KALAMAZOO — Creating workplaces where equity is the norm rather than the exception forms the basis for the Coalition for Inclusive Communities initiative.
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is one of five community foundations nationwide selected this month for the initiative, a project of Boston-based Community Foundations Leading Change, or CFLeads, with the goal of collecting best practices around inclusion.
The Coalition for Inclusive Communities group will work to advance equity in the workplace and build community cohesion. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation and other participating organizations will develop local employer networks to identify and promote practices that improve workplace equity.
Funded by the Walmart Foundation, the coalition provides grant resources to each of the participating foundations, including the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which will receive $250,000 over an 18-month period.
“The core piece here is focused on building a network in each community that will work toward more workplace equity by establishing businesses and employers who are the most interested,” said Sholanna Lewis, community investment officer with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “We have already taken the work on of recruiting them to help with landscape equity in terms of where we are in the community with workplace equity.”
In addition to her role with the community foundation, Lewis also is leading Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT), an initiative launched in 2016 by Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The program is designed as a community-based movement to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism. Kalamazoo is one of 14 participating locations nationwide, and one of four in Michigan in addition to Flint, Lansing and Battle Creek.
Lewis said the ongoing work of the Coalition for Inclusive Communities initiative in Kalamazoo County is being undertaken by the TRHT Economy Design Team. Its goals include developing an “Equity Standard Certification,” creating a network of employers committed to this process and launching a targeted effort to support and provide access, mentorship and resources to people of color.
“When you’re talking about equity, you are talking about a lot of different folks,” Lewis said. “Oftentimes, you’re talking about age, women, and folks who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community, and people of color is a big part of that as well.”
People of color who identify with these and other groups face challenges in many areas of their lives, including with finding employment opportunities, Lewis said.
“There’s a lack of understanding about the amount of change that’s actually needed to address the issues impacting people of color,” she said. “If we fail to make systemic and institutional changes that would impact the bias and disrupt the issues, as a community, we’re not going to be able to heal if we don’t address these issues on a cultural, policy and procedural level.
“There’s a lack of relationship between different groups. It’s easier for people to make decisions based on bias or preconceived notions. This is a big piece of why we haven’t addressed segregation.”
As a way to identify employers in the for-profit and nonprofit sector that are interested in working with the Economy Design Team to develop and share best practices around workplace equity, members of the team will extend an open invitation to get involved. Executives from the NAACP, Michigan Works!, the city of Kalamazoo, Bronson Healthcare, and the People’s Food Co-operative of Kalamazoo are included on the Economy Design Team.
For the People’s Food Co-op, the effort advances work the organization has done over the last eight years to address racism and bias, said General Manager Chris Dilley. That work involved a dedicated education component focused on systemic and structural racism with an acknowledgment that the issues affected the co-op as an organization.
“Our goal is to create access to everybody and eliminate barriers to them based on identifiers like race, gender, sexual orientation,” Dilley said. “We created an anti-racism transformation team for this work to identify next steps and moving into what we want to look like in areas like hiring and our pricing structure.”
The organization broadened its team that reviews applications to represent a wider range of racial groups and gender identities. It also changed the actual application to give applicants opportunities to highlight previous experience and what customer service means to them, in addition to their level of education.
As a result, 40 percent of applicants now identify as people of color, a major shift from near zero previously, Dilley said.
Lewis at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation notes companies also are turning to blind applications as another tool for creating workplace equity.
“The folks in charge of hiring don’t look at names,” she said. “This helps create a very different candidate pool and eliminates bias because people doing the hiring don’t even know who they have.”
Best practices like these are what Lewis and the team, led by Nicole Parker of ANP Consulting and Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., will be seeking to identify. The goal is to address the needs of entrepreneurs as well as the business community as a whole.
“It’s very important to be honest that there have been challenges within communities of people of color to get into the workplace,” Lewis said. “It’s important to see and understand that that has an impact in terms of poverty rates that are higher for people of color.”
Lewis said the team wants to talk with CEOs and engage frontline managers and human resources professionals because they have the ability to move forward on efforts to increase workplace equity. She said investing in people already in the community, instead of hiring from outside the area, benefits the community as a whole.
“One of the key deliverables of the grant is to create a network of employers who will continue after the grant to sustain and grow,” Lewis said. “We are planting the seeds for those standards and best practices that we think can come out of this and how far they will be utilized and how it takes hold in the community.”
Dilley at the People’s Food Co-op thinks the majority of people want to address social issues in the community, but often don’t know where to start or how to approach them.
“There’s tension there because the systems and structures of wealth building and access to education and employment have been in place for generations and are unfairly benefitting white folks,” Dilley said. “That’s hard to have that awareness and at the same time as an individual and a manager to have the mindset that ‘I’ve earned this.’ That’s really at the core of what we have to address. These are issues larger than ourselves as individuals.”
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