Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Respect, value and appreciate the talents and contributions of everyone. We have a unified schools program where students with and without intellectual disability play sports together. Through this experience and the power of play, students without disability learn about the skills and talents of students with intellectual disability and through this experience they are more respecting and understanding of difference.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Mary Davis.

Mary Davis is the Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics. She has been a longtime leader within the Special Olympics movement and currently leads an international team of over 250 professionals throughout the world. Davis started with Special Olympics soon after college as a local program volunteer and coach.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in a small community in the west part of Ireland known as County Mayo. It was a very happy time for my four brothers and me. My mother had a great influence on my life because she was a strong woman who believed in hard work, in always finishing a task, and she was brimming with humility, love and compassion. We had wonderful neighbors who all gathered together to help each other when work needed to be completed and this is where I developed my love for volunteering and the power of people working together, which has helped me greatly in my career with Special Olympics.

I attended an all-girls high school in the local town of Kiltimagh and this is where I developed my love for sport and the value of sport in teaching many of the skills that would help me as I progressed in life.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Recently, with all of the racial injustices that we have witnessed, I read two powerful books by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railway and The Nickel Boys. Both books had a profound effect and made a significant impact on me. They are both powerful stories of America’s racial history; one the story of former slaves who fled the American South and their horrendous journeys through the underground railway and the other, a segregated reform school in which children were routinely brutalized and sometimes even killed by staff. They made me reflect upon the injustices and cruelties that can exist and the dreadful way that human beings can behave towards other human beings.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I remember when I was heading out to finish my studies at the University of Alberta in Canada, my mother walked out to the road where I was picking up my ride to Dublin to catch the plane and she said to me “as you set out on your life’s journey, you will get lots of opportunities and my advice to you is to grasp all of them and make the best you can out of them.” Those words have stayed with me throughout my life and career, and I have never forgotten them.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I was the CEO of the 2003 World Special Olympics Games which were held in Ireland. This was the first time in the history of Special Olympics that the World Games were held outside of the US. It was an event that impacted the entire island, made all our citizens proud and had a transformational effect on the country in the way that people perceived people with intellectual disabilities. They were seen as athletes, as teachers, as leaders, as change makers and by their presence, they transformed a nation. When the Games were over, the team I worked with gave me a framed photograph of myself together with Nelson Mandela who had attended the Games, and the quote underneath the picture was by John Quincy Adams and read: If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

This is what leadership means for me. Eunice Kennedy Shriver inspired me as a young teacher by her actions, the way she worked with, cared for, looked out for, sought justice and equality for people with intellectual disabilities and she did it with joy, love and faith, and she did it through sport and play. She accomplished so much in her life, inspired thousands and millions of people to continue to lead in her footsteps and create a world where everyone can feel a sense of belonging, and where exclusion has no place. She was an extraordinary leader and the quote above reminds me of her.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m a calm person by nature with a fairly balanced personality. I try to prepare thoroughly for whatever is coming my way and when the unexpected turns up, I dig in and deal with it. I am not really prone to procrastination. If the work needs to be done, I get on with it and get it done, rarely by myself but with the help of an amazing team of people that I am fortunate to work with. I find exercise the most effective way for me to relieve stress and it just makes me feel great, renews my energy and helps my concentration.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Special Olympics is all about inclusion. Our vision is world of inclusion and community, where every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. Intellectual disabilities don’t discriminate, and neither do we. Intellectual disabilities transcend race, income, gender identity, and everything else that makes us human.

I am proud that Special Olympics has people with intellectual disabilities on our international board of directors. We have many people with intellectual disabilities on staff at our headquarters office and in our local offices in over 190 countries and territories. We have formal functions built into our way of working that deeply values the inputs of people with intellectual disabilities, including the Global Athlete Input Council, made up of eight Special Olympics athletes from around the world who are elected by their fellow athletes and entrusted to speak on behalf of athlete interests to the international board, the organization as a whole, and the general public.

Our next global strategic plan will begin in 2021, and we started crafting it over a year ago. Before the recent protests sparked by the senseless killing of George Floyd, we recommitted to prioritize and invest in urban communities to ensure the diversity that exists in the world is reflected in our movement.

COVID-19 has shown the deep disparity people of color face in accessing quality health care. People with ID face similar disparities, and the recent protests and resulting global conversation give us the opportunity to make sure we are being intentionally anti-racist in our programming. It’s not just about getting more people of color onto the playing field. We have a real chance to make a difference, particularly for people bearing the double disparity of being Black and having a disability.

Like many other organizations, Special Olympics is using the energy around the Black Lives Matter protests to make sure we are doing enough to reject racism. We have created a board-supported diversity and inclusion committee to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion in our own workplace. Black people make up nearly a quarter of our global leadership team.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Every executive is familiar with ROI — return on investment. I also firmly believe in another kind of ROI — return on inclusion. There are countless studies about how a diverse executive team boosts the bottom line. When executive teams are diverse and inclusive, that’s when you see a shift in organizational culture. That’s when you see elements of the strategic plan reflect overlooked communities and undervalued markets. That’s when you see marketing and fundraising unearthing untapped consumers and donors. That’s when you see employees and volunteers stepping outside their comfort zones in the name of growth. Inclusion among executives goes beyond diversity, and it prevents tokenism throughout organizations.

I have been thrilled to witness the thinking evolve around the importance of diversity among executive teams over the past several years. As millennial audiences and consumers continue to grow in importance, diversity and inclusion have become essential. Special Olympics has been doing this for over fifty years. We are often viewed as a legacy brand, but we have been champions of inclusion and diversity since our inception.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. LISTEN. It is important to listen to people’s views and hear what they have to say. For example, after George Floyd’s murder, we held an all staff forum for employees to share how they were feeling and to share their experiences. We wanted to create a safe space where people felt they could express their fears and voice their frustrations. We also set up a D&I steering group and a taskforce to lead this work.
  2. ENGAGE. Involve people as part of the solution. In Special Olympics our athletes are the leaders and teachers of inclusion. They are Global Ambassadors, Health Messengers, Board Members and play an active role in all aspects of the organization.
  3. RESPECT. Respect, value and appreciate the talents and contributions of everyone. We have a unified schools program where students with and without intellectual disability play sports together. Through this experience and the power of play, students without disability learn about the skills and talents of students with intellectual disability and through this experience they are more respecting and understanding of difference.
  4. ACT. Actions speak louder than words. We must not just talk about how we are going to be more inclusive, each of us must be part of the change that we wish to see and not stand on the sidelines and wait for someone else. We need to be active participants. Through our Global Youth Engagement Program, Special Olympics has inclusion leadership projects that create an opportunity for young people around the world to convene through local summits in their own countries and regions to learn and grow from each other.
  5. COMMIT. The journey towards inclusion requires long-term, focused attention and everyone must be committed to staying the course in building a more equitable and diverse society for all.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Yes, I am always optimistic that change can and will happen if we follow the five steps above, have the right attitude and an open mindset towards all our fellow human beings, the value they can bring to our lives and the richness we can experience by being inclusive in our actions.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany because I admire her as a Global Leader. She is down to earth, very collaborative, full of integrity and she shows compassion in the work she does.

How can our readers follow you online?

Special Olympics is on Twitter @SpecialOlympics. We are also on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Medium, and our website iswww.specialolympics.org

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Learn more about Meditation