Graham's 'Diversity' Calls for Moving Past Labels

Entrepreneur and author Stedman Graham talks about his new book Diversity: Leaders Not Labels: A New Plan for The 21st Century, which stresses moving beyond external labels like race, gender and ethnicity to the pathway of success.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

As with Cullen Jones, it takes a different kind of thinking to overcome life's obstacles and rethink your approach to life.

Mr. STEDMAN GRAHAM (Author, Diversity: Leaders Not Labels: A New Plan for the 21st Century): The thing that makes us all equal is this - all of us have 24 hours. The question is is what do you do with your 24 hours? So what most people do with their 24 hours is they give it all away and they're not able to move from label to leader because they don't own themselves, don't own their own mind and they don't know how to take information and education and apply it to their own development every single day.

CHIDEYA: That's entrepreneur and author Stedman Graham. He's got a new book, Diversity: Leaders Not Labels: A New Plan for the 21st Century. He argues that moving beyond external labels like race, gender and ethnicity are key to rethinking life's possibilities and reaching your full potential.

Graham carved his own path to success by thinking beyond the label and learning to embrace who he is.

Mr. GRAHAM: You know, for me, I grew up thinking about race all the time and had what I call a race-based consciousness. And when you have a race-based consciousness you're focused on white American and what the white man has done and government and all those things that you think, you know, things that control your life or that you think control your life.

So I had no sense of, you know, having a strong foundation or understanding the real meaning of freedom. And I know we're supposed to be free because we live in America and that's fine. But, you know, when you're trapped in a box and you're in a routine and you don't, again, know who you are and you're defined by the external labels, then you don't have the freedom to define yourself.

And you pretty much have to do what people tell you to do or do what, you know, you're programmed to do. Later on in life, when I got out and I, you know, became somewhat educated and understood the American free enterprise system and realized that the program was wrong and that it wasn't about my color, it wasn't about my, you know, where I came from. It really was about me not understanding who I was as a person and not having a foundation to build from. You know, not having a passion, not having a love for what I do. Not realizing my strengths, only focusing on my weakness.

CHIDEYA: You talk in the book quite a lot about the new diversity. And what does that signify with this process that you're talking about?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, the new diversity is freeing yourself so that you can build relationships with all kinds of people. It's about being able to improve your talents and your skills and the competitive global environment. It's about being able to transcend race so that you can get past the labels and move more into the spirit of a person and move more into who that person really is authentically as opposed to making judgments.

It's really about understanding who you are and how you build good relationships and how do you do all these things based on a nine-step process. And when you understand that, then you take more control of your life and you're able to now figure out how you're going to maximize your potential in your own environment of influence. And that could be the workforce, that could be your community, that could be your family environment.

So it's being able to understand that this is really the new thinking and what I call the new diversity, you know, so that you're not relying on somebody else to free you or determine how you're going to treat people. And you take some accountability based on respecting other people's cultures and where they came from and you're open enough to be able to, again, build good relationships, which allows you to, you know, coexist.

CHIDEYA: I do have one point of clarification that I need. You talk about transcending race or rising above race, and yet you're very proud of where you grew up. So is the term transcending really - does that really get to what you're talking about? I mean if you have to rise above race doesn't that mean you're leaving something behind?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, when you rise above it and realize it's about, again, tapping into that person's spirit and their essence, you don't - and you feel proud of who you are. When you focus on the internal and really invest in yourself, you're able then to rise above the external labels and you're able to essentially bring forth your, again, authenticity to the world based on what you do well.

And so I think it's a good term because it's hard to do that, and without sacrificing your history, without sacrificing your past. Because you don't -you know, when you do that you feel good about yourself and you don't hate yourself and you're able to, again, feel good about who you are, which allows you to feel good about other people, which also allows you to feel good about your background and where you came from and the struggles and all of that.

We don't want to give that up, but we want to be able to find out what's holding us back, bring the good stuff forward and kind of leave the bad stuff behind.

CHIDEYA: At one point you were business partners with Armstrong Williams, who later went on and took money from the Bush administration to basically lobby or massage black opinion. Do you find ever that the idea of transcending race can slip into the idea of being an opportunist? And how do you feel about what happened with your former business partner?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, I would say that, first of all, I had no financial interest in this firm. And we started the Graham-Williams Group - he still has the Graham on the business - because essentially as a black business or African-American businessperson I know how hard it is to get business and all of that. And so I've always been somewhat, you know, helpful in trying to make sure that, you know, he has all the support that's possible to enhance his business.

Again, he is a good friend of mine and he's helped me a lot, you know, during the course of the years. And, you know, I'm not ever going to put myself in the situation where I'm selling somebody out just because they got in a little bit of trouble or the perception is is they were involved in something. I'm glad to be able to explain that.

CHIDEYA: And - I know this may seem a little delicate to you, but this is very much a kind of business question that relates to what you do. Your life partner Oprah Winfrey is someone who seems to exemplify the traits that you talk about in your book of being successful by coming from her own heritage but being able to reach out to other people.

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, she is the standard. And she's been able to transcend, again, her gender, her race, her background - grew up very, very poor - and to rise above all of the historical baggage and the programming that she got, you know, early on. And so I'm just really pleased to be able to be with someone who has that kind of standard, and also, you know, who's helped me change my thinking throughout the years based on her learning and what she's been able to achieve in her life based on the shows that she does and the information she's got.

So it really is about getting the right information. And, you know, I've had lots of people in my life who've helped me understand how it all works, you know, in terms of business and in terms of, you know, when issues come up or when obstacles come up. So it's really important to be able to have a good support system around you and, you know, weather the storm.

I mean it's been - I worked in the prison system for five years, I've played in the European pro league a number of years, I served in the U.S. Army, you know, several years, I've written a number of books, I've had an advertising agency in New York. So I've been in a lot of different businesses, and I'm just glad to be able to have, you know, the kind of support system I've had to be able to get through the negative thinking that I grew up with and move out of my history into my imagination and into the 21st century and into the future to be able to create the kind of life that I want to create based on who I am as a person.

CHIDEYA: Stedman Graham, thank you very much.

Mr. GRAHAM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Stedman Graham is the author of Diversity: Leaders Not Labels: A New Plan for the 21st Century.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Thank you for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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