By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Re-affirming their commitment to education, equity and diversity, Alaska Airlines (Alaska) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) unveiled its new 737-900ER aircraft named “The Commitment” on Monday to a diverse crowd of executives, employees, students, parents and media.
With the words of Nelson Mandela prominently displayed on its side, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” the aircraft is symbolic of Alaska’s 15-year relationship with the UNCF and support of UNCF’s fundraising efforts.
In a statement about the unveiling of the new airplane, Alaska stated that they, “believe education is the key to equity and representation, with the power to transform the lives of young people –– opening doors to careers in aviation and beyond. In partnership with UNCF, this special aircraft is a symbol of our commitment to education and advancing racial equity at Alaska Airlines, and we hope it inspires others as well.”
Linda Thompson-Black, Area Development Director for UNCF Northwest/Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, says that the plane and what it represents is a culmination of a relationship with Alaska that is continuing to evolve and flourish.
“We are here today to celebrate the launch of Alaska Airlines’ “The Commitment”. This plane embodies the ideas, and the partnership Alaska Airlines has with the UNCF,” says Thompson-Black. “It is an absolutely gorgeous plane and I think it is going to be an inspiration to people locally and across the nation.”
Inspired and designed by Alaska’s Black employees and allies, images that adorn the exterior of the plane feature 14 profiles of the next generation of leaders, the children of Alaska’s employees.
According to Alaska, this collaboration is designed to promote racial equity and strengthen the ability of young people of color to continue their education after high school. Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci, who has been on the job for just a month, is proud of what the airline has been able to achieve through their partnership with the UNCF and is excited about what this relationship holds for the future both inside and outside of the company.
“Alaska’s values – own safety, do the right thing and be kind hearted are the foundation of who we are and what drives us to be the airline people love,” says Minicucci. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are about valuing each person’s uniqueness and life experiences so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives.”
“As a company, we know we are not yet where we need to be when it comes to diversity, but we are inspired and guided by our value to do the right thing,” he added. “With this aircraft, we are doing the right thing by amplifying the conversation around education, equity and belonging and taking it to the skies.”
Dawned in Black, light brown and brown coloring the plane is unlike any other airplane you may have seen when it comes to design and color. The artistry designed by Ade’ Houge, a designer out of Chicago, and Jonny Mack, a former manager/brand creative for Alaska, out did themselves when it comes to exterior aircraft design.
“I had the wonderful job of using my hands to blend the beautiful with the practical,” says Houge. “I got to take ideas and turn them into something physical. I truly enjoyed designing and the process it involved.”
Why is the aircraft important? Based on input from employees, Alaska set three areas of focus as part of their commitment to racial equity: increasing Black, Indigenous and people of color representation in leadership to reflect the diversity of their whole company, working with community-based organizations to positively impact the lives of young people through education and cultivating an inclusive culture within the company.
Accordingly, the company is expanding its programs of outreach, recruiting and career pathways to cultivate and support diverse talent and continue to work closely with employee resource groups and external partners to learn and improve the way they do business. A key driver of this initiative is Alaska’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion group, whose most visible fruit of their labor is “The Commitment” and the impact that it will have on the lives of young Black and Brown students.
Although Alaska has aircrafts that have honored veterans and displayed Disney characters, “The Commitment” is the first of its kind in terms of its significance because it is the first aircraft to address the social issues of today.
Tuesday’s inaugural flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. will be “The Commitment’s” first in-service flight for Alaska. After which, the aircraft will fly regularly across Alaska’s network inspiring conversation, raising awareness and spreading the word about the UNCF. Onboard, guests will be able to learn more about the aircraft through a custom seatback card and digital resources featuring bios of the students on the aircraft, details on Alaska’s DEI commitments, and information about the UNCF, including how to donate miles to support college students.
In 2017, UNCF became a partner with Alaska through their LIFT Miles program, which enabled guests to contribute airline miles alongside the company to ensure travel does not hold young people back from pursuing their dreams of education. To date, Alaska and its guests have contributed more than 13.4 million Alaska Airlines miles to fly students to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for college tours, career development events, and other UNCF programs.
With their renewed commitment, Alaska will donate one million miles annually to support students attending HBCUs. In addition, Alaska has also established a scholarship through the UNCF to help students overcome the financial obstacles of getting a college education.
According to Thompson-Black, the UNCF provides more than $100 million in scholarships to students each year, and has helped more than 500,000 students attending schools across the country, including 37 HBCUs, to earn college degrees since the organization’s founding.
Alaska and the UNCF are both proud of the work that they have done and hope that together their efforts will help build a pipeline of students who will enter the workforce and drive innovation, diversity and inclusion.
“HBCUs are much more than schools,” says Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the UNCF. “They are places where Black students can feel safe, welcomed, and embraced by the college community. Additionally, the nation’s HBCUs make up just 3% of America’s colleges and universities, yet they produce almost 20% of all African American graduates and 25% of African American graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the critical industries of the future.”
“While small in number, our HBCUs are landmarks to our past and keys to our future. They enable us to keep a legacy — by their very existence,” he added.
This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Seattle Medium through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.