Podcast featuring Ashley K. Taylor, D.B.A., Faculty Member, School of Business and
Dr. Sukeena Stephens, Uniformed Division of the Federal Air Marshal Service
What has it been like being a Black woman working in law enforcement for more than two decades? In this episode, APU professor Dr. Ashley Taylor talks to Dr. Sukeena Stephens about her extensive 24-year law enforcement career working in correctional, immigration and federal law enforcement agencies.
Learn about her struggle to get a seat at the table in a white male-dominated field, the disparities she sees when it comes to special assignments and promotional opportunities, and the impact this inequity has on employees who don’t feel supported or recognized by leadership. Learn why senior leaders must have difficult conversations about inequality and work to change their circle of influence in order to create inclusive organizations that better represent America and the communities they serve.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I’m Dr. Ashley Taylor, and I’m discussing equity, diversity, and inclusion with Dr. Sukeena Stephens. While this has been an issue in organizations that has been long swept under the rug, it’s coming to the fore more now before than ever. In this episode, I’m going to discuss one leader’s perspective. Dr. Stephens, thank you for agreeing to discuss this extremely relevant topic with me.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Good morning, and thank you for the invitation.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Absolutely. Tell the audience a little bit about yourself and your professional background.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Well first, I’m from Brooklyn, New York. I always like to start off with where I came from, and where I will continue to be part of my life. I have 24 years of federal law enforcement experience. I’m married with two sons. I currently manage the Uniformed Division of the Federal Air Marshal Service.
Prior to that, I’ve been a correctional officer. I’ve been an immigration officer. I’ve been on the streets, so my law enforcement experience has taken me from a local city to now federal. I have a great expand of law enforcement experience in different environments.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Can you tell us a little bit about your educational background?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I have a Bachelor’s degree from Utica College and Syracuse University. My Master’s from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and my doctorate is from Walden University in Public Policy and Administration with a Homeland Coordination concentration.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I can see how that really supports your professional background.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Yes, it has. I have a collateral duty managing my agency’s response to emergencies such as hurricanes, most recently to the COVID response. The main focus is keeping the airports open, so Homeland Security coordination has really come in handy in making sure that our airports remain open in whatever emergencies that we face and that whatever region it is, if it’s nationwide like COVID did, making sure that the airports remain open. It really did come in handy.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Now that we know a little bit about you, let’s talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion. What are some of the disparities you’ve observed in your line of work as it relates to diversity?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I think the reoccurring things that I have seen is the special assignments that just come about, that there’s no notice of the special assignments. There’s no posting of, “Hey, is anyone interested?” and then all of a sudden, somebody’s named in that position.
Also in promotions. I’ve seen, because of somebody’s race and gender, they’re pushed or encouraged to take on assignments or they just miraculously appear in positions, or are just given a pass in terms of even discipline-wise. Those are the two biggest things that I’ve seen throughout my career.
It’s not germane to any one position or any one agency, but that’s been the current theme, that somebody does miraculously get pushed and encouraged to take on this assignment. Then they’re there. And because of that one assignment, I’m in a better position to take on other assignments.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: You mentioned special assignments. Could you clarify for our listeners what those things are?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I’ll give you an example. We recently did a coordination with another federal law enforcement agency and all of a sudden, a certain individual was named in that position, but that position was never announced so people could apply.
They just automatically, “Here, this assignment came about. We’re going to put so-and-so in the position”. There was never a recruitment. There was never an advanced notice saying, “Hey, are you interested?” Only select individuals are named or placed in those positions.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I see what you’re saying. So, that’s where that pass that you’ve mentioned before comes in. The position was filled without even reviewing the pool of available and qualified candidates.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Nobody even had an opportunity to be a part of that pool of qualified individuals.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: What do you think is the underlying cause of these disparities?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: For one, it’s definitely an unconscious bias that’s there. I also believe that there’s a disconnect between equality, and equity, and fairness, and I think people are used to dealing with, or having a relationship with people who look like them, so they automatically go with what’s safe.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Do you think that is something that is specific to your line of work, or across the board?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I think it’s across the board. Everybody wants to be around people that are safe, and I think that’s what the problem is. I see it more in law enforcement because it’s still mainly a man’s world in law enforcement. So the people who are there, they tend to support, recommend, encourage, and push the ones that look like them.
