Leaders of some of Chattanooga's largest employers gathered at City Hall on Thursday to throw their collective support behind a pledge for racial equity, calling the focus an economic imperative.
"U.S. Xpress has about 2,000 employees in the local community, and we have about 10,000 nationwide, and we have announced publicly that we intend on doubling our company in four years," said U.S. Xpress CEO Eric Fuller. "We know in order to accomplish our goals we have to attract the right talent, and that talent needs to be diverse and inclusive."
The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce unveiled the pledge this week, and about 50 area business leaders have signed it, as well as Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly.
"This commitment isn't something we should take lightly," Kelly said at the gathering Thursday. "Signing a pledge cannot be the end. We have to get to work, and as mayor I feel a fierce sense of urgency for action and lasting change."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who didn't attend the event, said he is more interested in actions than pledges.
"I've been involved in politics a long time, and the one thing that I've learned is not to sign pledges," Coppinger said. "They can be misinterpreted, sometimes they're divisive. What matters the most to me is, what have we done?"
Coppinger pointed to efforts including an EPB partnership to provide free internet connections for all Hamilton County students receiving free or reduced lunches, and work by Tech Goes Home to provide resources for virtual learning centers.
"I do believe, and always have, that the best path out of poverty that helps with equity is education," Coppinger said. "I worked with [Hamilton County Schools Superintendent] Bryan Johnson quite a bit to make some of these things happen."
The CEO Pledge for Racial Equity includes a commitment to "educate ourselves and share the history of systemic racism in Chattanooga and Hamilton County and the barriers that continue, so that as we recognize them, we can find new ways to overcome them." It also includes a pledge to "improve the employment, training, advancement, support, and success of people of color in our workforces."
At the kickoff Thursday, Chanda Chambers, owner and president of Chambers Welding and Fabrication, said business leaders need to make sure they are creating space for people who might not be included if someone doesn't advocate for them.
"I'm part of the diversity of this city," Chambers said. "I own a welding business, which is in a male-populated field, and one of the things I wanted to do, the reason I took the pledge, is I wanted to see more people that look like me in the profession.
"There are so many we need to look upon and make sure we're making room for them to sit at the table. I was given that opportunity, and it is my pledge to give it to others."
Rick McKenney, CEO of Unum, said the business employs about 2,800 people at its Chattanooga headquarters, but needs to attract and retain employees in a globally competitive environment.
"We've hired over 100 so far this year, and so for us to continue to be able to do that, we need to make sure we are operating in a city that's not only able to attract people from all over this country but also be able to retain them, people feel they're included."
Janelle Reilly, CEO for CHI Memorial, said the hospital is launching a partnership with the medical school at Morehouse College, a historically Black university in Atlanta. By inviting Morehouse medical students to complete their training at CHI Memorial, the hospital will support the increase in the number of Black physicians in the community, Reilly said.
"Research shows a higher number of minority physicians serving the community positively impacts the health of the minority and underserved populations," she said.
Paul Leath, director of regional operations for the Chattanooga Gas Co., a subsidiary of Southern Co., said the business considers diversity a competitive advantage, and that the company's leadership team is 57% diverse.
"But we can do more, and we're committed to increasing our supplier diversity to 30% for all Southern Company gas utilities," Leath said.
Contact Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.