Trevor Wilson Headshot

Why I Never Thought I'd See a Black President

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About a decade ago my first son Alex was struggling with one of the many things 16-year-olds struggle with. As a good Dad I gave him the old "you can do anything -- anything is possible" pep talk hoping to encourage him to overcome whatever obstacle he thought was stopping him. Not too long after this interaction he asked me, in an unrelated conversation, if I ever thought we would see a black U.S. president.

Not wanting to speak out of the other side of my mouth I acknowledged that I had said "anything is possible" but I had to admit that I thought it was impossible that he would ever see a black U.S. president. He seemed more surprised than disappointed. I say surprised because up until that point I had never used the word impossible in front of him. I am usually the eternal optimist, especially in front of my kids.

I went on to explain that in my lifetime it was possible that he could see a female president -- probably white. I told him that in his lifetime he could possibly see a non-white president. But according to the numbers, it was virtually impossible that either of us would ever see a black president.

He asked what numbers. I recounted a memorable interview with the late President Lyndon Johnson who was asked in 1964, on the signing of the civil rights act, if he thought the US would ever see a black president. "Of course" he answered optimistically "when you have 20 per cent of blacks in the house and 10 per cent of blacks in the Senate you are sure to have a black president." At the time of this statement there was one black person in the house and none in the Senate and according to projections it would take at least 300 years to reach this point.

In November, 2008 Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States. I was sitting alone in a hotel room out of town watching the whole thing. I remember how I felt when the CNN headline appeared that for the first time in history a black man would be the President of the United States. The impossible had happened.

I immediately picked up the phone and called my now 22- year-old son. I admitted I had been wrong and apologized for what I had told him six years earlier. I admitted that I never thought I would see this happen in my lifetime. For me, Obama's first election opened a virtual door that allowed me, as a Black man, to revisit so many other "impossibles" that I had never dared to consider.

The re-election of Obama for a second four year term was not as life changing as 2008 but for me was just as impactful. Regardless of his political platform or performance, Obama continues to have the opportunity to break any stereotype people may have of various groups of people. He has been provided with the amazing opportunity to evolve the typical diversity conversation with its focus on groups to a more holistic conversation of the uniqueness of each individual.

In my opinion, Obama has a lot in common with the new Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim, non-White mayor in Canadian history. Nenshi was asked once "are you a Calgarian first or a Muslim first?" He responded, "that is like asking me if I am a male first or 40-year-old first." In other words you have to take all him not just a selected demographic characteristics. For both Nenshi and Obama, their race, their age, their culture, their religion, and their sexual orientation may inform who they are but none of these things define who they are.

I believe conscious leaders are starting to get that people are not defined by their "skin bag." According to the human genome scientists there are over 10 to the power of 2.5 billion possible combinations of human DNA.

Obama, Nenshi, you and over seven billion other people are each one of these unique combinations. Instead of spending time talking about how many women, minorities and aboriginal people we have in our organization, is it not a better question to ask how can we tap into and unleash the human potential of each unique piece of talent. This is what we call human equity.