Of course, women are very, I mean, even in 2021, we only make up a small section of law enforcement officers. Then when we look into minority, in terms of the background, it’s even smaller, so you feel comfortable pushing and encouraging your own.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I’ve definitely seen that in corporate America. When I was doing my research for my dissertation, I interviewed a group of women talking about their experiences, and where you mentioned that people go with what’s comfortable or who looks like them, or who they feel like they can relate to, rather than going through, like I said, the available qualified pool of candidates just because one, it may seem easier. It feels more comfortable. And specific to your line of work where that is, like you said, more of a male-dominated industry that just seems to carry on. We go with who we know, with what we like, and who we’re comfortable with.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Absolutely. Rarely, there’s another female or there’s another black person that’s on the table, and if they’re on the table, you notice not one, but the majority, still white males rule law enforcement, and that what’s been sitting at the table. There’s very little room to move over and allow somebody else a seat at the table.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: To sort of summarize that, the underlying cause would be the patriarchal society that pervades that industry?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Yes, ma’am.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Why do you think it’s important for organizations to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: It’s important because it stifles creativity. Diversity is already proven to boost innovation and, of course, it increases the company’s bottom line. Organizations that appear to tolerate racist behavior create a lack of safety net for their employees.
Employees, if they don’t feel like they’re a part of the company, then they’re disengaged. They don’t want to work. Then they eventually have higher staff turnover, and then there’s, “I don’t want to come to work, because I don’t really feel comfortable here,” so it increases absenteeism.
Then if things are bothering you to the point where you take it internally, then you go into the doctor because you’re not feeling well. All that increases in areas where it affects the bottom line.
You also have how we’re seen by the outside, right? We all saw when H&M had the t-shirt “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with a black young man in a sweatshirt, and how quickly nationwide, international was like, “Wait a minute, what are you doing?” Yes, they came back and said, “Hey, I’m sorry about it,” but we saw how quickly that discourse almost ruined H&M for that mistake. Even though it was a mistake and they said, “I got it wrong,” it was not tolerated, and of course it hurt the bottom line.
When employees don’t feel supported at work, innovation suffers, and the employees suffer, and basically it hurts the bottom line of the company. It’s not just one company, right? You can say, “Well, who cares about that company?”, but there’s also an economy, and also in terms of productivity, it just trickles down.
If you’re in this workplace and you’re not feeling good and you don’t like what’s happening here, you bring it home. You bring it home, and it continues into the family, and then it continues into your neighborhoods, and it continues to the children. So, it’s an ongoing problem that continues and affects us as a whole. It’s not just an individual thing. It’s a society thing, a systemic thing that we really need to fix.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: That’s very deep to talk about what’s taking place in the organization itself, and how it affects every other aspect of society. Like you mentioned, you’ll have the employees feeling disengaged and not included, and then the wheels aren’t turning as much for that innovation because, “Why bother? Who’s going to hear my idea? Will it be integrated?”
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: “Who wants to hear? Who wants to hear my idea? Nobody cares. All I’m doing here is checking a box.”
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I think it’s also important for organizations to represent the communities that they serve, especially in positions of leadership. When you have an organization in law enforcement, the communities that they serve need to see people like them.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Absolutely. We’ve seen that over and over again. We saw it in Ferguson. We saw it in different cities where we look at the law enforcement, look at that police force, and realize the neighborhoods that they service and nobody looks like them, and then they want to know, “Why is there this fear?”
Well, there’s this fear because you don’t understand it. You don’t understand that, say for example, I’m from Brooklyn, New York. There’s a huge Caribbean population, and if you’re not used to Haitians speaking very loud and with their hands and everything else, you approach that area or you approach these two individuals, and you swear they were in a fight and not understanding that’s how they communicate with each other. Their arms are flailing, and they’re speaking fast and stuff like that. If you’re not part of that area, you’re not familiar with it, you automatically think it’s a fight, not knowing that they were talking about a soccer match.
That’s why it’s important for the law enforcement to reflect to communities that they serve. Come out of the car, come out of the station, and actually look and try to assimilate with them and understand what that look like.
We also saw studies where it’s not uncommon to be in Harlem, and you see individuals seeing a police officer, and automatically run. Why? Because there’s this fear. Would you have seen that in the suburbs of Virginia? Absolutely not. But because of the past and what these people experienced, it basically shapes how they perceive law enforcement today. It has to be an understanding both ways.
