Donna Brazile and Michael Steele Discuss Diversity, Inclusion, and Gumbo During Viacom’s Inclusion Week

Two former national political party chairs on the keys to an inclusive workplace.
Sep 24, 2019 2:15 PM ET

By Tara Weiss

Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, likens successful workplace diversity and inclusion to making a good gumbo.

“There’s no way you can cook gumbo by putting everything in a pot,” the Louisiana native said at a panel opposite former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Michael Steele at Viacom’s Inclusion Week. “The only way it comes out as something special is if you layer it and bring in everything one step at a time. We’re at the point now where the roux we need as a society is to bring in all the ingredients. …We all have something special to add.”

The panel, moderated by CBS’ Michelle Miller, was a spirited one among friends. Brazile and Steele have known each other for years, competing as political strategists and commentators from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Steele, who is also a former governor of Maryland, continued the food analogy.

“After you do everything Donna said, you’ve still got to get someone to eat it,” Steele said. “That’s where our problem begins. They [higher-ups] may even make you chairman of the board. But that doesn’t mean you have power or influence. It doesn’t mean the other people are eating what you’re serving or taking in what you’re demanding of them.”

The key is to always be authentic, he said. Steele recalled a maroon-colored suit he wore to work at an RNC event. “It upset people,” he said because the unofficial uniform of Republican party members was a dark suit, white shirt, and blue or red tie.

“We both served as heads of institutions that had an idea of what it would be like to have a black person running their institution,” Steele said. “They thought we’d come in and do what we’re told. They had no appreciation of what it meant to have us run the institution. We’re gonna run it the way we have learned over our journey.”

He pointed to Danica Roem, an openly transgender woman who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in one of the most conservative counties in the state. Her opponent focused on her being transgender while she focused on issues concerning her potential constituents.

“She spoke to them authentically and she won,” says Steele. “That’s how you make your mark.”

The session opened with remembrances of Cokie Roberts, the longtime NPR and ABC journalist who died Tuesday of complications from breast cancer. Both panelists had known her for decades and praised her compassion and the work she did to foster equality, particularly for women in journalism.

“She wanted people of color, women to have a seat at the table,” Brazile said. “She made sure there was an open seat so that when I went to ABC, Cokie said, ‘I want my homegirl to be on the Sunday shows and special events. We don’t want anyone to leave the room. Just scoot over and make room for others. Cokie would love it if you did that.”