tampabay.com

Strides made, but many more steps ahead

A corporate executive recalls the early days of the civil rights movement. But he knows the struggle isn't over.

By PAUL JEROME
Published March 18, 2007


Cyrus Jollivette, 60, has lived in Florida for most of his life. Eighty-four years ago, his Bahamian uncle founded the Miami Times, a black newspaper that's the largest African-American weekly in the Southeast. He was its managing editor from 1977 to 1983. Jollivette is a lawyer who spent 25 years as an administrator at the University of Miami. Not long after retiring in 2001, he was lured to Jacksonville by BlueCross BlueShield of Florida, where he is senior vice president for public affairs. BlueCross Blue Shield holds about one-third of the state's health insurance industry. He spoke recently with Times staff writer Paul Jerome.

Was there one particular occurrence that started us down the path to what today is diversity?

I don't think there was a single watershed event. I think the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) caused the nation and its citizens and organizations to begin to address the issue of unequal access. I am old enough to remember seeing President Lyndon Johnson sign those bills into law. I think that legislation allowed the nation and corporate America to acknowledge unequal access. And here we are more than four decades later, and there is still a lot to be done to foster both attitudinal and behavioral change. We are not there yet. I don't know if we'll be there in my lifetime.

When many others claiming minority status jumped on the civil rights bandwagon, how did that affect the desired results for the group that was traditionally disenfranchised?

Whenever you have to spread the peanut butter over a larger piece of bread, there is less to spread. So to that extent, I would agree that there has been less focus. I think that other minority groups found that there was an opportunity to get their issues raised to higher levels because of all the dialogue surrounding blacks from a social, political and business standpoint. People saw a way to grab a piece of the action, so to speak.

How do you view the changes in the landscape where we went from affirmative action, which caused a lot of static, to today's buzzword, diversity, which some may regard as a euphemism?

It's not a euphemism. The landscape hasn't changed sufficiently. We have made a lot of progress in overcoming the role stereotypes about African-Americans, but there is still a long road ahead. Here we are in the third millennium, and I have got to still say that race is a factor in America. In far fewer instances than in the past perhaps, but I still think that people see race in far too many situations.

Didn't you benefit from affirmative action in some way or some form, perhaps in the early going?

I have been a very, very lucky guy. I get up early every morning and always have all my life and start my day to prepare for what it is that I have to do. And I go to bed very late at night. I work hard. I set goals. And I establish plans to attain my goals. Everybody's situation is different. In some measure in the early years affirmative action may have played a very, very small role in some things that happened that broke well for me when I was starting my career. But as I got into my career and I (developed) a track record, I firmly believe that I earned everything I was able to gain. No one gave me anything, and I worked very, very hard.

What's the essence of diversity at BlueCross BlueShield of Florida?

At our company there is an absolute and sincere commitment from the senior leadership. It starts with the chairman and CEO. Everybody understands it - from the executive ranks to people in the lower rungs of the corporation. We focus on the creation of an inclusive environment where every employee is respected, valued and trusted. We have a desire to serve all Floridians in a culturally competent manner. And we would not be able to do that if we did not have diversity in our corporation. This is one of the most diverse states in the nation. It is growing more and more diverse every day. And in the business that we are in we have to be competent to speak the language of the customer, and there are many languages or cultural differences. For us to be successful we have to be culturally competent.