You have to understand that when you approach people, there is this fear. There is a fear of, a lot of us understand what driving black is. There’s this automatically fear of what is going to happen. “Am I going to make it through this car stop?”
Yes, it’s the most important and the scariest aspect of being in law enforcement. It’s doing that car stop because I might have pulled you over for a busted tail light. However, in the Timothy McVeigh situation, when that cop pulled over Timothy McVeigh, it was for a traffic stop. He had no idea that Timothy McVeigh just blew up the building.
It takes both law enforcement, but also people for both of them to have an understanding of where they’re coming from, and to understand that, “Hey, maybe I need to approach the situation this way. Maybe I need to understand that Haitians speak very loud and their arms are flailing, and not automatically assume that they’re fighting”, or understand that there’s this tremendous fear of law enforcement.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Yeah, that understanding is very important. What do you think some of the long-term consequences are for an organization that ignores this, that ignores the necessity of equity, diversity, and inclusion?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: First of all, it’s a lack of growth of the organization. This is 2021. If you don’t realize that it takes all of us, and you have to have an inclusive organization, then I don’t expect you to be here and I don’t plan to be here around much longer, as the loss of funding from your stakeholders, your customers.
Americans want brands to take a stand and to speak out on racial injustice. It’s going to affect your bottom line. Economic Policy Institute recently did a study that shows that black workers remain twice as likely as unemployed as white workers, even though the economy has changed. It’s because the pattern has existed for more than 40 years. Even though the economy is getting stronger, you haven’t dealt with this pattern that for 40 years, it’s a systemic problem. That black workers are less likely than white workers to be employed in a job that is consistent with their level of education.
What that’s looking at is that racial discrimination remains a factor, and that’s a major failure in terms of the economic market, and despite a tight labor market. Why is that? Why has it been 40 years, and we haven’t been able to change that? In terms of our bottom line, in terms of the growth of this country, yes, it’s affecting the group, but it’s affecting us as a country. How can we say we are indeed a superpower if we’re still stagnant?
Dr. Ashley Taylor: I hear you, especially just thinking back to what you said earlier about how it all trickles through. When you have that happening in the organization, that long-term consequence of the bottom line, yes, that hits for the organization, but it also, like you mentioned, trickles into the community, and into our children, and into the economy, and all of that. So, it’s just a systemic issue that affects all aspects of what’s happening in this country.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Absolutely. If I have a college degree and I’m turning around and I’m working a low income job, then what that’s saying to my children that come behind me? Am I pushing for them to obtain these college loans, these student loans to go to college for them to be making $24,000 a year? I’m only able to afford a certain amount for housing, so what does that community look like that I’m living in, and everybody else in that community? There’s definitely a systemic problem that trickles down and affects all of us.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Knowing that, what efforts is your organization taking to develop a more diverse and equitable and inclusive work environment?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: That question is very hard for me to respond to. Just after the death of George Floyd, they decided to have basically a discussion group. I think where it went wrong was the title that they gave the group. It was more encouraged in a town hall, but basically it was somebody asking the employees questions.
Just to get an understanding of how do you see the organization in terms of, “Is the organization diverse? Is it equitable?” I think the biggest takeaway was that on lower levels, people do feel that way amongst their peers, but the higher you go in the organization, people did not see that. That’s what they have done.
They haven’t decided, “Where are we going next?” They spoke so everybody nationwide in the organization was able to sit down with this panel and ask the same questions. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m waiting to see just like everyone else is because we do have that problem when it comes to the higher levels of the organization. It’s not diverse. It’s not equitable. It’s not an inclusive work environment, and that’s where the problem is. Even though there are programs in place that is a good talk, the problem is not on a lower levels. It’s at a higher level. So, I don’t know what the solution or what plans are in place to change that.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Well, even if the plans are not necessarily in place, it is good that at least the conversation has begun.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Yes. It’s always a positive thing when somebody is willing to have the conversation. Even though it might not be the right question you’re asking, it’s always positive that attempt is made.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Really, organizations have been forced to look at this. I mentioned in the introduction, it has, in some cases, been swept under the rug, but all the events that have happened very recently over the past, we’ll just focus on the past year or so, have really forced organizations to take a look at what’s going on within the organization and how it is structured, and who’s doing what, and the representation that’s there. And really being honest with themselves about what’s there and what can be done.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: It’s been very encouraging. It really has, to see companies take a stand. Companies really try to change their framework and ask a hard question. Yes, it really has been encouraged in our country, and I’m quite proud of the small changes and advances that we have made.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: Now that we’ve talked about the experience within your organizations and everything, how has your experience shaped your perspective on diversity? Have you had to overcome some unconscious bias?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Always. It seems like a second nature. A lot of times, it’s this, “Well, she’s only here because they check into boxes”, because I’m a female and I’m a black woman. That’s always been the case in my 24 years of law enforcement.
