By Brandon OConnorSeptember 26, 2019
As the keynote speaker of the U.S. Military Academy's Diversity and Inclusion Conference, retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, USMA Class of 1980, had a simple message.
When you are included, it is not enough to take your seat at the table and be happy to be there. It is what you do once you are given a seat that really matters.
"When you have decided to stand up and step up, once you're inside and included, you must speak up," Brooks said. "You have to make sure that the perspective that you bring, that unique perspective, is part of the mix. Sometimes that takes a lot of moral courage to do that because often you feel so honored even to be in the room that you don't want to put that at risk where you would now be excluded from the room."
He called on those gathered to, "Stand up, step up, speak up and build-up." To offer their unique experiences to the discussion and not be afraid of voicing their opinion. His call to action wasn't limited to those who were given a seat at the table, though. He also implored leaders who are sitting at the head of the table and leading the discussion to actively seek out the minority opinion.
If there is someone who is not speaking up, ask what he or she thinks, Brooks said. If you think you have heard every perspective, ask if someone has a different one, he added. Brooks said through years of holding leadership positions at the highest levels of the Army he learned that by actively seeking to include everyone, the collective intelligence of the group increases.
"Why does diversity matter?" Brooks asked. "My view is, different views make us smarter and different approaches give us a greater array of options and solutions to complex problems. So, the more diverse the group, the smarter it can be. I happen to ascribe to this idea that there is wisdom in crowds."
Speaking at the conference on Sept. 19 marked the conclusion of a journey that had come full circle for Brooks. In 1994, he was asked to join a committee working to create a minority outreach committee within the West Point Association of Graduates.
As a major in the Army at the time, Brooks faced backlash from academy leadership when they learned of his involvement, but he and his fellow committee members would not be deterred. The committee met for the first time in 1995 and part of the product of their efforts was the creation of the Outreach Leadership Conference. Over the years, it has since been rebranded as the Diversity and Inclusion Conference and was held for the 17th time this year.
"The Association of Graduates is stronger than it's ever been," Brooks said. "The minority graduates are better connected than they've ever been. The Long Gray Line is better than it's ever been, and that committee had something to do with it and this effort of creating diversity and inclusion as a reality at West Point has a lot to do with it."
The two-day conference brought together cadets, staff, faculty, alumni, ROTC cadets and more to talk about increasing diversity.
The idea is to bring people of different backgrounds together and then including them by empowering each person to have a voice.
Along with Brooks, the conference featured a talk by Adrian Perkins, USMA Class of 2008, who is the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana, and workshops on developing an inclusive mentality, working through generational differences and more.
"We host this conference so we can have an opportunity to talk about the things that we're doing here at West Point in terms of diversity and inclusion," Terry Allbritton, West Point's chief diversity officer, said. "We believe that everyone should have a diverse workforce, equal pay, equal opportunity and an inclusive way."
Throughout his speech, Brooks spoke of his own experiences dealing with racism as a child, a cadet and a Soldier.
He spoke of the opportunities he has been given throughout his career to be that diverse voice at the table and the importance of seizing those opportunities.
Along with lessons learned during his childhood, the importance of diversity and inclusion was taught to Brooks throughout his time attending West Point. The Class of 1980 at West Point, Brooks' class, was the first class to include women, meanwhile, Brooks became the first African American cadet to be named First Captain.
"We have the power to be both included and inclusive and I encourage you to be that powerful person who does both," Brooks said. "Don't let the vicious voices of resistance stop you from doing that. Speak up. You've got to be able to be ready, stand up, step up, speak up and build up. That's our obligation."