Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals Moves the Needle with Annual Conference

While OBAP has long worked towards improved access to the aerospace industry for young people, recent movements have spurred greater action among corporations and individuals across the spectrum. Courtesy OBAP

The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) hosted its 2021 Forward conference in a virtual format last week, culminating with information sessions, networking, and a final keynote speaker on Friday evening.

OBAP began 45 years ago when a group of 13 Black aviation leaders came together to create an environment from which action could flow to champion greater diversity and inclusion in the aerospace industry. The association reports having about 1,800 members.

Drawing from inspiration as broadly writ as Brené Brown to the Harvard Business Review, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown kicked off the conference on Wednesday evening as the first keynote speaker to the virtual—yet highly engaged—group attending Forward.

Brown hit on self-doubt, the imposter syndrome, and other ways that we get in our own way, both as pilots and as aerospace professionals. He shared the line he uses with his sons:

“When opportunity knocks, you had better be dressed for it.”

The general gave examples of how he has dealt with microaggressions at all levels deftly, with a “shotgun” approach, to address the issue in the moment, but in a way that doesn’t fall upon unhearing—or resistant—ears.

He spoke to the importance of having a large pool from which to draw candidates for promotion, that the service at all levels should reflect the demographics of the country it serves. His own team of roughly 20 servicemembers comes from a broad range of not only race, gender, and heritage, but also across disciplines in the Air Force.

“I’m a fighter pilot, and if I surround myself with fighter pilots, I’m going to miss something.” That’s a great lesson for leaders building their own teams—to bring in skill sets you lack, to encourage that diversity of opinion, as well.

In Summer 2020, OBAP hosted a series of virtual panel discussions called “Courageous Conversations” in response to the upheaval and drive for change after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. As a key part of Forward, a follow-up panel talked about the changes and momentum the past year has brought in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Members of the panel, hosted by OBAP board chair Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison, included:

  • Michelle Brown, vice president of digital products and analytics, United Airlines
  • Nicole Huque, principal global aviation, aerospace, and defense at Kraithhamer & Associates
  • Dr. Becky Lutte, associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Greg Muccio, director of talent acquisition, Southwest Airlines
  • Sharon DeVivo, president of Vaughn College

During the panel, Lutte mentioned examples of movement that she has seen during the past year that demonstrate the strides the aviation industry has made in moving diversity initiatives forward. For one, Boeing has released a “transparency” report on their corporate efforts—and failures—to promote diversity within their workforce.

United’s Aviate program has launched, Brown said, with its goal of having women and people of color make up 50 percent of its students. She also mentioned the gains that everyone enjoys when diverse populations are considered. For example, as a result of developing a new version of United’s app for the visually impaired, the company ended up creating a tool that was more streamlined for all customers to use more easily.

“If you want to be the airline that customers love to fly, you need to be the place that employees choose and love to work,” Brown said.

Building that kind of environment means creating an inclusive one.

Vaughn College, in Queens, New York, serves an incredibly diverse population with its programs, and DeVivo has seen an uptick in the number of folks interested in joining the aerospace workforce. However, in her own family history, she’s witnessed the different opportunities given to her father as a white man as opposed to people of color, as they tried to purchase homes under the post-World War II G.I. Bill.

Muccio summed up the past year succinctly: “The challenge is that besides those [diversity] pieces impacting our world, you have COVID.” Muccio expressed pride in Southwest’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, including the appointment four months ago of Jenell Rayford, who now leads the company’s Center of Excellence for Diversity Recruiting.

In a separate pre-recorded session, Lutte presented the numbers—the percentage of pilots, maintenance technicians, engineers, and other job segments who are women, and who are from specific racial backgrounds (Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino).

Over the past 15 years, there’s been only a slight uptick (a percentage point or two) in representation.

Key steps to improve access begin with programs to reach young people starting in grade school, such as:

It’s critical that students have access to the right information, but their gatekeepers (parents, teachers, and counselors) need to be well-informed, too. Cost can be addressed through scholarships, financial aid, and cadet programs from the airlines, military, and agencies such as Civil Air Patrol.

Finally, once a person is hired into a company, an inclusive environment has several facets. Employee resource groups such as pilot unions and those organized by HR provide important support, but leadership direction and mentorship from within a person’s department can be even more valuable over the long run.

The conference concluded with a keynote speech Friday evening from entrepreneur Daymond John, a game-changer in the fashion world also well known for his recent appearance on “Shark Tank.”

Attendees can access the conference content for the next 12 months. You can get involved by:

  • Joining OBAP
  • Identifying mentorship opportunities in other aviation groups
  • Providing support for scholarships
  • Ensuring that, in your company, you cast a wide net when hiring and/or recruiting potential pilots
Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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