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AFSOC staff continues dialogue on race

  • Published
  • By Staff Reports
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs

Two Air Force Special Operations Command directorates recently hosted internal listening sessions on the subject of race, to better understand the challenges faced by their Airmen and civilian teammates.

The communications directorate and personnel directorate sponsored group-led sessions amid a new era where more senior military leaders are speaking openly on racial tensions and encouraging people to listen and be more thoughtful to those who come from different backgrounds.

Both directorates were inspired to continue the discussions after attending an AFSOC Commander-hosted session on institutional racism.

“I saw the AFSOC session on institutional racism on my calendar and I didn’t know what to think of it,” said Ms. Gina Gammick, AFSOC executive director of Manpower and Personnel. “But I went back to my team after the session, and just started sharing thoughts on hearing the stories of people I know telling me the everyday struggles they face based on who they are.”

Gammick shared her observations from the sessions which spurred more interest among her team.

“At first, just one or three people stopped by and listened to me, then more,” said Gammick. “That’s when I knew we had to take this conversation to a larger audience.”

The initial AFSOC commander-led session represented the first steps and encouraged directors to keep moving forward.

“It means a lot to me seeing senior leadership starting the conversation and admitting they don’t have all the answers,” said Col. Michael Cote, AFSOC Director of Communications. “There is value in showing vulnerability, seeing him [Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of AFSOC] stuck on certain tough issues. It lets us know that we need to speak and not be afraid if we can’t find the perfect words.”

Gammick and Cote consulted with their teams and sponsored group-led sessions that also complied with COVID-19 public health safety measures. Both directors were humbled and appreciated the lessons shared in those forums.

“I think there was an assumption by some that things were better than they were, because we don’t live that experience every day,” said Cote. “We know racism or discrimination exists, maybe we just didn’t know or didn’t think to ask our teammates that have been personally impacted by it. But once you hear it from them, it changes you and suddenly you realize there is more progress to be made.”

The call for action within the command staff quickly became apparent.

“I have a very diverse team in the command,” said Gammick. “I am seeing this conversation and realizing the need to listen to one another was long overdue.”

According to the directors, the stories shared were wide ranging. Some Airmen of color shared past experiences of unfair treatment by some members of the law enforcement community, or suspicion by strangers likely based on their physical appearance. There were also some who shared how their parents’ reinforced racist beliefs early in their childhood and those beliefs were sometimes accompanied by physical abuse.

The difficult, awkward and painful discussions helped each leader examine their own pasts.

“As my career developed, I experienced ‘we don’t talk about the hard subjects at work,’” said Gammick. “The things that affect you outside of work, it was assumed that you don’t mention that at work. But we are each other’s wingman, we are here to help one another. We work day in, day out and sadly, in some places, there is total lack of awareness that Airmen are going through racial discrimination or other forms of unequal treatment.”

Across the command a new approach of listen, learn and lead is taking root and driving some leaders to reconsider their past leadership styles and past efforts at diversity and inclusion.

“Looking back on the subject of inclusion, I thought I must be doing okay, because my team represented multiple backgrounds,” said Cote. “But what I realize now, is I under-appreciated what they experienced and the stresses and traumas they endured based on how others saw them.”

The dialogues also made the teams consider ways to move forward.

“All families should have more discussions on this issue,” said Cote. “If we want to make meaningful changes, we need to talk more often and start at home. As a white man, these are discussions I didn’t have with my kids and I realize there are pains and everyday traumas that I simply didn’t think about.”

Both directors shared optimism for the future, rooted in a new understanding of the problems and injustices faced by fellow Airmen.

“I know there are things I will do individually, but the responsibility is on people taking a collective responsibility,” said Cote. “I can’t have discussions on someone else’s behalf to spur thought, but leaders taking the leap helps remove the fear of discussing this subject.”