Sonya Hughes sees success in how organizations have embedded diversity and inclusion into their everyday operations. Photo by Michael Buck
The day the Business Journal sat down with Sonya Hughes, Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center had just released its VoiceGR survey, which found that racism is “very much an issue” for 11 percent of respondents and “somewhat of an issue” for another 33 percent. One-third of respondents said they’d experienced discrimination in the past year.
Despite the disappointing survey results, Hughes remains optimistic for the future of racial equity in Grand Rapids.
Hughes has spent her entire career working in the areas of diversity and inclusion. She spent 11 years with Michigan Trails Girl Scout Council before joining the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, where she has been for the past 15 years.
In a way, she fell into her work with the Girl Scouts.
“I was volunteering and ended up accepting a job targeting predominately black girls.”
She said she was discovering her own voice at the time, realizing she could make a difference in the world around her. She noticed that, while well intentioned, the outreach the Michigan Trails Girl Scout Council was doing around attracting young minorities was not effective.
“There was a special program designed to go into the school system. I was told it was targeting schools that had been identified as ‘failure to thrive.’ When I came in, I realized they were all inner-city schools that were predominantly black children. The idea of ‘failure to thrive’ being placed on a racial group, we were looking at racialized outcomes, and it was not recognized that it was structural racism,” she said.
“I could see the program could be so much more, and I was in a system that didn’t have any understanding of racial equity,” she said.
Recognizing her skills, the organization invited her to join its staff. “It changed my career path,” Hughes said.
While she was interested in racial equity previously — citing her own experiences with racism and discrimination — her new job gave her a way to be a change agent.
“I was raised to believe I had accountability to myself, my family and the world around me,” she said. “Girl Scouts was the first time I was able to work through an organization to work on racial equity.”
She joined the Girl Scouts just as the organization was undergoing a national diversity and inclusion effort, and the Michigan Trails Girl Scout Council had just brought on a new executive director, Lorena Palm, who had a good grasp of racial equity issues.
Hughes was able to leverage the opportunity.
“When Lorena Palm came in, she had her own personal awareness and allowed me to create my own path of work.”
Hughes underwent training in design and program development at the Girl Scouts’ national headquarters in New York and learned how to train others. She was able to create unique programs for different audiences.
“It wasn’t a ‘one size fits all,’” she said.
There were many internal changes that occurred within the organization that helped the staff become more effective in working around diversity and inclusion.
“I think the experience at the national headquarters was the best take-away: learning how to work within a system that has a racialized structure and learning how to help lead change within that system.”
By the time she left the Girl Scouts for the Grand Rapids Chamber, Hughes had advanced from program coordinator to director of adult training and inclusion.
She joined GRACC just as it was embarking on its Healing Racism program, with several influential community leaders championing the program and racism dialogue in Grand Rapids.
“Bob Woodrick, who owned the D&W food (store) chain, brought the conversation here,” she said. “Bob was very influential in the community, and he had his own personal awareness around racism.”
At GRACC, she began working with business leaders who, she said, were doing what they knew was the right thing but who also understood the importance of putting a business framework around what they were doing — the “what’s in it for me” factor.
“When times get more difficult, you have less resources, time and money, and the things that don’t feel like a business imperative go away.”
GRACC members wanted to make sure diversity and inclusion efforts would become embedded in a company’s culture so the initiatives would not disappear in tough times.
Hughes said conversations evolved into a dialogue about “what is inclusion and how does inclusion impact culture?”
“If we can’t keep talent, we can’t be innovative in a way that is going to keep us competitive,” she said.
The success Hughes sees is how organizations, including the chamber, have embedded diversity and inclusion into everyday operations through organizational strategic initiatives. For example, at GRACC, diversity and inclusion used to be a program, but today it’s a division within the chamber.
“It’s not something that, if resources aren’t available, it’s not going to get done,” she said.
Hughes is proud of GRACC’s continued leadership. She noted it is the only chamber of commerce that has racial equity programming around education and awareness.
It is also the only chamber in the country that has an LGBT-specific initiative. GRACC launched OutPro for LGBT professionals last year and has seen great attendance at its monthly networking events.
“When we think about inclusion, we think of it in all aspects of what we do: How do we include the business community and people in a way that matters?”
Hughes noted it’s important for minorities to see themselves reflected in the community.
“That is a way to create a sense of belonging for talent,” she said. “I belong here — I see my reflection. I am with other professionals that happen to identify as LGBT community members and I can socially move throughout this community with less of a sense of isolation.
“That is one of the things I’m most proud about here at the Grand Rapids Chamber. We are looking at this from a strategic level of what does it mean for inclusion to occur in Grand Rapids.”
Hughes said businesses need to understand the difference between strategy and tactics, and tactics need to support the strategy in a meaningful way.
“Since I’ve been in Grand Rapids and at the chamber, I do see companies moving from tactical to strategic approaches,” she said.
Hughes said one of the most important pieces of advice she has for others is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“When we don’t expose ourselves outside of our comfort zone, we don’t really understand the water in which we swim,” she said. “You have to be uncomfortable to understand and take notice. That would be an exercise I wish everyone did on a weekly basis — get uncomfortable.”
She said a report like VoiceGR is what continues to push change.
“Racial equity, as you can see in the report, really dominates outcomes in a unique way that, if we don’t look at it, we could really miss it as a community,” she said.
“If we aren’t the ones on the receiving end of those inequities, it can escape our consciousness, but that is how we get at inclusion: waking up our consciousness and understanding our implicit bias and what it does to the lens we see the world through.”