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MLK Symposium Explores Social Justice and Allyship in the Workplace
Hosted by UD’s Satish and Yasmin Gupta College of Business, this year’s MLK Symposium on Jan. 26 addressed “Bringing Change Through Social Justice” and featured Abby Knowles of Verizon.

By Callie Ewing, BA '03

As VP of Verizon’s West Network Assurance, Knowles oversees operations west of the Mississippi, using her 23 years of experience as a Verizon engineer and leader to guide her team in rapidly evolving technology landscapes. She has a B.S. in electrical engineering, an M.S. in information and telecom systems and a master’s certificate in project management. Passionate about STEM advancement for minorities, track and field, reading and traveling, Knowles grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

At the outset of the conversation, Associate Professor of Marketing Dale Fodness, Ph.D., who served as moderator, observed, “Social justice is one of those terms that can be interpreted very differently depending on your background, your upbringing, people who you hang with.”

Knowles agreed. “I’m no expert, I’m no Martin Luther King Jr., but I will share my perspective just from the lens of a business and a technology person,” she said. “[Social justice] really speaks to an equality for everybody in society and the movement by society to close the gaps and inequity that any groups in that society might be experiencing or feeling. I’ve always felt this desire to help do that.”

In her role for Verizon, Knowles has worked to promote conversations about social and racial justice in the workplace, noting that often leaders assume there is equality in their companies simply because it is written in the bylaws, though it is never actually directly addressed.

“Sometimes we need to overstate the obvious, draw attention to it,” she said.

She discussed a feature about “Black hair” initiated by Verizon’s chief HR officer in partnership with Yahoo last year. Knowles explained that often Black people, especially women, don’t feel like their hair fits the “proper” corporate image and struggle to tame or contain it, which results in them leaving part of themselves, their personalities and culture, behind when they come to work. In this particular conversation, the prevailing theme was one of “bringing your whole self to work” — hair and all.

“I want and welcome 100% on my team,” said Knowles.

Knowles feels that true “allyship” to Black people, with no shame or reservation, is often lacking. On a company level, leaders need to examine who is truly getting the opportunities to shine and advance, and why. As far as interpersonal relations among colleagues, Knowles advised, “Just treat me with respect, as an equal.

“If you’re really embracing diversity, it’s going to show up in your numbers,” she added. “We need people of courage.”

Watch the symposium here.

The MLK Symposium is an annual event at UD. Read about last year’s symposium here.

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