many of our citizens, none more than for those in the Black community.
In the last few weeks since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, I have experienced a range of emotions -- sadness, anger, fear among them. Combined with the impact of the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn, I have found many of my basic assumptions about health, economic security and justice called into question. It has often left me confused and struggling with how best to respond, as an individual -- a father, a son, a husband, a friend -- and as a leader, too. Like many of you, I’ve needed some time and space to reflect on these events, both in terms of their meaning, and their effect.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic three months ago, I shared a quote with the officer group that I had recently come across as the healthcare crisis was unfolding in front of our eyes. It came from Fred Rogers, aka Mr Rogers, and it offered me some comfort amidst the indescribable tragedy we were all witnessing. He said,
“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.’”
Indeed, there has been no shortage of helpers to look for over the last few months. We can all draw inspiration from the commitment, courage and compassion displayed by our health care professionals on the frontline of the pandemic crisis. And we can find it in those that march peacefully across the country in protest of injustice, holding our leaders and ourselves accountable when we fall short of our potential and promise as a nation.
While the current situation will continue to play out in ways that we can’t fully predict, I’ve come to believe the events of the past few weeks mark a turning point, an awakening and a change for the better, a shift in the trajectory of our pursuit toward social justice.
We are all being called to do our part, and to do more! Each of us individually, and, all of us together, as an organization. Whatever success that we may have achieved individually or as a company, it has only happened with the help and love of others. And the meaning of that success is diminished unless we share it and use it to help others. I believe that we have a moral obligation to reach out and offer our hand to those that have fallen behind, particularly those that have been victims of racial and social injustice. As a company focused on housing, we have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact within the walls of AvalonBay, and within our communities as well. And we can do it in a way that is true to our common purpose, values and culture as a company. Through our Spirit of Caring, we can help to Create a Better Way to Live.
Luckily, we have a good foundation to build on. Over the last few years, we’ve taken many actions to help others and to create a better company, including committing to be a living wage company, focusing on and training against unconscious bias, investing in our local communities through our Building Strong Communities Program, and supporting affordable housing organizations in all of our regions through our corporate philanthropy and with our expertise.
But we can and need to do more. Like our nation, our company has more work to do to fulfill its promise and to live up to the trust that has been placed in us by all our stakeholders. We can commit to be a more diverse workplace, with greater representation among minorities and women in the managerial ranks and in the boardroom. This will require a commitment to diverse slates, recruiting in new and unfamiliar places, and encouraging affinity groups to form and flourish to support and embrace a more diverse employee population. We can extend these efforts to the many suppliers and vendors that do business with us as well, ensuring their commitment to greater diversity and social equality. And we can be a more outspoken advocate for affordable housing and inclusionary zoning to ensure that more people of color have access to good neighborhoods and schools in the cities and towns in which we do business. These are just a few of the things we can do.
Over the coming weeks and months, I will be working with the executive team, the Inclusion & Diversity Council and many of you to explore these and other ways we can best make an impact in our common pursuit toward social equality and a just world. My sincerest hope is that in the future when others -- those outside of AvalonBay – turn to ‘look for the helpers’, they may draw inspiration from us.
Chairman & CEO