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Published in Economic Development

DEI experts say early education, listening, investing key to meaningful change

BY Sunday, April 10, 2022 06:41pm

In the nearly two years since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and sparked a national wave of civil unrest, the business community has responded with both internal and external commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Whether those widespread actions mark a true commitment or serve as empty gestures depends on how those companies invest in resources to resolve racial and other disparities and listen to people in disadvantaged positions, according to a panel of experts in a recent MiBiz roundtable on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Jazz McKinney, Thomas Pierce, Misti Stanton

The roundtable discussion, sponsored by University of Michigan Health-West, covered best practices for businesses to make meaningful DEI progress within the organizations, such as investing in DEI positions and departments and actively listening to marginalized employees. As well, these best practices carry over into the nonprofit and public sectors as ongoing efforts seek to address disparities in affordable housing access, health care and economic development. 

Participating in the roundtable were:

  • Jazz McKinney, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group and resource center;
  • Thomas Pierce, DEI program coordinator at University of Michigan Health-West; and
  • Misti Stanton, diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Mercantile Bank.

Here are some highlights from 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 that cross every other demographic. We need to do better in Grand Rapids and West Michigan on mental health in general. We have one place — Network 180 — that’s supposed to be the premier place and where we’re supposed to be able to reach out for everything mental health related, especially when it’s urgentI recently had five different people try to call Network 180 (during an incident) and not one time did they answer the phone. Then we had to make a really tough decision to call 9-1-1, knowing that — especially because it was a Black male — we could be putting him in harm’s way. I think that happens way too often. We’re just dealing with a lack of funding across the board. The second biggest thing is health care, and having access to LGBTQ-inclusive programs as a whole because it’s not something that is normalized here.

PIERCE: When we think about health disparities and health equity and DEI in health care … it really boils down to this idea of implicit or unconscious bias. Especially today, people are hyper vigilant about trying to make sure they are not seen as anyone who is potentially racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic or mysoginisitic when really most of the time folks don’t even realize what they’re doing. I say you might not be aware of it, but you still did it and caused some kind of harm. That doesn’t mean you did it maliciously or with intent, but it still happened so we still have to have that restorative justice piece to it.

STANTON: I understand the industry that I work for has harmed people, especially certain communities. I am working on trying to change the narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The pressing issue for me is a lot of people are opting out of opportunities or jobs within this industry because as a person of color or any kind of background you feel you are not welcomed in this space. I’m constantly working on how to change the narrative and also 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 of diverse backgrounds. 

What kind of institutional change is required to address the ongoing lack of access to capital for communities of color?

STANTON: Education. It starts back when you’re born, but we’re trying to teach something when people are grown. This education starts back in elementary school and even before that in preschool. We can’t wait until someone gets to a certain age and say we need to teach them about financial literacy. These are the policies and procedures in place that impact how I buy a house or how I get a loan or how I survive. This is deep-rooted stuff that affects what I’m trying to do in my space.

PIERCE: West Michigan is a hugely philanthropic community, which is wonderful. But a lot of those philanthropic dollars tend to funnel a certain ideological way sometimes. We’ve seen a lot of nonprofits get really big and fundraising efforts get very large. Then at what point does it become your responsibility to be a part of the solution? At what point does it become our responsibility — whether you’re a for-profit entity or nonprofit institution, small or big — to have part of your mission be: What are we doing to prevent this? When talking about financial literacy, that’s a pipeline. Health literacy plays into that, too. What are we putting in place to make sure the equity piece is there?

MCKINNEY: A big piece is access, and that speaks to communities of color that might not have the same level of access. When you have an entry-level position that requires five years of experience, it’s like: Where are people getting this experience? Well it’s the communities that have access. We’re setting people up to fail.

STANTON: I was very intentional about building (Mercantile’s $60,000 scholarship program for college students) to make sure students were successful and had what they needed to be able to walk in and walk out potentially debt-free, or have less debt, whatever we could do. This is about empowering students, period.

PIERCE: That’s wonderful. I think we get 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 something back to you. It doesn’t need to be, ‘I’m giving this to you, you’re giving this back to me,’ because if you’re doing it for the right reasons and with good intent and not the ROI, the ROI will come back to you. 

What do you consider best practices for companies to take meaningful action and not simply ‘check the box’ with DEI?

STANTON: People will always be skeptical of whatever you say or do. I’m really passionate and intentional about getting to know people. We have a commitment. Yes, we have a diversity statement and all of the things so people can see them, but it’s my job to make sure they’re not just words and aren’t just something that checks the box. We have a lot of internal things that hold people accountable. I’m also very intentional about making sure that I hear my people that I work with, so if you’re not comfortable with having these conversations, I’m going to develop and design something internally where you can listen to a recording of yourself and do your work. I think it’s really important that I always listen.

MCKINNEY: For me, being the checked box, people aren’t always ready for the checked box. I have been, let’s just say, happily let go from 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. ‘See? I did the thing, I hired the DEI person. I’m not going to listen to them, but I hired them.’ It’s making sure that person also has support, too. 

PIERCE: I could list out probably 50 different initiatives that are common among corporate environments. We talk a lot about performative action and what that is. Performative actions without accountability and commitment are a show. DEI initiatives can’t be a show, they have to be what we do. 

How can public and nonprofit officials start to move the needle on housing disparities and improving access to affordable housing?

MCKINNEY: They need to listen to the people who are talking about the housing disparities. That’s it. It reminds me of a picture where there was a roundtable put on by a previous president and it was about women’s health, and the picture was nothing but old white men. That’s what we’re doing with housing. We’re asking the wrong people.

STANTON: I always go back to education, education, education. You’re developing and designing something based on what you think I need as opposed to 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 or want to live. I just think there’s a lack of understanding of really what the need is and what some of the barriers and challenges are. 

What’s your level of optimism as massive amounts of COVID-19 relief and infrastructure money is sent out to communities? Are you optimistic about equitable and inclusive development, or do you fear this could exacerbate long-standing disparities?

MCKINNEY: Where’s the money going? Is it really coming to the community? I sure haven’t seen it. There are some nonprofits that are trying to work themselves out as a business, and that’s where the money is going. For the people who are grassroots and on the ground, where’s this money? Even if you’re asking the community where this money should go and do the complete opposite, then why ask?

PIERCE: We in Grand Rapids think we’ve arrived because we have more cranes building apartment complexes than we ever have before. But who’s going to live in them? We are loving this economic boom and this need to build more housing, then we charge an arm for it. And at the same time, it’s working directly against every initiative, statement and proclamation about creating the most diverse and inclusive city we can. Underneath the surface, we’re just pushing people out under the guise of economic development and urban planning.

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