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Using Black History Month to Drive Positive Change

Much progress has been made in terms of Black inclusion and representation in US business over the last few decades

By Rhona Gibson Crockett, Director, US Lead for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Sheffield Haworth

With contributions from Josephine Christian, Associate, Global CTS practice, Sheffield Haworth and Tylik Stevens, Associate, Global Real Assets practice, Sheffield Haworth

Much progress has been made in terms of Black inclusion and representation in US business over the last few decades. Despite this, inclusion remains a significant challenge with serious obstacles to overcome. Achieving genuine inclusion and equity for people of color in the United States is now better understood as a continuous journey towards leveling the disparity between the privileged and non-privileged.

As part of US Black History Month, we want to explore some of the obstacles that remain to achieving inclusion and equity and discuss potential workplace solutions. We’ll also look at how individuals can deepen their understanding of the African American experience and take small but significant actions to help increase inclusion not just at work, but also within your community – and not just for Black History Month, but all year round.

Part 1: Why inclusion still matters

Inclusion usually starts at the top. Sadly, in America, there have only ever been 22 Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and today in 2022 there are only five – three men and two women.

According to the Washington Post: “Eighteen months after the country’s leading businesses pledged to address racial inequality within their ranks, a Washington Post review of the 50 most valuable public companies reveals that Black employees represent a strikingly small fraction of top executives — and that the people tapped to boost inclusion often struggle to do so.”

The article makes for sobering reading and points out that, of America’s top 50 most valuable public companies:

  • Only eight percent of C-suite executives of these companies are Black
  • At least eight of the 50 companies list no Black executives among their leadership team as of December 2021
  • Only 13 of the companies include their diversity chiefs in top leadership

There was some good news in the article. In five of the companies surveyed, 20 percent of their executives were Black, a higher proportion than the Black percentage of the US population (12%). Forty-six of the 50 companies surveyed included at least one diversity- or inclusion-related word in their annual reports, up from just 17 in 2019. Overall, however, the negatives outweigh the positives.

Reviewing these statistics and the pay gap that still exists for Black men and women in America, it’s not surprising that Black History Month can be bittersweet for African Americans. While progress has been made, there is much more to do for there to be equity and equality for Blacks.

Given where the authors sit as employees of a challenger executive search firm, we can be part of the solution for closing the wage and opportunity gaps that exists for Blacks in America. We can resolve and work to ensure there are equitable outcomes for every member of the workforce.

At the same time, there’s a lot that firms can do to improve the situation. Here is a list of recommendations, based on steps Sheffield Haworth and many of our clients have taken.

Part 2: Actions companies can take to achieve racial parity

Make a public commitment to DEI

In 2020, our industry body the AESC made a public pledge “to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination within our own organizations, with candidates and the clients we serve, and in our communities”, as well as “to use our collective voices and actions to help create a world that is inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible for all”.

Sheffield Haworth signed up to that pledge, and made our own pledge here. As a result, we committed internally to do the groundwork, research, and outreach to ensure that wherever possible there are diverse candidates – including specifically Black talent – in the pipeline, and use our influence as trusted advisors to ensure those candidates are short-listed and interviewed.

If your industry body has made a similar public commitment, make sure you sign up to it and make your support public, and then act to live and breathe those values in how your recruit, onboard, and develop Black talent.

Review recruitment practices and partners to ensure they are not exclusionary

Many recruitment practices exclude Black talent. Often this is accidental. Ensure you review your processes so they are not exclusionary; seek advice if needed. When working with a talent partner, check that they are following best practices so they are not exclusionary.

Follow DEI practitioners on LinkedIn

Some great places to start could be:

Support internal employee resource groups via sponsorship, allyship, and funding

This has been happening organically at Sheffield Haworth, and we’ve made real progress over the last few years. When your Black employees feel they have a voice and a safe space within your organization, this can be really positive for inclusion, increase retention, and make your workplace more attractive to diverse candidates.

