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RBJ Diversity & Inclusion Summit: Going beyond the basics, establishing sustainable methods of inclusivity

At one time, Eric Ellis thought of himself as a sort of “diversity Ghostbuster.”

Ellis (File photo)

Ellis (File photo)

“When I first started doing this work 30 years ago I thought my job was to be like a diversity Ghostbuster. I could go into organizations, sit them down as racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobes,” said Ellis, who is president and CEO of Integrity Development Corp. “I did that for two or three years in the early 90s, and then I realized that that wasn’t very effective. So I changed my approach from one where I was blaming and shaming people to one where I was owning my own prejudices. I believe that bias is a human condition and all of us have bias.”

Ellis on Tuesday was the keynote speaker in session one of Rochester Business Journal’s annual Diversity & Inclusion Summit. He was joined later in the morning by a panel of local business and organization leaders including moderator Kevin Beckford, of University of Rochester; Candice Lucas, of the African American Health Coalition; Ray Isaac, of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning; Bill Carpenter, of Regional Transit Service; and Barry Thornton, of Excellus Health Plan.

Recognized by the Society for Human Resources Management as one of the top 100 Diversity & Inclusion experts in the world, Ellis on Tuesday made a number of recommendations that organizational leaders and other participants could use to help their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts:

• Decide if you want to engage.

“I honestly believe that if this is a subject that you’re not really feeling then you have the right to sit it out. It’s important to be authentic in your beliefs and do the things that you think are valuable,” Ellis said.

• Establish listening events.

“When you seek to gain the perspective of another, it literally has the ability to bring down your unconscious biases, to bring down your inflated self-perception, to drive up your empathy toward others,” he explained.

• Destigmatize bias so that people have an opportunity to identify their bias, own it and to reduce it.
• Embrace active listening.
• Strengthen your inclusion efforts, don’t pause them during the pandemic.

“We are seeing right now that inequity is being manifested, even in terms of who is contracting the virus, and there is a disproportionately high percentage of impact on people of color,” Ellis said. “If we look at who are our essential workers and the way that we’re having to work them, I think that we need to not pause our inclusion initiatives but accelerate them.”

• It’s important that you recognize that you have diverse constituents. Ellis categorized those constituents as protest advocates, nonviolent protest supporters, those who do not support protesting and those who are loyal to the system. He suggested leaning in towards protest advocates and protest supporters, but remain respectful of those in the other categories.
• Develop strong challenging strategies.

“Turn this moment into a fairness, justice and equity movement,” Ellis said. “Rochester has so much beautiful diversity. In many ways you can be a model, a micro-pilot for the rest of the nation, on how we deal effectively with diversity.”

Ellis suggested that ultimately the question we need to ask ourselves is what actions will we take to meet this moment with sustainable transformation.

“The reality for all people is that we’re all unique,” he said. “They want to be able to bring their authentic self to work. They want to be able to tap into the talent, skills and abilities and utilize those in meaningful ways.”

Creating people-centered workplaces is essential to improving and increasing diversity and inclusion, Ellis said.

“This is what I believe. That sustainable inclusion — in other words, your ability to maintain a focus on being inclusive — has to equal maximized business success,” he said. “I believe that as we drive up our inclusive workplace, we then increase our ability to be successful in these areas. The less inclusive we are, the more difficult it is for us to maximize our result in our people, culture and wellbeing. I believe that as you become more inclusive you then move away from favoritism, you move more to equity-based promotions.”

In fact, Ellis added, when companies add more diverse talent to a team you double their probability of finding the correct solution.

“We know that organizations that are more diverse in terms of their racial makeup, their gender makeup, that they make more money, are financially more successful than those who are at the lowest place in terms of their level of inclusion around race and gender,” he said. “The keys to success, I believe, are No. 1, you’ve got to enroll and educate C-level leadership. Breaking news: People look at your C-level leadership and whatever they are meaningfully involved in, invested in, the people see that the organization respects the value in that.”

Ellis’ speech was followed by short break-out groups designed to engage the roughly 150 attendees in meaningful dialogue around sustainable inclusion and challenges to using his model. That was followed by a panel discussion in which each individual talked about how their organization was addressing diversity and inclusion and what their role in that was.

Thornton (File photo)

Thornton (File photo)

Thornton, as executive vice president of operational excellence, said in the last three to five years his focus in the diversity and inclusion space has been as executive liaison from Excellus’ executive team to the office of inclusion, which has entailed helping to develop strategy, remove barriers and hold both the team and leaders accountable.

Both Thornton and Carpenter said that taking courses such as the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County’s Person2Person and Debby Irving’s 2017 “Waking Up White” seminar helped them in their journeys to inclusivity.

“Just because you’re fair and loving doesn’t mean you’re being inclusive or understanding of people with different backgrounds, different views on gender, sexuality and certainly people of color,” said RTS CEO Carpenter, noting that much work has been done at the company over the last several years around diversity and inclusion and getting staffers engaged.

Isaac said you have to create an organization that is as much action as words.

“How you act as an organization is going to come from that top position,” Isaac said.

Beckford, who in addition to his work as senior director of staff diversity at UR was the first Black councilmember in Pittsford, said there is humility in the work of diversity and inclusion.

Beckford (File photo)

Beckford (File photo)

“I don’t believe it’s a destination; it’s a journey,” Beckford said. “We need to get beyond PowerPoints and discussions and programs and we need to get into how do we do this. We need to get to the practical aspects of it.”

Lucas added that it has to be part of the culture of an organization, not just a program or something on the side. One of her mentors said when you are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, people of color have a Ph.D. in the topic, while white people have a third-grade education.

“This is something that’s part of the (company) culture,” Lucas said. “It’s in your mission statement. It’s in everything that’s done. It’s in the way you hire. It’s in the way you evaluate. It’s in the way you prepare people for advancement, who’s being chosen for professional development.

Lucas (File photo)

Lucas (File photo)

“There’s an old saying that says diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. But I think there’s more to that. I think inclusion is being asked to help plan the party,” she added.

At a time when individuals are at odds with how to deal with systemic racism, at a time when protests against police brutality have become a sort of norm, Ellis said we are right now in a moment where racism and racial injustice is what we are trying to focus on. The answer, he said, is in inclusivity, and it is the only thing that is sustainable.

“This is not a topic that lends itself for sound bites or quick run-throughs. We share a few PowerPoints, but that doesn’t get at the heart of how we’re feeling. I refuse to be hopeless as an individual,” Ellis said. “I believe that we do need to put pressure on institutions to do the right thing. But I’m not waiting on biased or systemically racist organizations to change until I can get some hope for tomorrow.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021 / @Velvet_Spicer

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