Finance manager Kimberly Clark shares her experience with the Black Leadership Forum, one of Prudential’s employee-led business resource groups.
Kimberly Clark with her children, Isaiah and Savannah.
Prudential’s eight employee-led Business Resource Groups promote inclusion and share the unique perspectives of Black, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander American, female, differently abled, LGBTQ+, military veteran and other employees. Kimberly Clark, a finance manager supporting Prudential Retirement, shared her story about personal tragedies that led her to Prudential and inspired her to bring the company’s Black community and allies together for a powerful discussion amid the ongoing movement for racial equity.
George Floyd’s death brought it all back. Those feelings of shock, sadness, rage, hopelessness and fear. Five years after a phone call woke me up in the middle of the night, here I was again, trying to keep it together at work, trying to keep it together for my kids, just trying not to lose it.
I will never forget that June night in 2015—snapping awake in bed, wondering who could be calling so late. It was my sister Amy. She was screaming, talking so fast I couldn’t understand a word.
“What happened?” I screamed back. We all know that late-night calls never come with good news.
She managed a breath. “Oh, my God, Kim. Something happened at Clementa’s church …”
Clementa was our stepbrother, a senior pastor at one of Charleston, South Carolina’s oldest Black churches, and a state senator. My sister didn’t know the details, only that Clementa had been at Bible study that evening. We had no clue of the devastation that would be revealed hours later.
I woke my husband and we turned on the news. The words “Charleston Church Shooting” flashed across the screen. We’d soon learn that nine people had been brutally murdered, gunned down by a white supremacist. Our families would never be the same.
The grief was very public. One of Clementa’s funerals was televised; President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy. Privately, away from the cameras and all the well-wishers, we all coped in different ways. My then 7-year-old son, named Charleston, asked us why this had happened. We explained as best we could.
He told us he didn’t want to go by his name anymore. Now we call him Isaiah.
Ten short months later, my sister Amy, my best friend and the deliverer of the bad news about Clementa’s death, died tragically. The trauma associated with these experiences shook my very foundation.
It was then that I began reassessing my life, including my career. I was content as an auditor at a major firm in New York City, but when I thought about what mattered most to me—I was failing. What mattered most to me at that time was simple. All I wanted was the flexibility to take my kids to school and pick them up at the end of the day. It just wasn’t possible with a commute of about two hours each way.
At the same time, changing jobs—leaving my comfort zone—was frightening. The church didn’t even feel safe anymore. I was scared to make any big life decisions in such a fragile state.
That’s why many people of color, when we move into a new place, whether it’s a new neighborhood or a new job, look for connections with people who look like us. Because, for the most part, there are not many of us in the corporate space. It can feel very isolating, uncomfortable, and unsafe.
Fear, I knew, was holding me back. Did I want to look back in 20 years and still be an auditor because it was the only thing that I was brave enough to do?
One thing was certain. I needed to be working for a company that I was passionate about, that supported me as a person, not just an employee.
My search eventually led me to Prudential. It was close enough to home that I could really be there for my kids. My colleagues across the Retirement business made me feel welcome. In finding Prudential’s Black Leadership Forum, I would also connect with others who I identified with and worked together to make an impact. Of course, I had been a part of business resource groups in my previous companies, but there was nothing like the Black Leadership Forum at Prudential. After two years of being at Prudential and committing to the Black Leadership Forum, I felt like I’d settled in. I’d made the right move.
Then George Floyd was killed. Amid the pandemic and the protests, those feelings from just a few years earlier resurfaced.
I was already stretched thin, working from home with an additional, unexpected job—teacher to my two kids, now learning from home with our schools closed; coupled with just trying to stay healthy and alive during a pandemic. The social unrest we saw on television, the grief and anger I felt at yet another Black person losing their life at the hands of people who vowed to protect us was just too much.
That’s why what happened next mattered so much.
Messages from Prudential’s Chairman and CEO Charlie Lowrey and other leaders, acknowledging the pain that Black and Brown folks were experiencing, trickled down throughout the company. In emails, on conference calls, it was like a wall fell down. Suddenly, people on my team, colleagues who were too afraid they’d say the wrong thing, or weren’t sure they should say anything, reached out and asked how I was, voicing their empathy and support. That meant a lot.
I committed to listening sessions, fireside chats and town halls that were all aimed at giving members of the Black community at Prudential the opportunity to speak and, more importantly, be heard. We were encouraged to share our experiences, talk to people about microaggressions and unconscious biases that they might not realize are causing us pain. At the same time, Prudential acknowledged that it hadn’t always been on the right side of history—hosting a program for employees detailing how one of its own underwriters at the turn of the 19th century influenced policies that kept Black people from obtaining equal financial services.
It did come to a point where it was exhausting. I didn’t want to be the representative for all Black people—none of us did. As great as it was to share our real experiences and know that people wanted to help, our community couldn’t neglect our own needs. I thought about what I needed after these traumatic losses. My new focus was my own mental health and healing. We also needed that same focus now as a hurting, professional community.
At our annual Black Leadership Forum symposiums, there are always offerings for personal and professional development and networking opportunities. As far as I knew, we’d never done anything on community healing or mental health. I spoke to one of our Black Leadership Forum executive co-leads and pitched him the idea.
“Let’s talk about what we’re feeling, you know, unapologetically, let’s talk about the sadness, the rage and exhaustion, and all of the other emotions that we have been forced to feel,” I said. “Let’s give our community the permission to be vulnerable and allow them space to begin healing.”
“Great idea,” he said. “Let’s do it!” I discussed the idea with my executive mentor at the forum to lay out the plans and get feedback. She loved the idea and made a simple request: share my own story.
A good friend of mine is a top civil rights attorney—I invited him to talk about the racial disparities we face, and what we could do to stop feeling helpless and influence policy. In the Black community, most of us are connected in some way to our faith, so I also invited the founder and director of a nonpartisan Black faith-rooted organization in New Jersey to speak about the healing process from a spiritual perspective.
After sharing my own personal journey with grief and loss, I heard from many others across the firm dealing with grief—the loss of loved ones to other acts of violence or to the coronavirus that has impacted so many lives. They expressed that they didn’t feel as alone anymore. Through grief, we had a connection and could relate to the pain. These topics are not easy to talk about, especially with coworkers.
I am heartened to see that Prudential is still listening, talking, and walking the talk. While most of us would love to forget 2020, from where I sit, the company and my colleagues aren’t forgetting the things they learned and the commitments made to improving racial equality and equity. The work is in progress, and even though we’re removed from our physical offices, you can feel things shifting in a new direction.
Four years into my grief recovery journey, I’m in a much different place. A peaceful place. My journey to healing and prioritizing my mental health is one I’ll be on for the rest of my life. At Prudential, I’ve found a new comfort zone—one that only exists because, finally, so many others are breaking out of theirs.
I’ve benefited from the support of management, my colleagues, and my involvement in the Black Leadership Forum. And I’ve encouraged my colleagues to join one of Prudential’s business resource groups. They’re not just about personal and professional development but about how we can personally impact, support and inspire others along the way. They’re good for the soul.
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