Eric K. Foster, a diversity and inclusion consultant, launched a recent talk with a nugget of science: The human genetic code, or genome, is 99.9 percent identical throughout the world.
It’s DNA that is responsible for people’s individual differences. But apart from biology, racism in the corporate world continues to widen differences among people, all of which still determine who gets hired, who gets tapped for promotions, who serves on boards and whether a corporation or company will enact diversity and inclusion policies, said Foster.
“Diversity is a high-minded idea that everybody should accept, assuming everybody embraces diversity,” Foster said at a recent Partners for a Racism-Free Community Lunch and Learn Series held at the YWCA West Central Michigan in Grand Rapids.
Foster cultivated workplace diversity long before he decided to strike out on his own and launch late last year the Diversity and Inclusion and Governance Counsel, which is retained by organizations that want help integrating diversity and inclusion policies into the workplace.
Foster’s previous stints include advancement officer for diversity and inclusion at Hope College; interim chief of staff, legislative assistant and communications director for U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas; special assistant/former director of the nonprofit scholarship organization The Imagine Fund; and public affairs advisor for the law firm Holland & Knight. He currently serves as vice chairman of the Grand Rapids Urban League and of the Kent County Black Caucus and is a policy volunteer for the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP and a member of Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell’s Wage Theft Task Force.
Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, Grand Rapids is racially comprised of 64.6 white; 20.9 percent black; 15.6 percent Latino; 10.7 percent foreign born; 4.2 percent from two or more races; 1.9 percent Asian; 0.7 percent Native American and 0.1 percent Pacific Islander, Foster noted.
“We have diversity in this city,” said Foster. “What we don’t have is inclusion and equity.”
A study by the National Coalition for Health Equity concluded that among the top 100 metro areas in the United States, Grand Rapids/Wyoming rated 87 out of 100 in terms of racial equity for African-Americans, giving the two municipalities an “F” grade based of the following criteria:
**61 percent of blacks experience residential segregation.
**The neighborhood income gap for blacks is 19.7 percent less than whites.
**Blacks are 29.4 percent more likely to be unemployed in Grand Rapids/Wyoming.
**50 percent of Latinos experience residential segregation.
**The income gap for Latinos is 2.1 percent less than whites.
**Latinos are 4.2 percent more likely to be unemployed in Grand Rapids.
But there are bright spots, and those are reflected in some of the area’s most prominent employers, said Foster, who mentioned Cascade Engineering, Spartan Stores, General Motors, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Fifth Third Bank.
Why is this true?
Partly because these corporations have more than a “kumbaya diversity plan,” said Foster.
“They have to have values that are clear and concrete of who they embrace” he said.
Specifically, companies with effective diversity policies have a clear definition of diversity that can be turned into a report available to the public and contains specifics that communicate the organization’s diversity and inclusion values and provides a summary of the history and challenges to achieving diversity. These companies have a compelling diversity and inclusion value statement, non-discrimination policies that are comprehensive and consistent, diversity/inclusion assessment strategies and training, and an action plan.
Moreover, diversity policies should encompass all departments with uniform assessment factors, take inventory of explicit and implicit barriers to inclusion, and prepare all employees for the seriousness of diversity policies, according to Foster.
Byron Township-based Spartan Stores’ diversity and inclusion statement affirms diversity and inclusion are “an important part of our overall business strategy. As we continue to identify initiatives that integrate diversity with our goals, we will demonstrate our commitment and strengthen our company.”
“They tell me they have a set of tools to advance diversity for specific reasons,” Foster said of Spartan’s statement.
Cascade Engineering’s diversity policies are equally concrete in its “journey to be an anti-racism organization.”
“We believe in the values of diversity and inclusion,” Cascade Engineering’s website states. “More specifically, we believe in the diversity of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experiences, and the inclusion of people regardless of their race, color, sex, language, national origin, religion, orientation or age. In addition to supporting the principles of diversity and inclusion, Cascade Engineering is on a journey to be an anti-racism organization.”
“You don’t change anything if you don’t have policies that stand for something,” said Foster.
Some organizations, such as Foster’s former employer Hope College, actually have established diversity and inclusion positions in their businesses, boards of directors and associations. For those that do, Foster advised making that person report to the CEO “who buys into that diversity value.”
Diversity initiatives require money. Foster advised that businesses that are serious about inclusion policies add such initiatives into the budget, including training or credentials, external relations, philanthropic funding and internal and external communications.
Foster defined external communications to include former employees or board members who are people of color who speak well of the organization’s reputation.
“The point is to have people of color share the company’s values to potential customers in the community,” said Foster.