DEI Lead Tyrone Henry on Black History Month and how friendships foster change

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tyrone henry smiling in front of greenery

tyrone henry smiling in front of greeneryTyrone Henry, Energy Trust’s first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lead, has done a lot in his two years at Energy Trust, from instituting a series of Diversity Day conversations with staff and community members to hosting a series of summits to hear directly from those we serve about their experiences and challenges. 

This Black History Month, we talked with Henry about how Black people have been left out of history, diversifying the clean energy industry and how connecting with people who don’t look like you can lead to personal growth and social change.  

What does Black History Month mean to you? 

Black History Month is very personal for me. Having grown up in the South, I still witnessed the effects of Jim Crow. I was raised in a very rich Black history environment. I loved hearing stories from my grandparents and uncles. My uncle Jesse was a military police officer in World War II—even though he was a military police officer, he could not arrest a white soldier. To this day, I’m very interested in Black history. I’m always learning about Black inventors, and I’ll be sharing that knowledge at Energy Trust’s Diversity First Thursday event on February 3 

What are some of the ways Black people have been left out of the history books? 

There are so many ways. First that comes to mind is Black soldiers. There have been stories that we were cowards, afraid to fight. If you recall the Tuskegee Airmen [the first Black military aviators in the United States armed forces], for the longest time they were not allowed to fly. They said our brains didn’t have the capacity to be a pilot. It wasn’t until Eleanor Roosevelt said to her husband: “why do you have Black men sitting out when we need fighters to win this war?” The rest is history. Tuskegee Airmen had one of the most successful track records in the history of fighter pilots, with many white regiments requesting their escort. It’s unfortunate that we have to prove ourselves 10 times over just to do any simple thing.  

Black people haven’t just been left out of history, they’ve also largely been left out of the clean energy industry. How have you seen that here in Oregon?  

The clean energy and energy efficiency industry has been white male dominated for years and years. This is why I feel such allegiance to working with minority and service-disabled veteran businesses. When I first came to Energy Trust, we had two of the largest requests for proposals coming out in history of Energy Trust. I’d only been here for three weeks. My first question was what percentage of total contract dollars are we targeting to spend with minority- and women-owned businesses, and the answer was 6%. I said, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” For one of these contracts, we ended up with 32% of the delivery budget with minority-, women-, service-disabled veteran- and emerging small businesses and community-based organizations. For the other contract, it was 20%. There were staff that didn’t have the confidence that there were enough minority and women contractors in our region that could handle such a large project. It’s all about being intentional in your efforts. I said, did you know some of our NFL stadiums have been built by women-owned businesses? They can handle this size of project and they are right here in Oregon. You just haven’t taken the necessary steps to find them.  

There are a lot of people who look like me who are dependent on these contracts to provide for their families. They don’t have access to the “good old boy” network where deals are made, on the golf course or at the local watering hole. When you’re intentional about including and not excluding, great things happen!  

We’ve been lucky to have your perspective and influence at Energy Trust for two years now. In that time, what’s changed? 

I always look in the mirror first because I want to make sure that I’m modeling within myself what I’m trying to get others to achieve. I have become a more patient individual, recognizing that we’re all progressing at our own speed in terms of our individual DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] journeys. You have to understand and appreciate that not everybody grew up like I did in a multicultural environment.  

At my church in Washington, D.C., we were the third largest family with eight kids. The biggest family was Irish American with 11 kids and the second largest was Italian American with nine kids. Having all of us together with these different cultures and food and having crushes on each other’s sisters and brothers—it was so much fun! We didn’t know this was like an early classroom on DEI. Not everyone was privy to that type of upbringing. Not everyone had an Italian best friend named Gus. Not everybody learned how to cook lasagna from my roommate Dave’s Italian mom who was first generation Italian and couldn’t speak English. She taught me how to make the sauce, it all starts with the sauce. That was a lesson in diversity and culture. It was a wonderful thing.  

Some people grew up in small rural communities where almost everyone they knew looked like them. You have to be more understanding that some folks have reservations and preconceived notions about people who don’t look like them because of their upbringing. It has made me a better person.  

What are your proudest accomplishments at Energy Trust? 

I’m very proud of the friendships and camaraderie, people who have come along side me to fight for equality and inclusion. That includes staff, board members, my wonderful Diversity Advisory Council members, my wonderful staff DEI committee members. This is a constant battle. In this position, you’re not allowed to rest on your laurels. It’s unfortunate, but you have to stay alert and aware. If you’re not aware, the community will let you know and call you out. I’ve been called out. And I’m grateful for being called out because I’m still learning.  

I was on an interview panel recently with six interviewers total, two were people of color. We were interviewing three people of color. One of the white women discussing candidates said, I want to rate this person this way but I’ve got to check my bias. I said thank you for saying that! I too, as a Black man, I’ve got to check my bias. Everybody needs to check their biases on a regular basis.  

I’m proud of diversity first Thursdays and what we’ve achieved with our competitive contract solicitations. I’m proud of the supplier diversity initiative that I wrote, and now we have a team of folks working on a supplier diversity tracking system. I’m also working on a supplier diversity initiative for an inter-agency agreement with our utility partners to work together inclusively on our efforts to reach marginalized communities, people of color, native, tribal communities. We will bring our contracting opportunities to one table three times a year to create a smorgasbord of opportunities for our MWESB community.  

What’s next for your work at Energy Trust? What are you most excited about? 

I’m excited about two current competitive contract solicitations coming out this spring for management of our residential and our industrial and agriculture programs. We’ve hosted two networking webinars for interested businesses. Two years ago, we may have had half a dozen minority- and women-owned businesses apply. With these webinars, we’ve had 50-plus minority- and women-owned businesses in attendance from around the country. It’s been hard work finding and inviting folks from all over and from here in Oregon to attend.  

Any parting thoughts? 

I’m grateful for the friendships, people who have come alongside me and determined in their lives that this work is very important. I’m grateful for the affinity groups that meet on a monthly basis. I’m grateful for what people have shared with me. It’s very personal. It’s very freeing of the spirit, heart, mind for people to embrace and share their personal stories with someone who doesn’t resemble themselves. I’m grateful for the sharing—that’s true growth when you can open your heart to another person, especially someone who doesn’t look like you.

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