Sometimes, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to show you more than I could tell you”, but other times, it’s getting pretty old. Just because it might appear that I have a seat at the table today, the people around the table do not want me there. I really believe that needs to change. I get that I don’t look like a law enforcement officer all the time. I have had my share, and will continue to have my share, of overcoming unconscious biases.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: You mentioned that seat at the table. I noticed in my own experience, sometimes I haven’t been as vocal about things as maybe I should have been because of concern of how it’s going to be received. When you were talking about the Haitian community and how the way they speak to one another, yes, it’s loud. Yes, it’s expressive. But when you don’t understand that that’s the way they communicate with each other, that can be off-putting.
I have found that when having a seat at the table, sometimes I really questioned the way my delivery is going to be so that it can be well-received. Sometimes, that requires me to change the way I’m going to deliver.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I also have to do the same thing, but it’s a perfect balance, right? The scales of justice, it’s hard to get them balanced. I try very hard to do the same but sometimes, I don’t always win depending on the situation I get.
For example, one of the divisions had it’s Black History Month, so they featured two individuals in their divisions. Basically, they put up their bio, not about the individual itself, it was just a standard bio. On occlusion, there was like, “As we close the door on Black History Month”, and I had to take a deep breath because black history is not just a month. It’s a year. It’s everything. It’s us. It’s America.
Those few words that “close the door on Black History month,” it really incited something inside of me that I have to always look at, “Okay, maybe they do not understand what those few words translated to everyone else”, what you wrote. You might say, “Oh, okay, the 28 days is there. We’re going to move on”, but just that motion of moving onto the next one, it was a hiccup in your day that you have to do this. You were forced to do this because of the calendar. Those things.
So, yes, I had to take a step back because it really incited me to say, “Okay, this is 2021, and you are the head of this division. You are the senior leadership, and this is what you’re writing.” I’m just like, “We have these programs, we have these discussions, but are you really looking into what this means and how it could be perceived?”
I think that’s the biggest takeaway. It’s great that we have these programs and stuff, but are you really listening? Are you getting it? It’s okay if you don’t get it, but how about when you turn to someone else and say, “Hey, can you look at this for me? How is this perceived? Is this okay?” Ask those questions. Don’t be afraid.
I don’t understand how, in this day and age, that we are so afraid to have a conversation. I’d rather you have the conversation than you put something out there. It wasn’t just myself that was furious about what was written. It bothered a lot, a lot of people of what he wrote. We all felt like it was unacceptable in this day and age. I do understand exactly what you said about how was it going to be perceived.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: When being concerned about how it’s going to be received, you then sometimes fail to even address it. That’s where that very valuable conversation is lost. Because I’m concerned about how it’s going to be received. I don’t even bring it up. Then it goes and gets pushed under the rug again, so it becomes cyclical. We don’t want that to happen.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: I’ve always been the one to speak up. I’m always the one that everybody calls and said, “Hey, it just happened.” I’m the one that says, “Hey, no, that’s not. It didn’t happen to you because you’re a black female. It happened to you because this is by policy. They have the right to do so.” But when it’s the time when it’s something like that, I have to speak up.
Just last year, when Floyd passed away and civil unrest was occurring all over, but in DC, there was silence from my senior leadership. And it bothered me that it was silent. Yes, I knew the director. We’ve worked together. I knew him. But I didn’t take his silence automatically as that he didn’t care.
New York is very diverse, and he was a New York City police officer. So, I know despite your biases and stuff that you have, you know what it feels like. We’ve been in New York. You’ve been around different type of people, so I know that’s not what it is. It might be because you’re busy, and I can’t make any excuses. I make an excuse in that. A lot of us, no matter if you’re black or white, male or female, was very upset that our leader did not speak about what was occurring.
