Preserving the Promise of Equal Opportunity

We must all rise above harsh rhetoric and make sure the American Dream is within the reach of every American.

UPS Chairman and CEO David Abney spoke on Nov. 17 in New York at the 60th anniversary of the National Urban League’s Equal Opportunity Dinner, which honored businesses and individuals who champion principles of equal opportunity, civil rights and social justice.   

Good evening, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

I’m honored to chair this year’s Equal Opportunity Dinner and to help celebrate 60 years of bringing opportunity to underserved communities and their citizens.

There are so many people to credit for those achievements.

We can go back to the beginning, back to Ruth Standish Baldwin and George Edmund Haynes, who helped start this organization more than 100 years ago.

We can call the names of Whitney Young and Vernon Jordan and Hugh Price.

And we can come forward, to 2016 … to the 13th year of Marc Morial’s  leadership of the National Urban League.

All pioneers … all with a remarkable social conscience.

But tonight I’m not feeling nostalgic.

That’s because many people in this room and in our nation are worried about the state of our country.

A few nights ago, I saw a news report of a group of high school students. They were chanting “white power” as they marched through the school’s cafeteria.

I can’t get that image out of my head.

It took me back to my days growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s, when the nation seemed ready to split apart at the seams.

I was an 18-year-old student at Delta State University when I took a part-time job at UPS.

I learned the importance of diversity at UPS.

You can learn a lot sorting packages and loading trailers in the middle of the night.

[Also on Longitudes: Reason, Reality and the Future of Trade]

An important lesson

The most important thing I learned is that when all those packages are coming down a conveyor, it doesn’t matter if the person working next to you is white, black, brown or purple.

Whether they worship at a church, a temple, a mosque … or if they worship at all.

You don’t care who is conservative or liberal or what lifestyle they live.

You just need the person next to you to do their job – so you can do yours.

Even now there are signs reminding us that we’re a divided nation.

It’s disturbing. Disturbing is not a good enough word. It’s disheartening.

It’s painful because these are concerns that progress could take a step back in time.

I’ve talked to my friend and fellow UPSer Myron Gray about this. Myron is the president of our company’s U.S. Operations and a long-time member of the National Urban League’s Board of Trustees.

Myron grew up about 90 miles from me. We both had great parents and a happy childhood.

But we were separated by so much more than those 90 miles from my house to his. 

Pullquote share icon. Share

We cannot, in good conscience stand idly on the sidelines.

We had quite different experiences. We saw injustice, but through a different lens.

We lived in a world back then that focused more on the color of a person’s skin than on their ability or potential.

But we did have one big thing in common – we both were given an opportunity.

We were fortunate to get jobs with a company that opened doors for us to places and opportunities we never imagined.

Many years and many positions later, we both agree that we have a responsibility to create opportunities for other Americans.

We believe that business and its leaders, as well as government and civic organizations, must address this issue – the same way we would if anything else was threatening the well-being of our people.

Closing the gap 

We cannot, in good conscience, stand idly on the sidelines.

We cannot reap the benefits of a diverse workforce without doing everything in our power to ensure all people have the opportunity to reach their potential.

In 1956, 60 years ago, another UPSer, Ken Jarvis, also was given an opportunity.

It came when Whitney Young, then the head of the National Urban League, gave a speech in California to an audience that included a UPS Human Resources manager.

His message focused on the failure of U.S. companies to tap into the African-American employment base.

Impressed, our HR manager reached out to the Bay Area Urban League, and Ken Jarvis soon became our first African-American driver.

Ken ended up spending 37 years with our company before retiring in 1994. His last position, by the way, was vice president of Human Resources.

That was our unofficial introduction to the National Urban League. A few years later – 55 years ago – we began a more formal relationship.

In the years that have followed, we have worked hand in hand to close gaps in education, economic empowerment, quality of life and justice.

As chair of the Diversity Inclusion Steering Council at UPS, I’m determined that we don’t lose sight of the importance of diversity and inclusion to our people and to our business.

Like the National Urban League, we continue to focus on creating a more inclusive culture, one that values diversity in all its forms.

But I think we would all acknowledge that we have more work to do.

[Also on Longitudes: Real Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Fly into Trouble]

Opportunity for all

For all the Ken Jarvises, Myron Grays and David Abneys for whom doors opened to unforeseen opportunities, others were not as fortunate.

They see the hand of opportunity is often dealt from the bottom of the deck. 

Pullquote share icon. Share

The hand of opportunity is often dealt from the bottom of the deck.

In the last couple of years, we’ve all asked a lot of questions. But the one that I hear asked so sincerely is this one: “Will things be OK?”

I stand here tonight confident that – working together – we can make them OK.

To make certain, we must all rise above harsh rhetoric and make sure the American Dream is within the reach of every American.

We must decide that opportunity is an unquestionable right, worthy of our best efforts.

So everyone sees the value in the differences that make us a nation unlike any other, a patchwork quilt sewn with threads of many colors.

So we understand that seeing the world in any other way is as unproductive as it is immoral.

We will accomplish these things through partnerships, like the ones represented here tonight. Partnerships that are stronger than any individual.

We must continue to work for what our current President calls the “essential promise of America.”

“As a nation, we don’t promise equal outcomes,” he said. “But we were founded on the idea that everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

He went on to say: “No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. Where you start should not determine where you end up.”

That is the American Dream.

That’s the America we must all work to uphold.

For inspiration, we will continue to look to the National Urban League and to the women, men and companies we honor tonight.

Thank you. goldbrown2


Every morning, wake up to the blog that gives you the latest trends shaping tomorrow.

Visit David Abney's Linkedin profile page.
David Abney serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at UPS. Click the icon above to follow him on LinkedIn.

Click the RSS icon to subscribe to future articles by this author. RSS Feed