Reflections on a Race Relations Roundtable

“At our roundtables, everyone can be a part of the movement.” - Agnes Smith Stuckey

On June 19, 1865, two full years after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a group of slaves in Galveston, Texas found out that they were free. This date became known as Juneteenth, a day commemorating African American freedom and the end of slavery in the United States.  

This year, the Milliken team is celebrating Juneteenth as a reminder, not only of that historical day, but also as an acknowledgment of our commitment to advance the 400-year-old fight for racial equity in the United States. 

The events that marked what we now know as Juneteenth happened 155 years ago—the same year Milliken was founded. And while much has changed in the world during that century and a half, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others coupled with the inequities related to the COVID-19 pandemic, have shined a glaring light on the systemic racism that runs throughout our country.  

For years, Milliken has strived to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace, but as the reality of racial disparity has been pushed into the open, we realize there is so much more to be done.

There are stories to hear. There are experiences to learn from. There are opportunities for self-reflection and growth. There are voices to amplify. And there are changes that must be made within our company and our communities.

In recent weeks, we began open dialogue within our company.  

Together we are listening. Together we are learning. 

After the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Anna Blanton, Milliken HR Director, felt compelled to act. She reached out to Ricaye Harris, Milliken Director of Diversity & Inclusion, asking how she could help.  

As anyone who has received a message from her knows, Ricaye’s email signature ends with this quote from SteeleThoughts:  

“You don’t change culture through emails and memos. You change it through relationships…one conversation at a time.” 

It’s no surprise that what came about from Anna and Ricaye’s conversation was a forum to talk, together. 

The result was Milliken’s first ever Race Relations Roundtable, ‘I Don’t See Color!”—a virtual open forum for an unscripted, honest, and safe conversation about the realities minorities face daily, whether at work or in their personal lives.  

The roundtable began with one simple question: How are you feeling?

And the expressions of emotion began to flow. 

Frustration, sadness, exhaustion, anger, and love. 

The team shared stories of lived racism, of the desire to learn, to act, to affect real change, and to rally together in solidarity.

Jim McCallum, President of Milliken’s Floor Covering Division, joined the conversation from the beginning: “The roundtables have opened my eyes to the degree of burden carried by our black and brown associates in their everyday lives. In my naivety, I hadn’t really understood the constant and persistent discriminatory environment they have to endure.” 

The roundtable left some speechless and inspired others to think differently about their perspective of race relations, and how we can put our strength together—how we each play a role in being part of a solution.  

This roundtable has turned into a weekly event, and conversations are moving from the forum setting to personal dialogues based on listening better, learning more, and empathizing more deeply.   

Milliken Leadership has opened the door for critical conversations like these by publicly committing support and doing the work within the company and its communities. This definitive commitment is significant for Dale Willis, Business Director for Industrials and Cable Management at Milliken.    

“Milliken’s statement on Black Lives Matter was very powerful for a company with such a long and storied legacy. But our leadership didn’t leave it at a memo. They enabled a forum where people can share their thoughts and ask questions, with an emphasis on the goal of creating an environment where people feel safe and can be their true self. I could hear from people’s reactions through the phone that it was good. We all need to talk so that we understand each other. That is the key.” 

To Dale, the roundtable was an opportunity to help people from different backgrounds to see things from a different perspective.

Most importantly for Dale have been breakthroughs in the conversation—moments of thinking critically together about ways to advance a culture of equity at Milliken and beyond.  

Dale believes that the impacts of inclusion at Milliken will be far reaching, with benefits spilling out into the community and the broader industry.

For Ricaye, these conversations are essential to building key partners who will help fuel the work of inclusion. “Everything we are attempting to do is about building allies, training people to work that muscle, and showing our teams opportunities to have each other’s backs. There is this feeling of ‘I just want to be better—a better employee, colleague, teammate.’ All of these conversations have helped us build empathy, which is what you need in order to get people to want to help.” 

Allan Randall, Plastic Additives Senior Account Manager for Milliken’s Chemical Division, knows his allyship starts within his home. “I may not be able to change the world, but I can demonstrate love and compassion to my sons so that they never look at another person as less than, and so that they know it is their responsibility to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We’re not letting these tragedies go to waste but using them as a catalyst to spark change.” 

For Anna, the work of equity is tied to our value of integrity. “We have this tenacity to do the right thing. Even if you have never done it before, or never in this way, we’re compelled to do it now. And we are speaking boldly.” 

Agnes Smith Stuckey, Plant Supply Chain Lead at Milliken's Keystone Plant, is grateful for the new and open lines of communication. After learning about the roundtable, she was nervous, but excited. In her 21 years with the company, these roundtables were like nothing she had ever seen. 

“At our roundtables, everyone can be a part of the movement. And we can change lives across the whole global company. It’s not coming from one individual—anyone who wants to be involved can be a voice to make a change that is going to impact lives.”  

“Leaders at the roundtable are showing up.” And Agnes believes that leadership being a vocal part of the conversation is building trust within Milliken. 

She’s already seeing the way trust shifts culture. The challenge, Agnes notes, will be to keep up the momentum and to channel it into action. 

While much has changed during these 155 years, there is so much more work to be done. “We are early on in this process,” Dale continued. “But we are off to a good start.”  

*This perspective is shared as part of an ongoing Race Relations Roundtable that Milliken is hosting as part of our commitment to further our diversity and inclusion program to foster equality for all in the workplace.