Reflections on Black History Month and Power of Words

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As Black History Month draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting lately on the responsibility that is conferred for those of us in leadership positions, particularly for people of color.

Across the 125-year history of United Illuminating (UI), I am the first African American to serve as President and CEO. I feel the weightiness of responsibility that my position incurs every day. It is, in part, what has shaped me to perform to the best of my ability for UI’s 343,000 residential and commercial customers, our 500-person workforce, and all our stakeholders, and to push forward our legacy of best-in-class reliability to power the present and the future of south-central Connecticut.

Of course, other aspects in my life and history also inspire me to push harder and longer and why seeing all of us – our employees and our customers chief among us – reach our own visions of success is acutely personal to me. First, I’ve been an employee in the Avangrid family of companies for 29 years, having started my journey with Southern Connecticut Gas nearly three decades ago. I also come from a family of immigrants, having moved here from Jamaica with my family when I was four years old. I’m a veteran, having served our country in the Connecticut National Guard for twenty years. And most importantly of all, I’m a husband and a proud father of two beautiful daughters, who are making their way towards building a successful life of their own.

Like all of us, I’ve been shaped of all these life experiences and many more. But I believe it is my experience as both a leader and a Black man that gives me a particularly strong sense of duty to hold myself to a high standard of conduct, especially in my words.

Our words matter. And for those of us who are leaders – in business, or in the halls of government – they carry particular weight. Despite our progress over many decades, and despite how we in Connecticut see ourselves as a progressive and tolerant state, where we choose facts over hyperbole, we may still have a ways to go in ensuring our words align with our values.

When elected officials and their offices use certain phrases and words in their statements and responses to the press, those words are considered carefully. I have never served in government myself, but I imagine each word must be selected carefully, reviewed by a team of professionals, and signed off on by the elected official him- or herself. As it should be: those words come from a trusted and credible source, and they carry more weight than they would if they came from just the average person.

An elected official’s position in Connecticut – in combination with what I imagine is a thorough review process for any outgoing statements – confers an extra responsibility on those words to be true: both in the sense of being factually accurate and in the sense of being ethical and unharmful.

Over the last week, I have watched as elected officials have made many statements, many of which have dealt with the business and employees I oversee. I have been aghast, quite frankly, at the tenor of some of them, which ranged from downright false to suggestive of a microaggression. Had I or one of my colleagues made some of their insinuations myself, I suspect they would not hesitate to call us to task for them in the full-court press.

But I will withhold any “naming of names,” out of respect for my position, my employees, and our customers. Instead, I will simply remind them of this: Words matter. If we are to continue moving forward – as a state and as a country – we must correct misinformation, call out harms, and commit to doing better. For the elected officials among us, we the people are looking to you to lead. Your responsibility is a great one.

As for me – as a business leader, as a veteran, as a father, and yes, as a Black man – I will continue doing my part to hold myself to the highest standards of conduct. I know my words matter, and I am committed to ensuring I use them to build people up and represent well the communities I serve.

Frank Reynolds is the President and CEO of United Illuminating.