Captain Willie D. Brown of Rockford, Illinois is a 25-year veteran of public service, a firefighter and founder of Internal Intelligence Group© LLC, which offers diversity and inclusion training. He’s no stranger to Madison as he regularly partners with Sun Prairie-based diversity consultancy The Davis Group. He is author of the book Diversity In Public Service: Facilitating A Discussion and a leading expert in Public Safety Services D & I training.
Rank your Top 5 MC’s. Thank you for asking! Finally, I get to go on record regarding the rap game. I’d like to preface by sharing my metric for ranking all-time greatest rappers which to me should include, among other things: longevity, innovation, and substance. (Drum roll) #5… Jay Z, #4…Fugees, #3…Uncle L, #2…Tupac, #1…ICE CUBE.It’s pretty safe to say that I dated myself with those answers. You really can’t win answering this question; having to leave off rappers such as NAS, KRS-1 etc… Come to think of it, I’ve never actually owned a rap album. Does that disqualify my answers?
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? Great question, “doubters” motivates me more for sure. In the sense that they fuel my drive and push me forward. Having said that let’s be clear; the supporters in my life are absolutely essential because they are what encourages and sustains me.
What does it mean to be Black in Rockford? For me? I was raised to be respectful to others, especially older ones and taught to put others first. Being raised in such a way caused me to adopt a servant leadership outlook on life, even before becoming aware of that management theory. The point being I am not moved to accomplish things with the mindset, “I’m doing this as a Black person.” When I’m involved in endeavors whether in Rockford or anywhere else, I’m trying to do my best and be the best period, not the best black person.
If you are asking me to give a generalization from a person of color’s perspective about Rockford, I imagine some people enjoy it. It’s large enough to offer restaurants and shopping. It is perfectly located between and in reach of other metro areas such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison. Also there is very little traffic to deal with. On the other hand, Rockford has a small town feel to it. People as well as surveys often rank Rockford very low because of the lack of inclusion and opportunity in the city. Rockford has come a long way from when I first moved here 25 years ago. Back then I was constantly reminded of the fact that I am Black.
One such experience shortly after moving to Rockford: I visited a dry cleaner on the east side near where I lived. Upon entering the store and placing my clothes on the counter, the soft-spoken elderly lady asked me, “Why don’t you take your clothes to a cleaner by where you live?” I was stunned; as a young professional firefighter I began wondering what other establishments serving the public feels that way. My reply was, “I live just a couple of minutes away, but if it is a problem, I will find another dry cleaner to take my clothing to, have a good day.” Being raised to always be respectful, and being so young, my immediate reaction was to politely walk away. Today I probably would’ve engaged her in conversation a bit more.
There was another occurrence within a few weeks of that incident. After working out and playing basketball one day at a local college, a faculty member introduced himself. We conversed for quite a while about where I was from, what brought me to town, when he jolted me by telling me to be careful because Rockford is a very “prejudice” town. The shock was due to the fact that this was his first time meeting me. Over the years we continued to be friendly and I came to know and respect him from our association at the school. While such encounters can happen anywhere, the point is they happened frequently to me here. The good thing is that Rockford has given me plenty of opportunities to help others widen their world view each time I’m engaged in such encounters.
What three leaders in Rockford under 50 have impressed you the most? I’m going to take that to mean “leaders” of perhaps a particular organization. Let me start by recognizing that there are many well-intentioned people working hard to improve their field, institution, and/or organization. So by not including someone on this list by no means diminishes their efforts. Keeping with my servant leadership value (1) I am impressed by ALL of the parents living within their means and instilling in their families the need to be loving, respectful, and hardworking. (2) Organization leaders that exemplify the fortitude to try to do what is right versus what is easy. One such person that I have had a chance to work with is Ron Clewer, the head of Rockford Housing Authority. I guess what I am trying to say, it is not a particular person that impresses me, rather a particular type of person.
What is the biggest stumbling block in turning the corner on racial disparities? The human inclination towards self-absorption. Some simple definitions of disparity are: a big difference, imbalance, unequal. From my experience I believe that an inability to see value in others—especially those different from us—can lead to treating others poorly. As humans it seems that we have a tendency to be absorbed in ourselves and partial towards those whom we are comfortable with. That is why it is so critical for agencies and organizations to conduct D&I (diversity and inclusion) training. The way we overcome such disparities is to first understand ourselves and our differences. So that we can then enhance intercultural wisdom, which is the capacity to recognize, interpret, and behaviorally adapt to multicultural situations and contexts. In other words, grow to appreciate, love, and respect our differences. At IIG we work with our clients to create extraordinary work teams and healthy work environments by means of such training.
