In the nearly two years that have passed since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and sparked a nationwide wave of civil unrest, the business community has responded with internal and external commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.
According to a group of experts in a recent MiBiz roundtable on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Jazz McKinney, Thomas Pierce, Misti Stanton
The roundtable, sponsored by University of Michigan Health-West, covered best practices for companies to make meaningful progress on DEI within organizations, such as investing in DEI positions and departments and actively listening to marginalized employees. Additionally, these best practices are spilling over into the not-for-profit and public sectors as ongoing efforts focus on closing disparities in access to affordable housing, health care and economic development.
Participated in the roundtable:
- Jazz McKinney, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Pride Centera non-profit LGBTQ advocacy group and resource center;
- Thomas Pierce, DEI program coordinator at the University of Michigan Health-West; and
- Misti Stanton, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at commercial bank.
Here are some highlights of the discussion.
What are the most pressing disparities and equity issues you address in your work?
MCKINNEY: We see a variety of things because we work for the LGBTQ community as a whole and are one of the only demographics to cross paths with all other demographics. We need to do better in Grand Rapids and West Michigan when it comes to mental health in general. We have a place – the 180 Network – which is supposed to be the first place and where we are supposed to be able to contact anything related to mental health, especially when it’s urgent I recently had five different people who tried to call Network 180 (during an incident) and not once did they answer the phone. Then we had to make the very difficult decision to call 9-1-1, knowing that – especially because it was a black man – we might put him in danger. I think this happens too often. We are simply faced with a general lack of funding. The second most important thing is health care and access to LGBTQ inclusive programs as a whole, because that’s not something that’s standardized here.
PIERCE: When we think about health disparities, health equity, and IED in health care…it really comes down to this idea of implicit or unconscious bias. Especially today people are hyper vigilant in trying to make sure that they are not viewed as potentially racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic or mysoginist people when most of the time people don’t even realize this that they make. I say you may not know it, but you did it anyway and caused some kind of harm. It doesn’t mean you did it maliciously or intentionally, but it still happened, so we still have to have that element of restorative justice.
STANTON: I understand that the industry I work for has hurt people, especially certain communities. I work on trying to change the narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The pressing issue for me is that a lot of people are pulling out of opportunities or jobs in this industry because as a person of color or any kind of background you feel like you’re not welcome in this space . I’m constantly working on how to change the narrative and give us a different view of what the financial industry looks like. But I also understand that this system is not necessarily designed and built for people from diverse backgrounds.
What kind of institutional change is needed to address the continued lack of access to capital for communities of color?
STANTON: Education. It starts when you are born, but we try to teach something when people are adults. This education begins in elementary school and even before that in kindergarten. We can’t wait for someone to reach a certain age and say we need to teach them financial literacy. It’s the policies and procedures in place that impact how I buy a home or get a loan or survive. These are deep-rooted things that affect what I try to do in my space.
PIERCE: West Michigan is an extremely philanthropic community, which is wonderful. But a lot of those philanthropic dollars sometimes tend to channel a certain ideological route. We’ve seen a lot of nonprofits become very large and fundraising efforts become very large. So when does it become your responsibility to be part of the solution? At what point does it become our responsibility – whether you are a for-profit entity or a not-for-profit institution, small or large – that part of your mission is: what are we doing to prevent this? When we talk about financial literacy, it’s a pipeline. Health literacy also plays a role. What are we putting in place to make sure the fairness element is there?
MCKINNEY: Access is an important element, and it relates to communities of color who may not have the same level of access. When you have an entry-level position that requires five years of experience, it’s like: Where do people get that experience? Well, it’s the communities that have access to it. We prepare people to fail.
STANTON: I was very intentional about the build (Mercantile’s $60,000 scholarship program for college students) to make sure students were successful and had what they needed to potentially get in and out without debt, or have less debt, whatever we can do. It’s about empowering students, period.
PIERCE: That’s wonderful. I think we’re so caught up in the business case and the need to be transactional, but you can’t expect this community that’s been disenfranchised by what you’re doing to give you something in return. It doesn’t have to be “I give this to you, you give this back to me”, because if you do it for the right reasons and with the right intention and not the ROI, the ROI will go back to you.
What do you consider to be best practices for companies to take meaningful action and not just “check the box” with DEI?
STANTON: People will always be skeptical of what you say or do. I’m really passionate and intentional about getting to know people. We have a commitment. Yeah, we have a diversity statement and all those things for people to see, but it’s my job to make sure it’s not just words and it’s not just tick a box. We have a lot of internal things that hold people to account. I’m also very intent on making sure I hear the people I work with, so if you’re not comfortable with those conversations I’m going to develop and design something in-house where you can listen to a recording yourself and do your job. I think it’s really important that I always listen.
MCKINNEY: For me, being the box checked, people aren’t always ready for the box checked. I was, let’s just say, happily fired by the organizations that hired me, and then I did what I said I was going to do and they weren’t ready. Especially since 2020, it’s the thing to look good right now. ‘To see? I did the thing, I hired the DEI person. I’m not going to listen to them, but I hired them. This is to ensure that this person also has support.
PIERCE: I could list probably 50 different initiatives that are common in corporate environments. We talk a lot about performative action and what it is. Performative actions without responsibility or commitment are a spectacle. DCI initiatives cannot be a show, they must be what we do.
How can public and nonprofit leaders begin to make a difference on housing disparities and improve access to affordable housing?
MCKINNEY: They need to listen to people who talk about housing disparities. That’s it. It reminds me of a picture where there was a panel discussion hosted by a former president that was about women’s health, and the picture was nothing but old white men. That’s what we do with housing. We ask the wrong people.
STANTON: I always come back to education, education, education. You develop and design something based on what you think you need, instead of asking what I can afford and what I need. You build it in a space where you think I need to live, not where I choose where I want to live. I just think there is a lack of understanding of the real needs and some of the barriers and challenges.
What is your level of optimism as massive sums of COVID-19 relief and infrastructure money are flowing to communities? Are you optimistic about equitable and inclusive development, or do you fear it could exacerbate long-standing disparities?
MCKINNEY: Where is the money going? Does it really come to the community? I certainly haven’t seen it. There are nonprofits trying to grow as a business, and that’s where the money is going. For the people who are at the base and in the field, where is this money? Even if you ask the community where that money should go and do the complete opposite, then why ask?
PIERCE: We in Grand Rapids believe we have arrived because we have more cranes building apartment complexes than we have ever had before. But who will live in them? We love this economic boom and this need to build more housing, so we charge an arm for it. And at the same time, it goes directly against all the initiatives, declarations and proclamations about creating the most diverse and inclusive city possible. Beneath the surface, we are just pushing people away under the guise of economic development and urban planning.