2000-12-08 Holland Sentinel Speaker tells racism summit groups to catch the vision

Speaker tells racism summit groups to catch the vision
Holland Sentinel

Catch the vision.

Those simple words from Rachelle Hood-Phillips are profound and powerful.

She can’t hid the enthusiasm she has for what the world could be like without prejudice and intolerance.

“Catch the vision of what could be,” she told a packed auditorium at Hope College’s DeWitt Center on Friday.

Hood-Phillips is chief diversity officer of Advantica Restaurant Group, Inc., which included the Denny’s restaurant chain. Denny’s faced class action lawsuits and a Justice Department investigation over charges of discriminatory practices in the mid-1990s.

Hood-Phillips was in town to fire up the troops leading to the Feb. 13 Ottawa Area Summit on Racism.

The summit in the start of a five-year process to break down barriers faced by people of color, and to foster cultural diversity and racial healing in the Ottawa area.

Her audience: 150 invited community leaders in business, education, religion, government, community organizations, health care and media.

After Hood-Phillps’ keynote address the community leaders broke up into several smaller groups to develop a vision of what a prejudice-free Ottawa area could look like, and what role they should play in the effort to dismantle the barriers to a racially inclusive community.

Hoods-Phillips detailed her major role in helping transform the Denny’s organization.

In 1995, new CEO Jim Adamson tapped Hood-Phillips to tackle the overall problem and report to him and she was determined to succeed.

“I was not about to look bad,” she said.

One of the most important actions an organization can do is establish and enforce a clear nondiscrimination policy.

Upon examining Denny’s operations she discovered the company had no such policy.

The company then adopted a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

If you are an employee and you discriminate, you will be fired, she said, and if you have a franchise and you discriminate, you will lose the franchise.

One of the early goals was to establish a more diverse board of directors.

“In a short time, we saw the complexion of the company change,” she said.

In 1993 the board of directors was made up entirely of white men. Today, women and people of color represent 46 percent of the board.

Education and training are important for every member of the organization, from cooks to servers on up to the members of the board,

“It’s a part of the answer. It’s not the sole answer,” she said.

She said the inner structures of a company – “the system” – must be examined, torn down and rebuilt to foster diversity.

It’s then important to monitor and measure results, and celebrate successes.

Denny’s developed the first public service announcement targeting diversity and prejudice. After the ads began running on television “our sales went through the roof” – something that was not expected, she said.

The changes at Denny’s have been so sweeping that Fortune magazine ranked Denny’s and Advantica first in its latest survey of the “50 Best US Companies for Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics.”

Hood-Phillips said, “It’s really a new day at Denny’s.”