A group of local companies has come together to support a new initiative that looks at diversity and equity in the business community.
Monteith Construction Corp., Live Oak Bank, nCino, LS3P Associates Ltd., Novant Health, Atlantic Packaging, Zimmer Development Co. and the Camp Schreiber Foundation, are backing the Initiative 1897, the first public project coming out of ThoughtBox.
ThoughtBox is a nonprofit think tank co-founded in 2019 by Monteith CEO John Monteith and Susie Sewell, according to a recent news release.
“ThoughtBox is about adding in the concept of justice to our philanthropic thinking,” Sewell, executive director of Camp Schreiber Foundation and ThoughtBox COO, said in the release. “We weren’t entirely sure what ThoughtBox would grow into, but it was created as a vehicle to address the systemic issues facing our community, rather than treat the symptoms."
Initiative 1897 is a project to bring together area businesses to have conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion.
The initiative builds off the notion that Wilmington was once a leader in the state for being a prosperous, diverse business community, before the 1898 massacre and the only successful coup d’etat in American history changed the region's culture for future decades.
“1897 is a piece of the story that is often overlooked. For a brief period of time, Wilmington was an outlier in the post-Reconstruction American South,” Monteith said in the release. “There was notable diversity in business, government, and politics, and that is precisely why Wilmington was the leading city in the State. Initiative 1897 celebrates the Black individuals that drove the growth that made Wilmington the largest city in North Carolina during that time period."
The company supporters are having ongoing discussions around diversity and inclusion in the workforce and gauging what changes could be made among their own companies to better support diversity in their workplaces.
For the past year, local executives in those businesses have been coming together behind the scenes, meeting in small groups and over Zoom to discuss the issue as part of Initiative 1897, officials said in the release.
Monteith said the initiative’s future goals are still in the works.
One of the first businesses to join the group was Live Oak Bank, officials said in the release.
“At Live Oak Bank when we see complex issues that need solving, we like to run to them. Initiative 1897 sheds light on Wilmington’s history in a new way and we are privileged to be part of this opportunity to strive for justice when it can be hard and uncomfortable,” said Live Oak Bank President Huntley Garriott in the release.
The initiative’s first project was a recent art exhibit.
As part of their involvement in Initiative 1897, businesses commissioned portraits of prominent Black men and women living in Wilmington during the post-Reconstruction era, stated the release.
"We believe this is more than a painting and a conversation, this is a journey to open minds, hearts and pour energy into change," Garriott said.
Corporate partners commissioned nine large-scale portraits, part of the “Continuum of Change Exhibition,” which is currently on display at 216 N. Front St. The exhibit, which opened July 9, runs through Aug. 27.
“We need to confront and unwind the lasting impacts of 1898, and we’re using art as a starting point to do just that,” Sewell said.
Dare Coulter, an award-winning artist, muralist and sculptor, was one of several artists who produced a portrait for the exhibit.
"The idea that these pieces are on display in a place where a whole race of people were intentionally dismantled is something that is so important. For Wilmington and its particular history, you already have difficulty with the level of acknowledgment of the massacre and the role the government played in it. But you also have people who live in the space today and have to grapple with this thing that they can feel in the air but they don't necessarily know what the weirdness of this place is, and that fact that it is the site of a massacre is something that's really important," Coulter said in the release.
The portraits will ultimately hang in the offices of Initiative 1897 business supporters.
Philip Brown, chief community impact officer at Novant Health, noted in the release that Wilmington was once home to both the first male and female African American physicians licensed to practice medicine in North Carolina.
"Yet today we struggle to recruit a health care provider workforce that mirrors the population of our community,” Brown said in the release. “Initiative 1897 represents a powerful catalyst to recreate Wilmington as an environment welcoming to all people and capable of attracting top talent that will propel us into a prosperous future.”
The initiative’s corporate group also partnered with Michael Williams, of the Black on Black Project, a separate project that produces exhibitions, short films, events and programs “aimed at encouraging dialogue among all members of the community,” stated the release.
"The artwork in 'Continuum of Change' will hopefully serve as an on-ramp for us to better connect the past to the present and help galvanize and inspire the partner companies to keep looking for more ways to bring about equitable changes within their organizations and in the communities, each one serves,” Williams said in the release.
Williams has hosted gatherings with the companies in the new gallery space to have conversations around the issue and learn about the history behind the artwork.
The companies will continue the conversations, find ways to take action on their discussions and could get more companies involved, Monteith said.
“This was a project about what we do. The art was the invitation and the focus to open the conversation and bring attention to this topic,” Monteith said. “I think the big thing is agreeing that this is a conversation that needs to happen. And there is strength in numbers. When you put powerful companies behind an idea, it garners attention. It carries influence. And there is a collective will amongst these partners, and well beyond these partners, to change the trajectory for Wilmington on the issues of diversity and equity and inclusion."
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