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CEO Roundtable: Diversity, equity and inclusion

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Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson discusses diversity, equity and inclusion with DEI directors Daniel Ogunyemi of Ozarks Technical Community College, Keke Rover of Burrell Behavioral Health and Taj Suleyman of the city of Springfield.

Eric Olson: Let’s begin with this title: chief diversity officer. It’s fairly new in organizations around here. What are the tasks you’re responsible for?
Daniel Ogunyemi: I think all of us are directors. I think, functionally, we all serve ... as a primary diversity officer for the institution in which we represent. The responsibility of the role is to really set the strategy and vision for what it means to have diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. There’s a lot out there about DEI, much of which is misinformed. A lot of it is set in the strategy and the vision surrounding what DEI means in our particular workplaces. Day to day, that can look like some consulting on particular issues. Sometimes, it can look like putting out fires. Other times it can look like recruiting and serving on hiring committees. A really important part is the educational piece. There’s community building.
Keke Rover: You hit on something that’s pretty important, too, that this role is dual. It’s a community role and it’s also an internal role. We are tasked with handling a little bit of both or a lot of both, honestly. Working in the mental health field, a lot of time is spent toward education, training, and recognition and celebration. In this role, you are teaching along with coming alongside educating folks, but also giving space to marginalized identities to utilize their voices as well. Long term, what would be awesome is that you’ve created this culture of inclusion to where you don’t have to ... spend so much time in the education piece, but you give everyone the tools to be able to learn on his journey together and practice, what is inclusion? Long term, that would be the ideal situation is that you’ve coached everyone how to do it and you’re there to help manage it.

New expectations
Olson: What do companies need to know before they hire a chief diversity officer? I almost didn’t want to say chief. Is that in itself a noninclusive term or an offensive term?
Taj Suleyman: It might be kind of a connotation. Are we referring to a tribal chief? There are scholars who argue about even the definition. I appreciate institutions like the city of Springfield that they have an idea of what the position would look like. Are you looking for celebration or are you looking for changing the system? Because that requires work. We’re talking about a system that was developed years before I existed. You want to hire someone to give you that productivity and that outcome. It’s hard to quantify it because the system itself is built to have problem/solution, problem/solution. We’re talking about compliance. It creates a level of fear, even with those who have not heard of DEI, and now we’re coming in to change that culture ... which some are comfortable with, but some are not. How do we develop this inclusive, equitable workspace to provide inclusive services to the community members? How are we culturally competent, proficient, and is your culture the one I have to assimilate to, or do we have an inclusive culture between you and me that we both fit in?
Ogunyemi: Keep it fluid, but I think also respecting and understand that DEI is a profession. I think historically, in many ways, we still look at it from a moral perspective that this is the right thing to do. So, the way in which you look at any other department in your organization, you need to look at DEI the same way, but understand that the DEI profession looks a little different than marketing. How does this fit into the fabric of what you’re trying to do? Why do you want this type of a role in your organization? Do you want someone who’s going to come in and be a trainer? If you do, then say that; let that person come in and be a trainer. Don’t ask them to do anything else but train. But if you want someone to come in and be chief diversity officer or whatever the title may be, give them the same resources and attention and priority as you would any other business line. The other part about when you asked about chief. It’s not super mainstream right now, but there have been conversations around the word chief. It’s just part of language changes. Language always changes. It won’t be the last time we change names for anything. It’s just part of remaining up to date with language and people.
Olson: It’s so interesting because traditionally the C just represents a level of organizational structure, whether that’s chief executive, chief operations, chief technology. Would you suggest companies rethink that entire C level?
Ogunyemi: That’s what the scholars and some activists and others are saying. I don’t know yet.
Rover: I can’t speak for an entire marginalized community. I just don’t feel like I’m in the position to say yes or no. But what I can say, for each organization that does have those titles and that name in their titles, to really consider how this may affect the people that are in your community and the people that work under your name. If you evaluate that and sense that there may be some folks that don’t feel comfortable in that space, then maybe there are some changes that need to be made. That’s what practicing inclusion is all about. It is taking the time to evaluate who are the people around you, who are the people you are attracting, who’s your targeted population that you’re serving, who are your customers, and finding out internally and externally, what are you doing to help represent them? If your title is not representing that population of people well, then you need to make a change or consider a shift. When it comes to allyship, co-conspiratorship, practicing inclusion, we never fully arrive. We never get to a space where all the checkboxes are filled and ... you’ve arrived, you’ve made it, you’re done, now you’re DEI certified. That doesn’t happen. It’s not that you arrive to this certain spot; it’s that you are committed to doing the work continually. That’s the same for us as leaders in this role; we don’t arrive into places where we are the experts and know it all about every culture, every identity. It’s saying that we are committed to the journey of continually learning because you don’t get to a place where you just know it all. Culture shifts; identity throughout time, it shifts.
Suleyman: To make it more relevant now, and for the business or private sector, if you’re talking about business case, at the end business is looking for profits. They’re realizing that when they’re bringing in the DEI, it is good for business. I appreciate the level of transparency. Back in the ’70s, you were told, do your job and leave. I don’t care about where you’re coming from, your family. Just drop it outside and come in. But in reality, it’s not possible because we are parents. We are siblings. We are partners. We contribute in all aspects. I come from a different racial, gender, country or religion – we’re coming from all walks of life to contribute. The discipline that I use now with the city, the intercultural communication or competency is not tokenizing. If you don’t see the value of my background, I don’t want to be tokenized. With my communication styles, with my working styles, with my values, if it’s not going to be part of this table, and I have to shrink myself to be in this table, I don’t belong here. Recognizing diversity or inclusion could be a recipe for disaster, while it is a recipe for success. Bringing in diversity to your workspaces, actually, you are competitive within the midst of globalization. When we’re addressing this DEI, we’re not just for the sake of diversity; we are coming in to say, the world is becoming so competitive. If you don’t recognize our complex identities, then it’ll be hard for me to feel fulfilled in the job.
Olson: What rings out to me is the DEI disaster scenario. To build on that, I want to read a quote from Wes Pratt. He’s the chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. This is from a column published in this issue [see Page 11]. He writes, “Too often CDO positions are merely part of a compositional or checklist approach, whereby DEI are simply buzzwords not taken seriously but only to appear as if such groups are concerned about valuing DEI.” To me, that is the roadmap to a disastrous situation. What can a company do to protect themselves from that scenario?
Ogunyemi: DEI really isn’t rocket science. We’re complex humans. Navigating that and recognizing our differences is important, but it’s not really rocket science. If I’m going to open a coffee shop, I’ve got to figure out how to roast coffee. I’ve got to at least figure out how to work those fancy little latte machines (or) my coffee shop’s not going to be successful. It’s the same thing with the DEI profession. If I want my DEI efforts to succeed in my workplace, then I have to treat them like I want them to succeed. It’s going to look different for every organization. In education, specifically in the community college, I have to figure out how to relate to students, how to relate to faculty and staff. The relationship aspect is going to maybe look a little bit different. There might be some heavy education and relationship building on the front end, just so people understand that we’re all on the same team, right? I’m not here for any other purpose but to see us all succeed.

