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Deborah Elam

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday hosted a half-day summit highlighting diversity and inclusion in the 21st century workplace.

The summit was held on June 19, also known as Juneteenth, the celebrated anniversary of Texas abolishing slavery in 1865, and featured breakout sessions led by industry professionals and a lunch program keynoted by diversity expert Deborah Elam.

"It is so encouraging to hear the focus the Chamber of Commerce is putting on creating opportunities for all the people in our community to thrive academically and economically," WTVC-Channel 9 Anchor Greg Funderburg said ahead of the keynote. "We recognize that it hasn't always been this way and we recognize that a legacy of a lack of access to prosperity makes the chamber's inclusion initiatives even more welcomed and appreciated."

Elam, who worked as General Electric's chief diversity officer, shared her experiences as GE's first black female corporate officer to offer advice on strengthening diversity to local professionals, emphasizing the importance of steady, intentional progress.

"One of the things that people say a lot is 'They're not walking the talk.' I believe in walking toward the talk," Elam said. "There's a nuance to it, but it's not absolute. It's not 'Did you do it?' or 'Didn't you do it?' it's 'Are you moving the dial?'"

In the discussion moderated by journalist Varion Walton, Elam told the crowd that intentionality and assurance in your own belonging are important factors in promoting inclusion.

"Whatever room I was in was the room I belonged in," she said. "It didn't take rocket science. It just took some intentionality. ... Sometimes, people get all funky when you think about diversity as a zero-sum game, that it's you versus me, that it's your piece of the pie versus my piece of the pie, but my view is that we're just expanding the pie."

During the discussion, Elam fielded questions from attendees, including Shawanna Kendrick with the Hamilton County District Attorney General's office, who asked Elam to speak to the difficulties that marginalized professionals face after they've earned a "seat at the table."

"For those of us who are already in positions of change, for those of us who are already active, it becomes exhausting at times," Kendrick said. "It doesn't feel sometimes that I'm welcomed to the table. It feels as though I'm there because they need me at the table."

Elam said it's important for those promoting diversity and inclusion to practice self care so that they are able to put their best selves forward.

"I can't tell you how many people, and women in particular, and women of color even more, do not prioritize themselves. We are important and we matter and what we are bringing to the table can't be its best if you are not at your best," Elam said, comparing work-life balance to applying an oxygen mask on an airplane. "You can't do anything for anybody else if you don't take care of you."

"As you continue having these discussions and you're on this journey, two things: Be encouraged in what you've done so far and lean into discomfort," she concluded. "We all have a level of discomfort in this topic, we all do. Lean into it, don't be afraid. Walk toward the talk."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.