The issues of injustice, inequality and racism have risen to the forefront of the social consciousness following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that erupted throughout the U.S. and around the world. These events and RPM’s stance on them have very much been on my mind in recent weeks. Many organizations and their leaders have issued statements on these issues, while your leadership at the RPM corporate headquarters has been deliberately quiet.
Some of this silence has been driven by my personal style for addressing social issues, which is to put my head down, roll up my sleeves and get to work making a difference with little fanfare. I also wondered, “Who am I, as a well-to-do white man, to express my opinion on these matters and tell people what to do?” Plus, I was uncomfortable rushing out a generic statement that lacked substance. Instead, I wanted to be thoughtful in my response and propose real solutions to the deep-rooted issues faced by our society.
One of your fellow associates contacted our employee hotline and shared the opinion that the silence from the corporate office was sending the wrong message to employees. I’d like to thank this associate for having the courage to speak up. It helped me realize that my “lay low and do the work” philosophy—while well intended—was not having the desired effect.
I’d like you to know that the company you work for and its founding family are deeply concerned about the issues of injustice, inequality and racism. For decades, we have worked to make a difference at the corporate office, primarily by supporting urban education in Northeast Ohio, which is where RPM is headquartered. It is my belief that we can make the biggest impact in the lives of those who face social and economic disadvantages by providing access to a quality education and hope for a brighter future. We have devoted countless hours and have personally donated millions of dollars in support of educational initiatives. These efforts have positively impacted the lives of thousands of minority children from low-income communities. This includes support for Urban Community School, Metro Catholic School, the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, Progress with Chess, the Sullivan Scholars program, the Cleveland State University Sullivan/Deckard Scholars program and Miami University (of Ohio) scholarships focused on diversity.
In addition, through my leadership of the Ohio Governor’s Economic Advisory Board, we are working to address the economic impact COVID-19 has had on our state. We have learned that nearly 80% of those most impacted by the economic disruptions of the state-mandated shutdowns were Ohioans with incomes at or below $40,000, which disproportionately had a negative impact on minority populations. So, part of our work is focused on recommending programs to promote an inclusive recovery.
RPM’s activities extend well beyond the corporate headquarters. All around the world, our many businesses have programs of their own that offer opportunities for minorities. This issue of the newsletter includes stories from Tremco Roofing and StonCor South Africa, as well as a story about how we encourage diversity on our board of directors.
These initiatives are in keeping with RPM’s code of conduct, The Values and Expectations of 168, which we try to live by each and every day. The figure 168 is the number of hours in the week. It serves as a reminder that we must use the gift of life and the limited time we have been given to always do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons. I share these efforts with you because I want you to be proud of the company you work for.
While we should be proud of our actions, it is clearly not enough. If we are really going to be able to create positive and permanent change in our society, we must do two things. First, we need to think differently and find new approaches, because it is obvious that what we have been doing—no matter how well intentioned—is not working at the speed and scale that society demands. Second, we must have candid conversations about race, diversity and inclusion with presumed goodwill on the part of all involved. Only through such conversations can we find common ground.
I learned these lessons early in my career when I was working with others to establish the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine (CSSM), which had the goal of providing children within the struggling Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) with a world-class education. Nearly 85% of the district’s children are minorities—black, Hispanic or other non-white ethnicities. At that time, the district’s performance on educational metrics and graduation rates were poor and had been for many years. In order to break the cycle, we sought to create something that was vastly different from other schools in the district or anywhere in the world. CSSM was to be founded as a public-private partnership in collaboration with nine supporting institutions to offer a college-preparatory education for motivated, high-achieving students interested in entering science or health-related professions.
This effort spanned 18 months of challenging work that required the support of the Cleveland Teachers Union, two CMSD superintendents, and two City of Cleveland mayors. Just before we were set to begin our first year with a class of 100 freshmen, I was informed that newly elected Mayor Frank Jackson, who is an African American, would not sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlined the many critical differences we believed would make the high school a model for success. These differences included a board that had the ability to recruit, hire and fire the principal, and a set of criteria that would allow for up to 20% of the students to come from outside the City of Cleveland. I was able to arrange a meeting with Mayor Jackson in his office, and we talked casually for 10 minutes. In hindsight, I realized that he used the conversation to determine whether he could trust me and be forthright. I recall him telling me, “Mr. Sullivan, I cannot sign your MOU because my people tell me there are elements of this document that would allow for the establishment of an elite school for rich, suburban white kids using the City of Cleveland’s money.” The mayor’s candor and directness clearly indicated that he decided he could trust me. In a very brief moment of reflection, I decided that the mayor deserved the same candor from me, so I told him, “Mayor, I am a rich, suburban white parent and today not me, nor anybody who looks like me, would want to send their kids to any of your schools. But, wouldn’t it be great if we did?” The mayor looked at me and said, “Mr. Sullivan, I will sign your MOU,” and thus began the CSSM.
Pictured: The first graduating class of the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine
Today, it is one of the highest-performing schools within the district and the state. It has been nationally recognized by U.S. News and World Report as “One of America’s Best High Schools.” Most importantly, nearly 100% of its graduates attend college, with some being accepted into Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and others. This was all made possible because we dared to think differently and were able to have an honest discussion about race and diversity.
I do not know why the killing of George Floyd is the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Why not Breonna Taylor, who was brutally killed in her apartment by police, or Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted down and murdered by two white racists? Indignation about these deaths is certainly justified, but, by itself, it is not enough. Indignation must be paired with sustained action to result in meaningful change. At this moment, society is demanding a scale and pace of change to address racial injustice and inequality that we have not seen since the 1960s. To successfully meet this demand, we must commit ourselves to the presumption of goodwill and candor in communication evident in the discussion I had with Mayor Jackson more than a decade ago. And we must be willing to apply new approaches and new ideas to problems that we have struggled with since the founding of our nation.
I challenge each and every one of you to do something, no matter how big or small, to try and make a difference. Put your focus into something where you can have an impact. It can be something as simple as voting for political leaders who will address the issues of intolerance and racism. Or, you could volunteer for a non-profit that supports diversity initiatives. If you believe your efforts, as one person, cannot make much of an impact, consider the story of the girl who was walking along a beach covered for miles by thousands of starfish that had washed up in a storm. Whenever she came upon a starfish, she would pick it up and throw it back into the ocean. A man who was observing this said, “Little girl, there are too many of these starfish for you to make a difference.” She then picked up another, hurled it into the sea and replied, “I made a difference to that one. Didn’t I?” There can be a compounding effect of many small actions. If you change one life, you may well change the world.
Frank C. Sullivan
Chairman and CEO