The last two years have been among the most turbulent in the history of the United States. A devastating pandemic along with social and political unrest prompted industries and institutions to re-examine themselves to see if the values of diversity, equity and inclusion that they profess on paper are consistent with how they are practiced on a daily basis.
As a journalist working in the world of politics and golf simultaneously, I wrote articles that addressed these issues in golf. One piece identified some of the inequalities that are still prevalent in golf and suggested ways to address them. I also wrote of my experience of being in the room when a PGA Tour professional joked about wearing blackface and how it exposed a blind spot that existed in that person and, to some extent, throughout the game of golf.
I truly appreciate what the game has done in my life and believe in what it can do for others, so it was impossible to view the calls for accelerated change in our society at large and not want to see that change manifested in the game and the business of golf.
History teaches us that change comes when there is a movement, a tide of action that cannot be resisted. But every movement starts with a moment, an event or occurrence that puts the movement in motion.
I believe that the Lead Golf Together Summit was such a moment. The conference, the brainchild of NGCOA CEO Jay Karen, was conceived to address the appalling lack of diversity on the boards and C-suites of golf’s organizations. The leadership of golf’s governing bodies (including the USGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA) convened to gain understanding of why the diversity gap exists and to receive practical information on how to implement effective diversity practices in their organizations. Jay introduced the idea to me almost two years ago, and it was largely his passion for the issue and determination to hold the event despite extraordinary challenges that led to the idea becoming a reality.
Even for a well-oiled event machine like NGCOA, this event presented a unique set of challenges. The logistical challenges of holding an in-person event in the Covid-era were daunting enough, and it was agreed early on that either the meeting would be held in person or not at all. That position led to multiple postponements as Covid restrictions made in-person meetings impossible. But perhaps the greater challenge was to impress upon the game's current leadership that having their organization’s presence at a meeting such as this would provide an exponential boost to the advancement to the game’s DEI goals at every level. The number of calls, emails and video chats made to educate, persuade and confirm the attendance of key leaders numbered in the hundreds, maybe thousands. It was well worth the effort.
To have golf’s governing bodies convene specifically to address diversity at the top levels of the game was a first. Another unique feature of the meeting was the attendance of the leaders of some of the most effective grassroots organizations in the country. These organizations have worked tirelessly to bring golf to new constituencies but had not previously been a part of high-level discussions of how change is implemented in the game. At the LGT Summit, the organizations were “in the room” for the first time, including representatives and leaders from the PGA of America, USGA, LPGA, NGCOA, World Golf Foundation, GCSAA, International Association of Golf Administrators (IAGA), Women of Color Golf (WOCG), Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA), Black Girls Golf, Midnight Golf Program, Latina Golfers Association, and more. They provided essential advice and perspective to the conversation.
The LGT Summit also was the beneficiary of a distinguished slate of guest speakers. I felt that it was important to have speakers who were extremely successful outside of golf tell the story of their successes and challenges with DEI, and those leaders answered the call admirably. Political icons (Rep. James Clyburn), business titans (Sheila Johnson and Ray Halbritter), golf legends (Renee Powell), market leaders (Robin Herrington of Nike) and leading academics (David Douglass of the University of Chicago and Maurice Jones of the One Ten Project) gave insight into their rise to the top of their respective fields and provided expert analysis and practical examples of success in leadership diversification.
I was honored to also address the group, and my main message was that diversity, equity and inclusion are not just good behavior; they are also good business. Statistics show that companies that have diverse leadership are more productive, more creative and are held in higher public regard than those with homogenous leadership. My goal is to help organizations understand that having diverse populations and a guarantee of equitable outcomes is critical to their long-term success.
But perhaps the most impactful message was delivered by Valentino Dixon, who spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. While in prison, Dixon began drawing golf courses and those drawings brought attention to both his extraordinary artistic talent and his unjust imprisonment. After 28 years he was exonerated and released; he is now a celebrated artist whose works are commissioned by some of the most prestigious golf destinations in the world. Dixon’s story is a story of heartbreak, perseverance and of triumph. It is one of the most dramatic examples of what so many know to be true about that golf, that access to the game and the people who play it has the potential to profoundly change lives.
The Lead Golf Together Summit was indeed a special moment, where powerful new relationships were formed, and common goals and ideals were identified. But as it is with all meaningful change, it will take time and persistence for golf to look like America at the top levels. We are not there yet, but every story starts at the beginning.