Work with organizations that promote Black business leadership

Suggestions include:

Work with organizations that promote Black internship programs

Sheffield Haworth’s London office works with underprivileged inner city young people via the Envision Community Apprentice Programme as well as taking part in the 10,000 Black intern program and we’re currently considering options to help promote black internships in the US. Supporting Black internships is a great way to introduce young Black people to careers they might not otherwise have the opportunity to work in, while also helping them develop the skills they need for future success. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity and the Toigo Foundation both have internship programs that are worth looking into.  

Support local Black charities

This link includes a comprehensive list of US charities supporting health, education, rights and community development. Take a look and pick a charity that resonates for you or your firm’s vision and values.

Part 3: Understanding the African American experience

While employers and colleagues can do a lot to increase equity and inclusion in the workplace, one of the greatest ways to promote broader equity and understanding in society is to delve into the richness of African American history, as a means of understanding how we got to where we are today.

Here’s a list of literature by Black authors about the African American experience:

Here are three TEDx talks on relevant subjects:

Here’s a list of TV shows, films, and documentaries we recommend. Some are fictional, some are based on true stories, and some are 100% factual, but all have something profound to say about race and American history.

TV shows

  • Twilight Zone (2019) – Season 1, episode 3 “Replay”
  • Love First – Season 2
  • Black-ish (2014 – 2022) – 8 seasons
  • Wu-Tang: An American Saga (2019 – 2022) – 2 seasons, with a 3rd season in production
  • Lovecraft Country (2020) – 1 season
  • Watchmen (2019) – 1 season


  • 13th (2016) – about the treatment of African Amercians in US society since the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (which banned slavery) in 1865.
  • All In: The Fight For Democracy (2020) – about voter suppression in US elections.
  • John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) – about the life of civil rights activist and United States congressman John Lewis.
  • I Am Not Your Negro (2016) – charts the history of racism in the US through the eyes of celebrated author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, who died in France in 1987.


  • Dear White People (2014)
  • American Son (2019)
  • BlackKklansman (2018)
  • Selma (2014)
  • Malcolm X (1992)
  • Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
  • The Color Purple (1985)
  • 12 Years a Slave (2013)
  • American History X (1998)
  • Fruitvale Station (2013)
  • Just Mercy (2019)
  • Monster (2018)
  • One Night in Miami (2020)
  • Hidden Figures (2016)
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  • The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
  • The Help (2011)
  • Sorry to Bother You (2018)
  • Da 5 Bloods (2020)
  • Queen & Slim (2019)

Part 4: Engaging with Black history and culture

While the above lists of movies, documentaries, and books prove that there’s a lot you can do to educate yourself at home, we also feel that going out and engaging with museums, monuments, and exhibitions can be even better, especially if this means venturing a little outside your personal comfort zone.

Here’s a list of 10 Must-See Exhibitions by Prominent Black Artists, dated February 2022.

Here’s a list of 90-plus Black-Owned Galleries and Museums to Support Across the Globe, dated June 2020.

If you’re based in or near New York and you enjoy visiting Broadway shows, here’s a list of the wide range of Black stage shows in the city. 

The US Civil Rights Trail incorporates over 100 locations across 15 states, aiming to educate visitors on the long – and ongoing – struggle of Black people to achieve equal rights. This could be a great option to take the family if you live in any of the 15 states listed.

If you live in New York, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas, Illinois, or California, the National Parks Foundation has a great list of 6 Powerful Places to Immerse Yourself in African American Heritage – another great option for family outings.

Another option for those based in California is this article on How to Honor Black History Month in California.

Here’s a convenient list of ideas of places to visit across the country that are related to Black history, some highlights of which include:

  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.
  • Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
  • Museum of Mississippi History
  • Beale Street Historic District, Memphis, Tennessee
  • African Meeting House, Boston
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington D.C.
  • Colored Musicians Club, Buffalo, NY
  • National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Alabama

Final thoughts

As we’ve said, Black history is important to remember not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year. However, this month is a great reminder to take action where you can. While we’ve looked at steps you can take in the workplace, media you can watch and read to educate yourself and family members, and places you can visit.

Here’s a final thought. Reach out to Black neighbors and reconnect with Black friends you might not have been in touch with for a while. Nothing will help inclusion more than actually being inclusive, bonding with friends and neighbors, listening, “providing a safe space” for them to talk about their angers, fears, or frustrations {if they need it}, or even just checking in with them to see how they are.