Even as law enforcement officers, we didn’t speak out. Not being judge and jury because everybody deserves their day, but understanding the feeling of what transpired, where it was a law enforcement action, and when it was no longer law enforcement action.
We didn’t hear anything from our senior leadership, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wrote him an email and I said, “Sir, I am not okay. You are my leader. You are my white shirt.” Everybody could refer to any time, any press conference, the commander comes out in his white shirt. I said to him, “You are my white shirt” and I said, “There was not a response to what was going on outside. We send officers. I send officers outside and to DC, but there was not a response. It was about what was occurring.”
Well, immediately he texted me and emailed me. He said, “Give me a call.” We were speaking on the phone, and he said, “Let’s meet.” I said “I’m available tomorrow,” and I met with him the next day and we sat down, and I said, “Sir, I need you to understand. I don’t care who’s above you. You are our commander, and we need, I need for you to speak out on this.
Because we all know that there was a difference between a law enforcement action and what occurred that day. And I need you to say something about it. I need you to speak on behalf of all of us, not just the black officers, but all of us as law enforcement officers, because we all are hurting. I might not wear a uniform every day, but I do have a badge and a gun. I still have to come home to my black sons, and have to explain to them what happened and what they see on TV as a law enforcement officer.”
After he was talking, he said, “You know what? I get it, and I apologize that I didn’t speak out about what was taking place. We missed the mark. We missed the opportunity to address our law enforcement officers, but I tell you one thing, what occurred in Atlanta within 48 hours, there was a response to that.” So, we might have missed the mark in one situation, but we have learned and that’s all we could ask for. None of us is going to get it 100% all the time. I don’t want to be right 100% of the time because there’s no room for growth, but that’s all I look forward for us to start having those conversations. Don’t be afraid to have the conversation.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: That’s excellent. After you removed that political veil and this and that, it comes down to that human connection. You were able to talk to him and say, “This is how I felt about the situation, and this how it needs to be addressed,” and just having that human connection and that conversation.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Yes. It saddened me that several levels below him, that nobody on your level underneath you could have told you that. That saddened me. To me, that’s the problem, right? Why is that nobody underneath you, is sitting at your table that you put there to help you run this division, this organization, there to tell you? That is the problem. That’s what companies, organizations need to realize. Who was there on the table so we could get it right? I don’t need 100% of the time, but better believe it has to be better than what we’re doing today.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: If you could, in summary, what would your recommendations be for organizational leaders?
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Take a hard look at every level of your organization and determine, “Does everybody have a seat at the table?” Is it reflective to the people you serve, to your employees, to your consumers, to your community? Does it reflect America today? America, yesterday, 10 years ago is different from the America that we see today. Does it reflect that? Not just what’s in your circle, because regardless of what it is, we all have unconscious bias with who we want surrounding us. Not necessarily your circle, but America’s circle. Does it reflect that?
Do you have programs in place that make employees feel like they belong? Have that conversation with people and then change it. Just change it within your own circle of influence. Change that because this is what America is today. America of yesterday of we’re going to exclude people, we’re not going to have women here and it’s going to be gender inequality and sexual, all that. No, this is where we are today.
In order for us to survive and be the superpower that we talk about and we want to be, and be example for the world, we have to change it. It’s not new to have a woman at a helm of a country. We’re late coming to this table. We have a number of countries operated, run by female we celebrating. We celebrating that. Here in America, we’re late. We need to realize that.
I hope that everyone looks at their organization and look at who’s at the table, and if somebody’s missing, make room for them and get them. If you feel like they don’t have the skills and qualifications to get them there, well then it’s your job to train them to be there because then we failed them even more than not having them on the table. We didn’t prepare to bring them to the table. We need to change that. That starts from the bottom all the way up to the top.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: So essentially, it starts with the individual, then we can work on the smaller pockets within the organization, and that desk goes right on out into society and across the country.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Absolutely.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: All right. I want to thank you for agreeing to discuss this topic with me, and I’m so glad that you were able to share your professional experience and your personal experience with us.
Dr. Sukeena Stephens: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Dr. Ashley Taylor: We’ve been talking to Dr. Stephens about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Thank you for listening.