It's 1809. The sun beats down without mercy on the slaves picking cotton on a plantation in Georgia. There is a quota for how many pounds must be picked that day, and the overseer is in charge of ensuring that quota is met.
A slave, smuggled into the south from the west coast of Africa, and newly arrived from the auction block is clumsy with the ways of picking cotton. He tries to keep up with the more experienced hands, but falls behind throughout the day. He is hungry, thirsty, weary, and bereft of any hope for a life beyond the bondage he has fallen under.
The overseer weighs his bag as the sun finally begins to edge toward the horizon. Ten pounds under.
He picks up his whip and calls the other slaves to witness. "This is a message for ya'll lazy n*****s," he announces. He binds the offender to a nearby tree, and procedures to deal out lash after lash after angry lash, until the young man's back is red with blood. "Anyone else wants to get a whipping' like this, you just make sure you don't pick your quota."
He delivers one more lash for good measure, and then releases the nameless man. No one dares to approach him to offer help. To do so would surely mean lashes for them. "Get up, you lazy n*****!" the overseer snarls, with yet another lash of the whip. Struggling, the slave gets to his feet, looks around at eyes that won't meet his, and begins his long march into the annals of American history.
It is 2017. A corporation located in the south adds a new job function to a group of employees in one of its divisions, with the purpose of ensuring that an upcoming project runs smoothly and in a timely manner. The function is named "overseer."
I work for that company. I heard mention of it in one meeting, and the African-American meeting leader stopping herself and saying, "I don't like that word. I'm going to have to call it something else." I thought it was a word that had slipped out of her mouth, because it didn't seem possible that in 2017, a company in America could possibly use the word "overseer" to describe a job role.
But then a manager in another meeting the following week used that same term. I heard nothing else she said after that. When she stopped to take a breath, I interrupted her. "Is overseer a thing?" I asked. "Like an official title?"
She informed me that was correct.
"I have to object," I said. "I don't know what else it can be called, but personally I think overseer is unacceptable."
There was a brief silence and then thankfully someone else in the group spoke up. "I agree." And then a third.
The manager was understanding in listening to our objections and promised to bring it to upper management. She asked what our objection was.
"Slavery," I said. "The word has strong connotations with slavery." Another moment of silence. "The overseer was the guy with the whip making sure the slaves did their work and didn't slack off. I think there needs to be another word. Unless anyone has another opinion."
"Nope, I agree with you," said Colleague One. "Me too," said Colleague Two.
Two days later we received an email that the job function had been changed to "facilitator."
I've accomplished amazing things throughout my career. I think having management change this job function changed from "overseer" to "facilitator" is one of my proudest moments. Each small step for humans adds together with other small steps to become one giant leap for humankind.
"Be the change you want to see happen." --Arleen Lorrance