What are the top three priorities in your life? These three things have remained consistent; I’ve come to learn of a greater happiness/contentment that comes from giving. So, (1) giving of myself to help and serve others, (2) caring for my family’s spiritual, physical, and emotional needs, and (3) waking up free of aches and pains (lol). Seriously, whatever I am doing whether at the firehouse my secular job, volunteering, or with family/friends, my priority is to use my energies to work for what is good towards others.
With all the challenges going on with relationships between police and communities of color, how do we start to solve the problems of mistrust each side has for each other? As the question implies there is room for everyone to make improvement! It is unfortunate that it is so difficult for everyone to see their own shortcomings, yet so easy to point the finger at others inadequacies. For example, I tell my children (now that they are a little older) if you do not like what was made for dinner…instead of complaining, you can get in there and cook dinner for everyone. So getting involved is one thing that can help. The other thing that always strengthens relationships is effective communication. Such communication involves active listening, being slow to be heard and quick to hear what others are saying and finding a way to meet them where they are as opposed to where we think they should be.
I reflect back when I became a firefighter and all I had was a high school diploma. Today with some training and a few certifications, young people with a high school diploma can put themselves in line for an entry level job in the public safety services. You may not become a millionaire, but the compensation along with benefits package is more than what many people realize; especially if they have never been exposed to such an opportunity.
On the other side of the coin these professions have not always been accessible to all segments of the community. It was not until the 1970’s that people of color and women were brought into these professions in numbers. Even when laws were changed to allow access, little if anything was done to prepare the institution for such a major cultural shift. Today only progressive departments seek out Cultural Literacy, Diversity and Inclusion, and Professional Development Training. While departments spend countless dollars and hours to train with ropes, technical rescue, and other specialty teams that are rarely used relatively speaking, little or no training is budgeted to help these professionals in the areas of Global and Cultural Effectiveness Competency when in fact we encounter and are called upon to use our social skills at a much higher percentage of the time. In fact, very few leaders and chief officers of these organizations are even trained in Intercultural Wisdom themselves. Training would go a long ways in starting to solve the problem of mistrust.
What made you to write your book, Diversity in the Public Sector: Facilitating a Discussion? My experience in the fire service is what led me to write the book. It really was intended to be a workbook aimed at providing the types of training I touched on above. When I conduct workshops I elaborate a bit on the particular experience that sparked my decision, so your readers will just have to attend one or those to hear about that experience. Again the options were to complain, ignore, or seek to do something positive to address a deficiency.
At the Wipfli national training conference you did a training in leading inclusive teams. Give us three tips on how to lead inclusive teams. Inclusion has to be an organizational value! All employees should be versed in and able to exercise Internal Intelligence©. Internal Intelligence Training© identifies and exposes human emotions that drive our thinking and actions when dealing with and in diverse groups. Second leadership/management must buy into the importance of inclusive teams. Finally, like any other skill that is performed on a continual basis, ongoing training must be provided for personnel. At IIG we work with our clients to create extraordinary work teams and healthy work environments by means of Internal Intelligence© development. Think about it this way: can you imagine a paramedic never practicing CPR skills, an officer never practicing marksmanship, or a firefighter never practicing pumping operations? If these professionals failed to train in such competencies, don’t you agree that it would be reasonable to conclude that they were setting up for failure? The same is true with Cultural Literacy. Interacting with the public is a primary duty of virtually all public safety servants; the gap between training needed and offered is the reason I founded the Internal Intelligence Group©.
What was it like growing up in Beloit? Like I mentioned above, I had a happy childhood. I was surrounded by friends and family. We played outside all day. Relatively speaking our family took some memorable family vacations.
Better legacy: Tim Duncan or Lebron? Hands down Tim Duncan! I have never personally met Lebron, but I would like to think that he would answer unequivocally in the same way. By the way Duncan comes across to me as a servant leader type player, the way he handled his career.
What was the better movie: The Godfather or New Jack City and why? Wow! While I am familiar with both movies, neither is the type of movie I would consider as great movies. I have always had an issue with glorifying criminals as heroes. I prefer true stories and documentaries, and just about anything with Don Cheadle in it. I would like to write a documentary on the fire service…one day, maybe one day.