Former Energy Executive And Her Writing Partner Encourage Industry To Do Betterby Rebecca Ponton
What happens when a white, female, petroleum engineer and former energy executive teams up with a Black male writer during a time of heightened social upheaval and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? As JoAnn Meyer and Vic Brown tell Rebecca Ponton, they engage in “Uncomfortable Conversations.”
JoAnn Meyer: I spent almost 30 years with E & P companies, including the last decade as a senior vice president. I had been with the [Aera Energy] family my entire career and I was curious to see what [difficulties] other companies have. I learned that everyone’s challenges are pretty similar. That realization compelled me want to help organizations help their people be enabled, empowered and included. Clearly, the oil and gas industry has some opportunities in the areas of diversity, inclusion and equity, but what we’re doing has a broad application.
Vic Brown: I started as an on-air radio announcer and in television broadcasting, and moved into production, directing and writing commercials, and eventually went out on my own as a content writer and marketing strategist. I had a lot of opportunities to work within corporate settings and I learned how to navigate those environments from a cultural standpoint as a Black man and watch how women, people of color, other minorities or marginalized groups, [maneuvered]. Being Black, the constant reality is learning to navigate spaces where you may be the only person who looks like you. In my career, most of the people I’ve worked with have been women. So, as a man, too, you have to learn to navigate those spaces and be cognitive of the needs of the people around you, and also be able to explain the differences you bring to that environment.
RP: Coming from such diverse professional backgrounds, how did the two of you meet or connect?
JM: Five years ago, I was on LinkedIn and a young engineer had posted about working in the field and how much he enjoyed it. His comments took me down memory lane, so I posted about my time in the field. Someone from Oilpro contacted me and I wrote an article called “What the Oilfield Taught Me About Professionalism.” I sent it to Preston Ingalls, a friend and former colleague from the oil and gas industry, who has been a bit of an advisor since I left the industry, because I thought he might get a kick out of it.
VB: I had been working with Preston’s company, TBR Strategies, for a number of years and he sent me an e-mail and said he would like to [virtually] introduce JoAnn and me. We realized we had a lot in common, including our love of writing. That’s how we started on the journey together of me becoming a better writer and her realizing what a writer she already was.
RP: What fostered your interest in social justice?
JM: I think of it in terms of inclusion. A few years ago, someone said, ‘You talk about what you do all the time, but when you talk about diversity and inclusion, you’re on a whole other level. Why do you think that is?’ I said I worked in the male-dominated oil and gas industry for almost 30 years, and most of the time I was the only woman. She said, ‘I hear what you’re saying; I just don’t think that’s it.’ There was something about her questioning me that made me pause and think, ‘She’s right.’ I love the industry; it’s my home. That doesn’t mean there weren’t times when it was tough. Much of what motivates me today is, I never felt like there was anyone I could go to for help. I don’t want anyone else to ever be in that position.
VB: I hate to use the word “ally.” It’s overused now and it’s used incorrectly. Either people are dedicated to change wherever they can affect it or they’re not. It became very apparent to me early on that this is who JoAnn is. As a Black person, you’re always looking for people that don’t look like you that have a shared understanding of the corporate landscape and the need for diversity and inclusion and are dedicated to making it more equitable for everybody. It was new to me to find somebody who has that level of [commitment]. Change in those environments is extremely difficult; it’s incremental, it’s small and it’s hard. Everybody is concentrating on their jobs, which is what they’re there for, but part of a job is to make those environments better and that affects the bottom line in a positive way. Then, you can affect the community and society; it has a ripple effect.
RP: How did the idea for “Uncomfortable Conversations” come about?
JM: I don’t know if there was a particular moment, but we started to write things down. It happened organically.
VB: I think there came a time when we had to start talking in starker terms and have those uncomfortable conversations, so I began to interject raw realities of what it means to be Black in America. That’s a difficult conversation for both parties to have, so you avoid that until there’s a level of trust. There was an evolution as we began to have those conversations and [realized] we had something to say and an idea how to affect those incremental changes in real scenarios, and we began to write about this subject for a wider audience not just for our own edification.
JM: After witnessing and reading about and seeing Black men and women being murdered, and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining power and becoming global, I reached out to the young folks I’ve mentored and that keep in touch with me. I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t think that these things would impact Vic, as a mature man, in the same way. He sent me an email inviting a conversation and I felt so badly that I hadn’t reached out to him, that was a turning point for me. I was so embarrassed because I hadn’t behaved consistently, and I hadn’t expressed my concern and given him an opportunity to talk about how difficult this was.
VB: Like I told JoAnn, there’s no time to be embarrassed and she shouldn’t be. How can you possibly know what someone else is going through when you’re trying to navigate your own rough seas? She was a woman in corporate American in an industry that is dominated by white males and had to deal with the same thing I am. There’s no reason to think that anyone else is going to automatically know what another person’s struggle is. That was the cornerstone of us providing stories about real-world scenarios, focusing on incremental changes that have worked.
RP: What do you hope to accomplish with “Uncomfortable Conversations?”
JM: I had many tremendous male supporters in my career and I’m very grateful, but sometimes I get angry. I went to my first diversity training in the ‘90s. I look around 30 years later and think, ‘Is this the best we have to offer?’ Sometimes, we get caught up in policy and programs and mission and vision statements and the accountability of ‘we.’ The organization is not going to be more inclusive until you are.
VB: It comes down to a very individual level. It’s using what little power we may have, incrementally, to make changes and create a level of understanding.
JM: Even though we may not have the same foundational experiences, there are ways we can find commonality, and that’s something we can build on. We have to move closer together, so that we intersect. Another is for us to enlarge our own perspectives and accept that there could be more than one truth because people see things differently. I have total control over my ability to expand my horizons.
VB: JoAnn and I are trying to reach people who want to do better, rather than feel better. Our goal is not just to create a series of articles, but through her firm, Previse Consulting, to tell the stories of everyone from new hires to CEOs, including diversity and inclusion managers, who are on the front lines, so that we can find that [common ground].