Viewpoints – American Family CEO Jack Salzwedel: Turning anger into action

Jack Salzwedel, chairman and CEO of American Family Insurance
Jack Salzwedel, chairman and CEO of American Family Insurance

Last updated on June 5th, 2020 at 01:43 pm

“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention, don’t care, think it’s OK, or have been desensitized.”

That’s how Tyler Whipple, inclusive excellence vice president of American Family Insurance, described what’s happening – again – in places like Minneapolis, New York City and Georgia.

We keep seeing more examples of a broken society, fueled by a variety of factors but all connected by inherent bias and systemic racism. The latest came last week with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked nationwide – and even global – protests.

Tyler is right. It’s wrong. We should pay attention to these events, care about what’s happening … and we should be angry – all of us.

This is also happening as a global pandemic ravages our country, and further exposes cracks in the structures that keep our communities safe, healthy and connected. The longer it goes on, the more we see which structures are strong and which are not.

People of color have struggled disproportionately during this pandemic because many of our structures are under heavy pressure. In Wisconsin, where our company is based, the U.S. Census Bureau reports African Americans make up 6.7% of our population, but account for 21% of the COVID-19 cases and 29% of deaths statewide. That’s higher than the national number of 21.9%.

Communities of color have long struggled with food insecurity. Minority workers hold a disproportionate percentage of jobs with low wages and without medical benefits. Adding to that are stress from racial discrimination and other sources tied to heart disease, hypertension and obesity.

Unfortunately, these issues existed before COVID-19. Our crumbling structures expose them even more. “COVID-19 is merely preying upon systems and communities and ethnic groups that are already weakened by systemic oppression,” the Rev. Alex Gee, a friend and leader in the Madison community, said recently.

It’s time to do something. It’s past time.

Identifying and solving the root causes of the suffering caused by these (and other) societal inequities is complex. It requires courage, compassion, innovation, honesty and accountability. I believe it also requires people of privilege – white people – to stand up for and stand with our communities like we never have before.

I believe businesses must stand up, too.

At American Family, we want the best talent, the best benefits and the best company culture. We also want strong communities that equitably serve everyone. All these things are rooted in our strategy. They show we are absolutely committed to tackling the kinds of problems weighing our communities down today – because it’s good for our communities AND good for business.

It’s our job to help fix the cracks in these structures that have been deepening – and are even more exposed because of this pandemic and ongoing racial injustices. We’ve started this work already, creating the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, signing the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Pledge, committing to inclusive excellence, hiring diverse talent and impacting our communities.

We can and will do more. We will use our talent as advocates in areas with structural failures that need fixing. This kind of work is hard. It requires leadership, strong partnerships and many voices. American Family is well equipped to do this work. We have diverse, committed and passionate leaders ready to jump in. This isn’t something I will pursue alone, either. I want us all to turn our anger into action.

From large corporations to small non-profits, to community groups and government agencies – we’re ready to partner with those who share this feeling of urgency. We will focus specifically on areas which disproportionately affect individuals of color, women, and marginalized communities.

In the coming months, we’ll share more about this work and the specific issues we want to address and positions we plan to take – publicly.

As I tweeted recently, I’m privileged. I have a voice. I want to use it for good.

We all have a voice. It’s time to speak up and act.

Jack Salzwedel is the chairman and chief executive officer of Madison-based American Family Insurance. You can follow him on Twitter at @AmFamJack.

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