At GM little did he realize that one day he would not only be the company’s most visible African-American in his time, but also the one steering the direction of the GM Foundation that supports community and charity-related functions.
After he was elected to the office of vice president and made head of the foundation more than a decade ago, Gillum recalled placing his first call to his mother, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher and assistant principal.
“She was overwhelmed. From her perspective this was a validation of everything she’d been telling me, that when you stay in school and work hard, good things will happen.”
Looking back, Gillum, who exits the stage this week at GM, said he is happy that as chair of the GM Foundation he made certain that the company diversified its giving patterns to “touch the least of these in our community in a very different way. We increased our profile in minority serving organizations and made certain they had the opportunity to benefit from the generosity of a great company.”
For example, GM provided financial support to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which was in dire straits a few years ago, faced with the possibility of closing its doors, and other cultural groups that were traditionally outside the charity range of the company.
“If I were to look at some of our funding priorities in the state of Michigan, we supported cultural institutions we had before. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) we have supported for years, so I made certain that the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was treated in the same manner. As you know I was chair of the (museum) board there during a difficult time,” Gillum said.
Despite indicating that as vice president he had access to the CEO and board chairman, I asked Gillum if at any point in his tenure at GM he felt like his hands were tied.
“No. I must say if I look back at my career, having a degree of freedom being a vice president of a company gave me a great deal of flexibility and there were examples where I had chance to expose others in the company to some of the major organizations in our community like the NAACP and the Urban League.”
Aside from the Wright museum in Detroit, there are several initiatives GM took under Gillum that are crucial in the Black community that he says leaves the company with a proud legacy in the community he came from.
THE BATTLE to maintain affirmative action at the University of Michigan was fought on several fronts, from activism in the streets to debates in the corporate boardrooms.
GM was the first major corporation to file an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that affirmative action was good for business. It did so when many other were either shaking in their boots to join in the battle or debating whether it was at all important to take on.
Gillum said for GM there wasn’t a lot to debate about joining the fight to maintain affirmative action.
“That was unnatural position for not only GM but for any corporation to get involved in an issue like that. We took a leadership role, developed the strategy, filed the first brief and then sent it to other corporations as an example of what they could do to join and participate and support affirmative action with us and help build that coalition from the business community,” Gillum said. “I was also very pleased to see that the brief was cited by the Supreme Court majority opinion as the demonstration of the business community’s support for affirmative action and the fact that we value it as a company.”
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