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Keys to America’s Future: Values, Vision and Vitality

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After all the seemingly endless violations and charges of violations of ethics in journalism and business and politics of recent weeks and months, I intend to spend some time at an oasis over the weekend.

No, this isn’t the kind of oasis you go to to forget about the world.

On the contrary, this is the kind of oasis you go to be reminded that the vision of a better, more just, and more inclusive society is eminently worth fighting for. It’s a place that underscores that many people are still driven by the values and the vitality that can get us there.

I’m heading to the 34th annual conference of the National Urban League’s Black Executive Exchange Program, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Black Executive Exchange Program, or BEEP, was begun in 1969 to help both students and faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities learn more about the practices and culture of America’s corporate world from mid-level and senior executives at a wide range of companies.

It brings African-American corporate executives to the campuses of HBCU conferences to lead one- to three-day seminars on the latest business thinking and practices and field questions from students on careers in business.

Despite the difficulties the business world encountered during the past academic year—such as the unceasing turbulence in the financial markets, which played havoc with many a corporate bottom line—nearly 600 American companies have participated in some fashion in the current BEEP effort.

That means, not least of all, fully sponsoring their executive’s travel and expenses.

Nadine Owens, the Urban League’s director of BEEP, says that despite the pre-Iraq invasion and post-Iraq invasion uncertainties which disrupted many a corporate travel plan, more than 300 executives from those companies reached the college campuses and touched the lives of about 20,000 students.

Obviously, there has always been a lot of “role-modeling” going on in bringing these executives to Historically Black college campuses. Many of their students are the first in their families to attend college.

Both the individual campus visits and the annual conferences always include workshops to help students sharpen their job-searching and resume-writing and interviewing skills, and to explain to them the “culture” of the corporate setting.

But Medley adds that there’s a serious academic component as well: The lecture series at each participating college—fifty of the four-year Black Colleges were involved this year—has always been a credit-bearing course. Executives take their charge seriously to augment what students are learning in their regular college business classes with real-life discussions drawn from their own experiences. Further, BEEP periodically stages workshops so that the corporate executives and faculty can get together to discuss enhancing the colleges’ regular business curriculum with up-to-date information from the “real world.”

The impulse behind BEEP is as old as the 93-year-old Urban League itself, which was founded in 1910 to help southern black migrants then flooding to the cities of the north and west develop the skills for the modern workplace.

As the century deepened, that focus led successively to the Urban League’s playing a central role in the integration of defense industries and labor unions during World War II, and then pressing and helping corporate America to integrate in middle- and upper-level ranks in the postwar era.

So, it was natural that when the civil rights victories of the 1960s opened those corporate doors wider the Urban League would determine how best to help fill the “pipeline” from Black America to corporate America: The Black Executive Exchange Program was a big part of the answer.

This year’s conference is particularly important, says Medley, because it takes place against the backdrop of such enormous uncertainty for many of the students.

There’s the global threat of terrorism, which has made the future of us all uncertain.
There are the ethnical misdeeds in corporations, and in nonprofit and government agencies, and in sports and religious institutions, too, which have made some wonder if significant erosion in civic values is occurring.

There’s the continuing economic uncertainty, which has prompted layoffs and other forms of contraction in the corporate world. For HBCU students, as for their counterparts elsewhere in higher education, not being able to find a job for the summer or upon graduation is not an abstract threat.

And there’s the continuing attempts to roll back affirmative action, which has been the foundation for the rise of the class of corporate executives they get a chance to talk with through BEEP itself.

Thus, Nadine Owens says, these students, along with the rest of us, will need to have a firm hold on the right values if they’re not to lose their ethical bearings, a clear vision of what they want the future to be if they’re not to be distracted from their goals, and the vitality to, as an old rhythm and blues standard urges,”keep on pushing” if they—and we, and America as a whole—are to reach their higher goals.

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