May 25th marks two years since Minnesota police office Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. In that time, the United States has seen protests supporting Black Lives Matter (BLM), calls for more accountability and police budget reallocation, and promises to do better by BIPOC Americans.
In the corporate world, promises abounded.
As William Michael Cunningham, CEO of Creative Investment Research told Fran Teplitz, Green America’s executive co-director for business, investing & policy, as of June 2021, 261 corporations pledged $67.186 billion to BLM-related organizations—with little to no transparency or accountability.
Companies boasted their commitments to diversity and progressive workplaces, even while reports revealed that companies making solidarity statements had 20% fewer Black employees on average than the ones that said nothing.
It shouldn’t take police brutality or the deaths of Black people in the streets to catalyze change. The numbers show such a change is already both desired and beneficial. Numerous studies reveal most employees want inclusive workplaces, and diverse companies performing better financially, creatively, as well as in areas of engagement and decision-making.
One action businesses—even the smallest ones—can take is prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) through training and education.
Green Business Network member Takoma Park Silver Spring (TPSS) Co-op has been undertaking such an endeavor since 2019.
General Manager Mike Houston shared insights about this process, including its origins, areas that need improvement, and what it means to show up and do the work.
What prompted TPSS to take this step?
Houston: This started in the fall of 2019. We had our board elections and after seeing the Takoma Park City Council go through similar training, the board was interested in doing the same.
We have 50 employees that come from 20 different countries, so we’re a diverse co-op to begin with, but that didn’t mean this wasn’t something we needed to do.
TPSS began reaching out to consultants and getting proposals on scope, timing, resources, and cost for thorough and sincere DEI training. Then COVID hit.
Houston: Everything got put on hold, and then put on hold again. But there was such a desire to do this and have the board and staff do it together. We picked back up again in fall 2021 and kicked off in February 2022.
We had to make sure we dedicated enough time, especially for the staff. It’s a comprehensive program we’re going through, and we needed to make sure we could get everyone—even in a virtual space—together at the same time.
Depending on the make-up of a business, as seen following the 2020 BLM protests, many DEI statements or commitments can come across as—or genuinely be—the work of a white savior complex. What expertise and choices did TPSS make when mapping out this training to avoid that?
Houston: Leah Kedar is our trainer, she runs The Kedar Group. Part of her coaching focuses on the historical perspective.
We’re incredibly lucky to be in Washington, DC. We’re going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We do those visits on our own and then come back for a debrief.
We’re also fortunate to have a diverse staff to enrich this experience. But I’ve talked to other co-ops and they’re looking to increase the diversity of their staff. What I say to that is: change the pool you’re recruiting from, look in new places.
What are TPSS’ ultimate goals with DEI training?
Houston: The Board oversees the store with policy. And if we’re going to tackle issues that were done historically, intentionally—like systemic racism—we must be intentional in our direction and policies.
It’s getting everyone to the same place in terms of learning the history of what's happened in this country. So that when we go to look at the policies of how the stores run, how we get people promotions, what we pay people, all the different things that go into running a business, we're working from the same set of facts and can make equitable policy decisions.
Then there's the interpersonal. It's a good training opportunity for the staff. We so rarely get the time to step off the sales floor and think about big picture things.
What did you wish you had known in hindsight?
Houston: We’ve only had three sessions so far, with several more upcoming.
There’s nothing I’d change, but it is crucial to understand this is a time commitment. It’s a good idea to plan not just a couple of one-hour sessions, but several longer sessions with a trainer. You want the trainer to get to know your organization to help create solutions and programs that are specific and helpful.
For the board and employees, it comes down to acknowledging and accepting it’s a big part of what we’re doing this year, maybe the only big thing we do this year. You don't need to try to squeeze in extra things. You're saying, “We value this, this is worth our time, this is our priority.” It's okay to put other things off in service of that.
Studies have shown there are bottom-line and financial benefits to having a diverse company. How do you view this?
Houston: I certainly think there could be a bottom-line benefit. It wasn’t a factor in the decision for us, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be for other people or companies.
For us, it was important to have that historical learning, to have that understanding as we make store policies, or advocate for policies more broadly. If you're doing business in this country, if you either have a diverse staff or desire to have a more diverse staff or customer base, we're not all coming from the same set of knowledge.
What have you gotten from the DEI training so far?
Houston: It’s been powerful. The Holocaust Museum left an impression as I went through the history—it all happened a lot faster than I realized. You can't help but connect these things back to current politics and policies, so, again, historical context is important for understanding the world that we exist in to do business.
It's also seeing the staff from a different point of view, hearing them. Some have felt comfortable sharing personal things, things from countries that they grew up in. It's really powerful. These are people that I've worked with for years and years, but you know, you're hearing new stories and seeing them in a different light than, you know, walking through the aisles and figuring out what products to sell.
Are vulnerability and being uncomfortable critical to the success of DEI training?
Houston: I absolutely think so. It’s important to have those expectations that you’re going to be covering uncomfortable topics and confronting things in life you may not think about a lot.
There are several organizations whose mission is to help businesses become more inclusive and just. Maybe your business will be next.