Culture & the Family

OKC Chamber leader previously involved in racial controversy

November 2, 2022

Ray Carter

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce has hired its next CEO, Christy Gillenwater, despite controversy regarding her past efforts to get business leaders to sign a pledge that critics said amounted to a false confession of racism by signatories.

As president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee, Gillenwater urged CEOs and managers in Chattanooga to sign a “CEO Pledge for Racial Equality” in April 2021.

Among other things, the pledge declared that those signing the document would “educate ourselves” on the “history of systemic racism in Chattanooga and Hamilton County and the barriers that continue,” “support policies that lead to racial justice,” “improve the employment, training, advancement, support, and success of people of color in our workforces,” and “address the issues of racism, injustice, and bias in our organizations.” Signatories vowed to enact “real and meaningful change in our organizations.”

The pledge prompted pushback from some business officials and area residents.

The Tennessee Conservative, an online news site, reported being contacted by four members of the board and several other Chamber members who voiced concerns about the pledge. The news site said those critics believed the document pressured business leaders to “admit to things they do not agree with regarding unproven theories of systemic racism” and alter business practices regarding “hiring and vending positions by using race instead of merit.”

At a May 2021 meeting of the Hamilton County Commission, the Tennessee Conservative reported that one district commissioner criticized the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce for “getting involved in political and racial issues” while another district commissioner disputed any suggestion the area was racist, suggesting the area would not have experienced a strong influx of new residents in recent years if people perceived it as a racist hotspot.

In response to a request for comment from the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Larry Nichols, who served as the chair of the chamber’s search committee, defended Gillenwater, saying she was “selected as the new President and CEO after an extensive search and exhaustive review of her accomplishments.”

“She has a stellar reputation for leadership and innovation and the search committee was impressed by her economic development acumen and strong organizational management,” Nichols said.

When asked if the Chamber will be pursuing similar racial programs under Gillenwater’s leadership, Nichols suggested traditional economic issues will be a priority.

“Each chamber of commerce operates independently and sets their program of work based on the needs and interests of their membership. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber is no different,” Nichols said. “Our board works in concert with our staff, led by the President and CEO. Our work for 2023 and beyond will focus on the growth of our economy and the interests of our members.”

NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comment from the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. Comment was sought two days prior to this story being posted.