A Hunt For Diversity, In Harlem Seven Sales Executives From At&t Experienced A Bonding Trip Unlike Any They Had Known.

Posted: August 09, 1999

NEW YORK — On any given day in Harlem, there are street vendors, African hair braiders, Asian store owners, and Puerto Rican and African American shoppers walking through the three square miles that are the heart of black American culture.

One thing there is not a lot of is white people.

So it was a bit odd when six white sales executives from an AT&T office in Bala Cynwyd began walking up to strangers on 125th Street on Thursday asking where they could find a Jamaican meat patty.

They were in Harlem for a corporate-team bonding experience, and the meat patty was on a list of 13 items on this diversity scavenger hunt.

Why Harlem? Couldn't they just have rented a condo on the beach like they usually did?

Not this time, said the seventh member of their team, Joe Quinones, its only African American.

"For the past seven years, I have been going to the beach and doing things that did nothing to speak to my culture," Quinones, 36, a Harlem native, said before the trip. "I even boycotted a couple of them. This time, I wanted to do something that spoke to me."

He said his team was up for the challenge.

"They're saying, 'This is something that I have never experienced and probably never will if I don't go.' There is a lot of nervous excitement," Quinones said.

After clearing the trip with his sales manager, Quinones and another sales executive, Joey (short for Josephine) Janson, 43, put together the bonding trip to the Big Apple.

But instead of a guided tour, Janson, also a former New Yorker, said she wanted to make sure her coworkers got outside of their comfort zones.

"I developed the scavenger hunt so people would look for things they normally wouldn't see if they were strolling along," she said.

Items on the list included a flyer being passed out and a book with an African or African American theme. But the first item was the hardest.

"Where am I going to find a Harlem/Morningside Heights bilingual community directory?" Betty Williams, 41, asked her colleague, Linda Colache, 32, while looking at their scavenger-hunt list.

The two women, both wearing black shirts and khaki shorts, walked down 125th Street on a mission. They had figured out where to find a meat patty. But they were still looking for something African when Colache said she remembered seeing an art gallery up the street where she could get a brochure.

But what about the directory?

"I'm sure there is a community center around here that would have it," Colache said.

"The woman at the restaurant said to go to Fifth [Avenue], turn right, and go to the park," Williams said.

"We do not have to go to that park," said Frank Froncillo, 43, a 19-year AT&T veteran and the group's sales manager, looking askance up a side street to the park.

Flustered, Williams looked around and stopped near a man selling Spanish "coco ice" on the corner. After taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and asked him if he knew where she could find the directory.

He stared at her blankly and said, "No hablo ingles," and shrugged his shoulders.

Still determined, Williams turned around and yelled, "Anyone speak Spanish?"

No response.

Froncillo said the group usually goes on a team-building event once a year.

Because four of the people have been in the group for less than a year, this trip was crucial.

"This was important, because this particular team is in transition," he said. "Just last year, it was just Joey and Joe. . . . It's real important to me, because the diversity of this team is very intense."

Though each person on the team deals with corporate growth accounts individually, the members are judged as a team when evaluations roll around, Froncillo said.

"It's very difficult to put together a teaming event that would satisfy everybody," he said. "In 17 years of management, I'm out of ideas, so I turned it over to the two veterans."

The group left its City Avenue office at 8:25 a.m. Two and a half hours and a spirited van ride later, the coworkers found themselves in the lobby of the historic Apollo Theater.

At one time, a black entertainer had not truly "arrived" until he or she played at the Apollo, said Billie Williams, the theater's tour director and group sales manager. There are murals in the lobby with photos of people who performed at the Apollo at the beginning of their careers. Williams had a story for each of them.

When he led the AT&T people into the 1,400-seat auditorium, Williams had them walk down the aisles the same way he said the young black audiences head to their seats. "Hey! What's happening?! All right now! I will talk to you after the show," the executives shouted while laughing, waving, and smiling at imaginary audience members.

Once onstage, Williams explained the legend of the "Tree of Hope." It is a tree trunk that artists rub for good luck before performing on the Apollo stage. Luck is exactly what most people need.

Since 1934, Wednesday has been Amateur Night at the Apollo. Williams made no secret that Apollo audiences were notorious for booing performers.

"This is the toughest crowd in the world," he said. "They will boo you if your hair and shoes don't look right."

After setting modified ground rules of no booing or judging individual performances, Williams let the AT&T group put on its own amateur competition. Quinones, Betty Williams, and Dan MacFarland, 43, told jokes.

But Froncillo stole the show.

"For those hidden talents you never knew I had, nor did I," he said after taking off his hat and rubbing the tree trunk with his bald head. Then Froncillo performed an improvisational tap dance - very improvisational.

After the coworkers had a picture taken of them rubbing the Tree of Hope, they headed to Lenox Avenue for lunch at Sylvia's, Harlem's crowned "queen of soul food" restaurant.

None in the group but Quinones had ever been to Harlem, and a few had some questions about the food.

"I've had black-eyed peas before. Does that count?" Betty Williams asked.

"Candied yams," Colache said. "We make those for Thanksgiving."

"Betty, you can't order a salad. That doesn't count," said Karen Sandloop, 37, a sales executive.

Owner Sylvia Woods was in the restaurant that day and stopped to take a photo with the AT&T team. But not before she greeted the actor and comedian Chris Rock, who smiled as he politely shook the "queen's" hand.

She told the AT&T group that she had considered opening a restaurant in Philadelphia, but the property she was looking at was too pricey.

"I can see paying $25,000 for a mortgage, but I am not going to pay $25,000 for a lease," she said.

Outside, Sandloop marveled at Woods' success. "Did you hear her say $25,000 for a mortgage?" she asked. "She said $25,000 like I would say $25!"

"Sylvia's doing quite well," MacFarland said, pointing to the two Rolls Royces with the license plates "Sylvia1" and "Sylvia2" parked in a lot next to the restaurant. "Quite well."

When they left Harlem, the coworkers spent another hour gathering the remaining items on their list from Greenwich Village.

At the end of the day, they shared their findings at Ballotto's, a small Italian restaurant on Houston Street.

Janson found all 13 items on the list, winning the competition. Williams and Colache placed second because Quinones would not accept a magnet with a photo of black women on it as something African.

"Now you know the difference between African and African American," he said.

After Thursday, they all did.

"I have never really thought of Harlem as being a cultural place," Sandloop said. "At the restaurant, I noticed businesspeople meeting, friends meeting there. It's no different than anywhere else."

Betty Williams had similar thoughts.

"I was apprehensive about going to Harlem, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," she said. "But it made me appreciate my four and a half acres of land."

That was good enough for Janson.

"I love New York and all of the diversity and wonder it has to offer," she said. "I am extremely pleased we persuaded our team to come here."

Quinones thanked everyone for their open minds.

"I am glad that Frank trusted my judgment to come up with an event that would be ethnic and speak to my cultural background," he said.

Not certain that she would be hanging out in Harlem again anytime soon, Colache said she was glad she had come. "I think that if I ever had to do that, I would have wanted to go with Joe."

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