WASHINGTON – When Terri A. Dickerson, the director of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Civil Rights, was a little girl growing up in New Orleans, she attended a segregated Catholic school. As the school was desegregated, she witnessed violence, bombings and demonstrations.
“I grew up with the unfairness, the slights, the insults that people experienced and had to find ways of dealing with because there was not an alternative,” she said. But Dickerson said she knew she had everything she needed to be successful in her environment, and she worked hard.
She said her mother was a school teacher and her father served in World War II in the Army. Both, she said, focused on her education and instilled in her the sense of equity and fairness she would bring to the U.S. Coast Guard as the first female African American senior executive.
National African American History Month
President Barack Obama proclaimed February as National African American History Month. Dickerson said this month is important to the Coast Guard because “talent, courage, patriotism -- those things are gender- and color-blind.”
“National African American History Month deepens our understanding and appreciation of the people who, through the years, fought for rights and freedoms that they themselves didn’t have because of discrimination, but still they persevered and prevailed,” she added.
This year’s National African American History Month theme is “A Century of Black Life, History and Culture.” Dickerson said many African Americans have made monumental contributions that have shaped the strength of the Coast Guard, such as Rear Adm. Erroll Brown, the first African American to achieve the rank of admiral in the Coast Guard, to Dr. Olivia Hooker, who in 1944 was the first African American female to enlist in the Coast Guard.
Dickerson said even before the Coast Guard officially became the Coast Guard, African Americans were unofficially serving in roles such as a lighthouse keeper or on an all-African American life-saving crew. She said the Coast Guard can also claim Alex Haley, who was a cook and writer in the Coast Guard before he left to write “Roots.”
Dickerson said honoring those who have gone before during this month is important but the more important narrative is championing the benefits of diversity.
“For 70 years, beginning in 1890, that was when all the Jim Crow, separate but equal laws were enacted, and so there was a separate society,” she said. “We are still suffering the lingering effects of those years. It doesn’t get undone overnight.”
Dickerson said her goal as a leader is to change that narrative to champion diversity so the Coast Guard is successful in its missions.
‘Talent is Gender- and Color-Blind’
“Diversity [means] every person should have the opportunity within the workforce to reach his or her potential,” she said. “It’s incumbent on managers to understand how to manage and motivate people who are different, how to bring out the best in them so they can contribute to the mission.
“Talent is gender- and color-blind and in order to have the best possible workforce we can’t afford not to include everyone in it,” Dickerson continued. “People from diverse backgrounds will see things and bring experiences that help to round out the whole picture. A diverse team brings different takes, lifestyles, sensibilities, different ways of looking at things, different ways of solving problems. We are a better, more effective agency because of that diversity.”
When Coast Guard members are performing a rescue, she said, “they really don’t care what color the hand is on the other side of that interaction or what church they go to or what they do in their private time. All they want to know is, do you have the strength, courage, training and capability to get them out of the situation they’re in?”
Dickerson added, “And those attributes really don’t discriminate based on anything, not on gender, not on color -- and this is really what diversity is about.”