What’s Your Legacy?

It was a Saturday afternoon when I found out that our dear friend and columnist R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. died. It took me awhile to digest what that meant.

It meant I would never chat with him again on the phone, never exchange another witty email, never again have him teach me anything in his gentle, scholarly voice. It was sobering. I’m aware that the cliche that death is a part of life is a cliche for a reason. But when a loss is sudden it can be particularly difficult to process.

So I turned my attention to what remained, and that centered around the years I spent working with Roosevelt and learning at the master’s feet, as it were, the ins and outs of strategic diversity work. I always worked with him directly, not through a PR person or other handler as is often the case with high-profile thinkers, which made the editing process much easier. Then again, his work didn’t really require much editing. I only sent his writing back once in all the years I knew him, and if memory serves, I’m the one who needed clarification to elevate my understanding about what I was reading.

Then my thoughts turned to who on earth we can get to replace him. The man basically founded his own movement focused on strategic diversity management. His work elevated the practice and made logical, valuable connections to ensure diversity’s immutable place as a business driver and behavioral change agent. He offered our magazine invaluable support and guidance as we worked to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, and helped us to ensure that we continuously provide value to our audience.

My next thought was on his legacy. Roosevelt was considered a father of the strategic diversity management movement. If there is one phrase that comes to mind in relation to his contribution to the diversity and inclusion practice, it would be “ahead of his time.” I heard that many times through the years, and I doubt I’m the only one who heard the sentiment attached to the man. He worked tirelessly in his niche for decades, and his legacy will not be unlike the progression of diversity itself: up, down, in and out of fashion, changing along with the needs and vernacular of the day, but slowly and relentlessly making a place for itself in the modern business environment.

How will you be remembered? Will you be described as kind and loving? Someone who is hard-driving but fair? Will you be known as a great teacher or a great something, someone who gave an area of expertise your all and changed things for the better with an upbeat spirit and energy? Will you leave something tangible behind? It could be anything — a building, an app, even a truthful, interesting article that lives forever somewhere on the Internet.

In the midst of any change, even one as disruptive as death, there is value in considering what came before, in evaluating behavior, considering next steps and noodling out the ramifications of actions or missteps taken and what came about as a result.

Roosevelt set the bar high for the practice and for himself. We were once on a panel together, and later I watched him work a room giving a keynote at a conference. He was personable and funny; his facts were undeniable, as was his analysis; and his passion for change was contagious. I listened to the audience response afterward, and he left people thinking and working out ways they could use what they’d learned, which is critical in our line of business.

Now we’ve turned to the bittersweet process of filling the open columnist slot in this magazine. Whoever we get will not be a replacement. Roosevelt was one of a kind and he will be remembered as a thought leader and father figure in a movement to promote equality and fairness in the workplace.

He will be remembered as a man who contributed great things to the diversity profession. He added nuance and context and pulled ideas that were frequently out of favor into the light and into use. He will also be remembered as someone who founded a principled movement on strategic diversity management. He was a husband, father, and last but certainly not least, I will remember him as a dear colleague, a teacher and a friend.