For many Americans, Sept. 11, 2001, remains an indelible date. It is an especially traumatic memory for Di Ann Sanchez.
At the time, Sanchez was a vice president for human resources at American Airlines, which lost two passenger planes in the terrorist attacks.
Sanchez is the keynote speaker at this year's YWCA McLean County Women of Distinction awards dinner. Her topic is overcoming bias. Forty-five McLean County women have been nominated as 2018 Women of Distinction. Eight will be chosen to receive the award. The event takes place Tuesday, May 22, at the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Normal.
Sanchez heard the news that an American Airlines plane has crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York on her way to work at the company's Dallas-Fort Worth headquarters. Word came a short time later that terrorists had hijacked a second American aircraft and crashed it into the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.
She said she knew that life in America would never be the same. Her human resources department would be overwhelmed—dealing with requests for information, and later for grief counseling. Her department would also be responsible for sorting out survivor benefits for the crew members who had perished.
What she didn’t realize, she said, is that she’d be called to perform a very different kind of job as the company’s chief officer in charge of diversity: helping American’s employees overcome their anger and fear of Middle Eastern and Muslim passengers.
Pilots and flight attendants expressed fears about encountering passengers on their planes from the Middle East or dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.
“We did diversity training on different religions and different ethnicities. That was re-building the culture within American,” Sanchez said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
“We talked about subconscious biases and how they are formed. (Sept. 11) was a significant life event and many individuals consciously or subconsciously had anxiety, fear and anger,” she added.
Sanchez said she turned for help to employees within the airline who were practicing Muslims.
“I sat with my Muslim employee resources group and asked them helped me understanding the (9/11) terrorists,” she said.
Sanchez said she came to understand the terrorists were “religious fanatics” and did not represent Islam or the vast majority of Muslims.
“I really relied on our Muslim group to help us educate people that not all Muslims are terrorists. That took courage because there was a lot of anger. I was very grateful to them,” Sanchez said.
Being Aware Of Bias
The YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism and other forms of bigotry. Despite her experience at American, Sanchez said eradicating bias remains a tall order.
“Eliminating racism is a really tough thing to do because of subconscious bias,” she said.
Sanchez said even with all the training she has had and led, she still sometimes experiences a “gut reaction” of fear when she encounters someone in traditional Muslim dress.
“That is a form of racism,” she said.
“So for all of us, whether it was 9/11 or how you were raised and what your parents said about certain individuals, you have to be aware of where this (bias) comes from.”
Sanchez said acknowledging one’s own subconscious biases is an important start.
“I believe in training and making people aware that this (bias) is within them,” she said. Forming relationships is also key.
Sanchez said she grew up in a Latino community where there was little intermingling with African-Americans. That led to fear and mistrust.
“My father would say horrible things about the African-American community,” she recalled.
“I overcame that by understanding, and learning about the African-American community and how fantastic they are, their sense of family and commitment to other, and making friends. I did not want to be my father. I did not want to be a racist,” she added.
Sanchez, who lives in Fort Worth, said she realizes many Anglo Americans harbor stereotypes about Latinos.
“I go out of my way to educate people to what we stand for and what is our value system,” she said.
Sanchez said a message she wants to convey at the YWCA event is, “In every position you have, you can be an individual that gives back to community. You can promote peace and dignity by your volunteerism. You can share yourself, bring your experiences to others.”
Sanchez eventually left her position at American Airlines. She founded DAS HR Consulting and Sanchez Associates, two firms that offer human resources services to small- and medium-size companies that do not have internal human resource departments.
Sanchez said she does training in communications and workforce development. Her main goal remains promoting diversity and understanding between diverse groups.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview:
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