Chattanooga Chamber calls on CEOs to sign Racial Equity Pledge

Citing “a history of systemic racism,” Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Christy Gillenwater urged local business leaders to “lead meaningful change” by signing a “CEO Pledge for Racial Equality.”

In an email sent last week by Gillenwater, the pledge outlines a number of commitments a CEO will make–including using his or her “influence and position to amplify unheard voices and support policies that lead to racial justice,” and improving the “employment, training, advancement, support, and success of people of color in our workforces.”

Signatories also pledge to engage in ongoing “CEOs for Racial Equity” meetings to “address the issues of racism, injustice and bias in our organizations and community.”

Lorne Steedley, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce vice president of Diversity and Inclusive Growth, said an important factor for change in Chattanooga will be the commitment of its CEOs.

“Real change begins when leaders embrace the need for it, demonstrate commitment and create forward momentum,” Steedley explained.

“As a group, CEOs are communicating that diversity and inclusion are critical to the sustainability of their corporations. By adopting CEO pledges, these corporate leaders outline their commitment to advancing D&I (diversity and inclusion).”

At press time, around 40 Chattanooga CEOs have signed the Racial Equity Pledge, including: Gillenwater; Valoria Armstrong, American Water; Pedro Cherry, Chattanooga Gas; Bob Culkeen, WTCI; Jay Dale, First Horizon Bank; Todd Fortner, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union; Eric Fuller, US Xpress; J.D. Hickey, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee; Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly; Dan Challener, Public Education Foundation; Emily C. Mack, River City Company; Michael Mathis, Regions Bank; Sarah Morgan, Benwood Foundation; Thomas Ozburn, Parkridge Health System; Janelle Reilly, CHI Memorial; Keith Sanford, Tennessee Aquarium; Shannon Stephenson, Cempa Community Care; Lemon Williams, The Ionado Group, Inc.; Velma Wilson, Cleaning Solutions, LLC and William Windham, Parkridge East Hospital.

Has there been any pushback surrounding the Racial Equity Pledge?

“Yes, of course,” said Sybil Topel, the Chamber’s vice president of Marketing and Communications. “Of course. But the good news is that many more people are on board, and have actually contacted us voicing their support. An added benefit is that this is a sign we all want to move forward, and that Chattanooga is growing in a healthy way.”

The Chattanooga Chamber is partially funded by taxpayer dollars for economic development efforts, and hosts about 1,800 member businesses across diverse sectors.

Topel noted that CEOs of any organization, whether they’re a member of the Chamber or not, can sign the Racial Equity Pledge. This includes churches.

In wake of the George Floyd murder, other chambers across the country have issued CEO pledges to work toward racial equity in their companies and communities. The Greater Omaha (Nebraska) Chamber’s CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion is one of the largest, with more than 1,600 CEOs signed on.

“I think a pledge is a good idea for Chattanooga, if they’re really intentional about it,” said Allan Tate, a Black man who has for 32 years owned and operated Mr. T’s Barber Shop on Bonny Oaks Drive. For further information on the CEO Pledge for Racial Equality, access the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce website, or call  (423)756-2121.