Shannon Reeves wanted to do more than talk.
In 1997, when he was Invited as the keynote speaker of a relatively new Black History Month event at Chevron headquarters, Reeves, then president of the NAACP’s Oakland chapter, wanted a conversation.
And so before his speech, Reeves requested a sit-down with Ken Derr, who was the chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp. at the time. One year after that conversation, a program launched in Oakland that would open two Chevron gas stations with convenience stores in areas that had been deprived of fuel services. The program also featured a station manager training program for local residents called Chevron University.
The impact of that conversation, and many others during annual Black History Month celebrations at Chevron, have had a profound affect on the global company that continues today, not just in the Bay Area but at its locations worldwide.
It’s a conversation that continued last week at the Chevron Richmond Refinery, which held its 20th Annual Black History Awareness celebration.
While African Americans have played a role in Chevron’s success since the global energy provider’s founding over a century ago, diversity and inclusivity have only recently been added as core values at the company. That’s due in large part to discussions that began right here in the Bay Area in 1992.
That year, the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church was the keynote speaker at Chevron’s first Black History Month celebration at its San Francisco headquarters. In subsequent years, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown came to speak at Chevron, along with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We saw an awesome move of God right there in that auditorium when Yolanda spoke,” said Rev. Terrence Nichols, a former Chevron public relations employee who was the first president of Chevron’s Black History Committee.
Shortly thereafter, black history awareness celebrations began to spread across the company, with events starting up at Chevron’s locations in Richmond, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta and as far as South Africa, according to Nichols.
Now an influential radio host and evangelist, Nichols delivered the keynote address at last week’s Chevron Richmond Refinery celebration, which featured several rousing speeches during two days of lunchtime forums.
Among the speakers were four local high school students who won a college scholarship offered annually in honor of Dr. William F. King, a former longtime Chevron chemist known for recruiting minorities to Chevron. Along with soul food, employees enjoyed dancing, music, hip hop and poetry from SambaFunk, the Oakland group that recently helped Sen. Kamala Harris kick off her 2020 presidential campaign. The band’s leader, King Theo, also has a connection to Chevron, as his grandfather worked at the Richmond Refinery.
The purpose of the annual event can be summed up by its theme: Embrace the past, educate the present, and enrich the future.
John Reed, a North Richmond native whose 35-year career at Chevron began at the Richmond Refinery, said the company has evolved from a former method that focused on assimilation over diversity.
“For a long time it was about you come in, you work…and if you learn how to act like we act, you’ll be just fine,” Reed said. “And when you think about that, that’s probably OK.”
But through conversations with a workforce growing in diversity, the company soon learned that in order to inspire the best in every worker, it needed to listen to, learn from, and embrace each of their diverse life experiences, Reed said.
“It’s just good business sense,” said Michelle Long, the General Manager, Downstream Business Unit, for Chevron Environmental Management Company. “The fact that [employees] are able to feel comfortable in an environment where they are valued and not marginalized is important. It’s important that we continue to share our stories through programs such as this.”
Good chemistry isn’t only needed in its products, but in its people, said Richmond Refinery General Manager Kory Judd.
“Planes don’t fly out of San Francisco…the world doesn’t move without this Refinery,” Judd said. “And that wouldn’t be possible without the work of many great African Americans who are part of our history, part of our present and who will surely be part of our future.”
That was certainly the case when it came to the work of Dr. William F. King, who was responsible for over 40 Chevron patents before retiring from the company as a staff scientist in 2002.
“As a global company we operate around the world, providing affordable energy to the communities we serve,” Long said. “We’ve been hiring the best and brightest for many years. The best and brightest come from all corners of the world. We have all kinds of experiences coming through, and we have to learn as leaders how to orchestrate that the so the best comes out of each of these individuals.”