Q&A: Advocating for justice, diversity, and inclusion

By Ken Tysiac

The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have brought on a range of emotions for Steven Harris, CPA, CGMA, and Herschel Frierson as they advocate for racial justice, diversity, and inclusion in the accounting profession and the world.

As African American men and leaders in the accounting profession, they have wrestled with anger over injustice. They feel compassion for the victims and those who are pursuing helpful change. They are disappointed by the lack of progress in this area in society and the business community.

As fathers of college students, they admit to fear for what could happen to their children if they come into contact with the police. But the events of recent weeks also give them hope that they can help lead the accounting profession and their communities toward positive, lasting change.

Harris, partner in charge of the Entrepreneurial Services Group at RubinBrown LLP in St. Louis, is the chairman of the board of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), a not-for-profit association open to all accounting or finance professionals and students. Frierson, a managing director in the consulting group at Crowe LLP in Indianapolis, will replace Harris as chairman of the NABA board on July 1.

In this Q&A, they shared their thoughts on the tension that’s gripping the United States as well as how leaders of the accounting profession can advocate for racial justice, diversity, and inclusion.

A call to action

Steven Harris: For me, this started before the unrest. It started with COVID-19 and what was happening in the African American community, how the virus was really hitting our communities very, very hard. A lot of underrepresented minorities lack access to resources. Then this virus comes in, and it just really impacted our communities in a major, major way. Then on top of that, you see this unrest that takes place [following Floyd’s death], and I’m just going to be honest, we’re not strangers to these incidents.

We just keep replacing the name and the situation that’s happening. Our organizations have always been at the forefront of standing up for equality and really being totally against racism and injustice in any form or fashion whether it’s in our profession or within our overall community and across our nation. So we’re quick to take action and really denounce it.

But I think this time it was a little different, and I think it was different because of what we were already facing in the COVID-19 environment. You just felt the sense that we had to do more, we need to do more, and the sense that there’s an exhaustion that has come over all of us in this situation. In the course of two to three months, there were multiple incidents. Different states. Different people. Different situations that had a very profound impact on us because you could see racism live. You could see it happening.

There was the incident in Georgia. There was the incident in Kentucky. There was the incident in Minnesota. So we’ve got to take it to the forefront of what we’re going to do, and there’s a bigger calling to action for us to make some change.

Ask more questions

Herschel Frierson: Within our profession, why don’t we have more CPAs? CIAs? Why don’t we have more African Americans in our profession? What can I do to bring more people to our profession?

The question comes: “I don’t know what to do.” Yes, you do. Everybody feels like they don’t know what to do and they want the answer. The answer is in the mirror. People, go to lunch with someone who doesn’t look like you or have the same beliefs as you or maybe not the same religion, or someone from the LGBTQ community. That’s the answer.

Within your firm, within your profession, go to someone else. Ask: “How can I make you successful in your career? How can I support you in your community?” We get so many questions like, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.” And I’ll push back: “You have that opportunity. You extend that hand out to someone else. You have that opportunity to change. You go mentor someone. You go volunteer in the community. You have that answer.”

Moving beyond the messages

Harris: In a time like this, every word of the statement that your firm wants and needs to send is analyzed. Being intentional about what’s said, what’s not said, and also understanding the perspective and the mindset of how people are going to receive it is so important right now.

Herschel and I have had conversations about how you think you’re saying the right things, and how some people feel like you’re not saying enough. Some people might feel like you said it just right with your tone and temperament.

I want to challenge everybody to move beyond the message and move into the actions, how we make the changes.

Examining leadership

Harris: One thing we’re missing the boat on as a profession is we need to do a real assessment across every organization and every company, and look at leadership, and really say, “What does the leadership of this organization look like?” Because if we’re all sitting around and the board of directors all look alike, we’re not moving the needle there.

And when we look at top leadership of organizations and there are no people of color or no women in those organizations, we’re going to continue to get the same results that we’re getting because there’s not enough diversity of thought in the rooms where these decisions are being made.

Recruiting and developing

Frierson: Go outside your typical colleges where you recruit. Emphasize the historically black colleges and universities because they have great accounting and finance programs. If you stick with your typical colleges and universities, are you working with diverse student organizations on campus?

NABA has student chapters across this country at major universities. And the question is, what are you doing to connect with those organizations? That’s very powerful.

The profession needs more diverse partners. Quite simply, the table needs to be bigger. Every single firm and company in our profession should be reaching out to NABA. You’re talking about diverse talent. You’re talking about what do we need to do to make a change. Who can I talk to? How can we work together? NABA is there for you. There are resources there for you in our profession that can help you move the needle.

Living up to your promises

Frierson: What is your true passion? Our profession, as much as we talk about policies and procedures and GAAP rules and things of that nature, at the end of the day, we’re a people business. The profession will not survive without our people. So we need to take a step back and look at our people and really look at our company mission statement. It’s good that everybody is putting out statements in support.

But I think our next step is to go back and look at what your values are and challenge them, and really do a test. Really look at your value statement and your mission statement and ask, “When I look back at the past 10, 15 years, are we truly, truly living up to what we say on our website?”

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is the JofA’s editorial director.

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