Breaking trends
Olson: What you spoke to, Daniel, seems more like a trend, a business trend or a cultural trend. Why are your roles not a trend?
Rover: It has definitely been a trend, and people are looking for ways to say, “Hey, we’ve got this DEI leader in place,” instead of actually implementing the work. We know that this next generation of job seekers is different from even my generation. We know that 2 out of every 3 job seekers are purposely looking for employment that has a DEI leader or is doing DEI type work. So you’re talking about (a high percentage) of job seekers are out there specifically looking for places that are DEI related. And so it’s easy to fulfill that checkbox because you want the job seekers. But when you talk about retention, that’s another story. If you want the retention, as well, you have to implement the equity and inclusion piece of it. From a business standpoint, if you are looking for the employment and you want the people to come to your business or organization, then yes, it is very easy to treat this position as if it’s a checkbox instead of a culture.
Suleyman: It takes a level of commitment to say that I have this position, that it sounds good for lots of things, but you are expected with a report to show me where we are and where we are heading. We’re 12, 12 of us [diversity directors now] in the community. I haven’t seen it (to that extent) in other communities. It’s something I appreciate about our community, that we are recognizing the collective effort. Each one of us has a different focus and different capacities. It’s not an 8 to 5 job for us. I call it a calling. We are on a personal vision and mission to be in a positive, empowering, inclusive work environment. Not everyone can do this job because it could be exhausting.
Rover: It is important that we acknowledge that hiring someone to do this work means that change has to happen. A lot of people don’t fully understand that. It’s an absolute must. You’re literally asking someone to come into your space, look around and say, “Hey, this, this and that are not working.” That’s what you’re asking of us or people that are in similar roles. When you hire that person, you have to be OK with the change that comes along with that.

DEI qualifications
Olson: What are the top skills or qualifications for individuals in your roles?
Rover: There’s two levels. There’s this allyship, and then there’s co-conspiratorship. Where allyship is like you can almost pick it up and drop it off when you need it, co-conspiratorship is getting down into the roots with someone and walking the journey with them. You need someone that’s on the level of co-conspirator with all different types of marginalized identities. You need someone who is educated in a sense of this work, but then is also willing to work alongside others in educating them in this work. You have to educate; it just comes along with it. So, someone who’s equipped to do that, or someone that you can equip to do that. Maybe it’s paying for a piece of education or training. It also maybe takes someone with some tough skin, because like I said, this is not work that you can necessarily just turn off.
Ogunyemi: I think someone who’s relational, willing to collaborate, in it for the long haul, has some sense of patience. It is strategic because it’s not overnight work. It’s things that will take some strong resolve and the ability to adapt. Sometimes it’s proactive adaptations, sometimes it’s, OK that didn’t work for some reason – have to find another angle to figure it out. There are some DEI certifications, minors, even a couple of majors that are popping up.
Suleyman: Being an effective change agent is a skill that should be part of the requirements. These skills could be how to identify champions or those who are going to commit with you in this journey within an organization. I think that that’s how you’re able to identify individuals within the organization who you can engage in, who you can work with. It takes a village.

Excerpts by Digital Editor Geoff Pickle, gpickle@sbj.net.

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