Addressing diversity at the root

Cassandra Chandler

In the backyard of her home, Cassandra Chandler has delicate white azaleas that decorate and punctuate a sea of green. On a hot day last summer, she noticed a hand of poison oak ivy grip one section of the garden. Horribly allergic, Chandler pulled out what she could, but the ivy still clenched at the roots. She cut on the outer edges to manicure an apparent solution, with no lasting avail. She never got to the root, so the weeds kept growing. 

This is the case, too, with diversity, equity and inclusion in banking, which has been deeply rooted in inequality since the first Black banks were formed less than a decade after slavery ended. For lasting change to nourish true growth, Chandler said, the banking industry needs a fresh-eyed revelation of inequality in a way that goes beyond a satisfied checklist, and is incorporated into banking culture. 

Chandler grew up in the South, and was the first Black woman to serve as assistant director in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where she spent more than two decades navigating cybercrime investigations and foreign intelligence activities. She’s since been a leader on the global diversity and inclusion boards of both the Bank of America and Louisiana State University. 

“Chandler is a straight shooter,” said Gretchin Clafin, president of the Pacific Coast Banking School, where Chandler teaches on Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity. “And you know, I think it’s time for straight talk. We have to get past the platitudes at this stage in the game.”

“We play at the edges of diversity, equity and inclusion, because there’s a fear of making that true commitment where you have to step outside of keeping things the same way to do something equitable to truly change the playing field and allow for everybody to have the same opportunity.”

And the thoughts that affect behavior are the seeds that change the roots of routine. “When you change the minds and the thoughts and perceptions of people, they change the way they look for candidates, and they change the way they seek and interview candidates.”

This happens among leaders with a humble commitment to change, starting with their own sober self-reflection, Chandler said. It also depends on courageous conversations, and a blunt look at bankers’ stories side-by-side. “Understanding diversity means you’re going to have to talk to one another.”

Most people don’t realize they have rose-colored glasses on, Chandler said. The fix was what she called “courageous conversations,” which allow a pause to think about what you say and what it could mean to someone else.

Chandler offered an example, recalling a scenario she said is common, but often unacknowledged. She was in a group of business people, all men except one other Black woman. Chandler noticed that when the woman spoke, her comments went unacknowledged, and she spoke less. 

The way you responded to that Black woman was demeaning, Chandler said to the men. 

What are you talking about? They responded, confused.

Chandler explained that every time the woman opened her mouth to respond to something, her voice was lost amid the men’s conversation, and they never spoke to her. 

But she could have spoken up, the men responded. 

She did speak, Chandler said, and because it was lost, she never spoke again. 

She also posed a question: What could the woman’s story be that would lead her to act differently from what the men thought she should have done? 

No one had ever pointed out the men’s tendency to speak over others, so they hadn’t realized they did so. They thanked one another and each carried on more consciously. The day would’ve gone on just as it always would have without the discussion, but the discomfort of confrontation allowed for reflection and compassion.

These conversations pave a way for different people with different perspectives to understand one another, Chandler said. “Courageous conversations help you stop thinking of ‘them,’ and start looking at ‘us,’” Chandler said. 

“It’s a matter of opening opportunities to get to know someone who’s not just like you. It’s a great thing to do, it’s true, but you have to be honest,” she said. “That’s the difference, and that’s the importance.”

And when you change the minds and thoughts and perceptions of people, Chandler said, “they change the way they look for, interview and seek candidates,” she said. “They get to know the story of other people. They’re more open. They’re sharing meals and coffee with people who don’t look like them. That’s diversity.”