Transcending Buzzwords: DEI Efforts Can Propel Real Change

Inequity and exclusivity in professional, community, societal and other spheres were not created overnight. Yet, many organizations and partnerships have been forged to take on the consequences and effects of systems that have embodied everything but diversity, equity and inclusion. 

When asked about the genesis of the Center for Diversity and Community Engagement at Nebraska Methodist College, Director Kiley Petersmith alluded to a hallmark of the college: fostering cultural diversity and inclusivity in individuals’ professional practices that “extends beyond coursework.”

“It is embedded in our culture and backed by our core values of caring, excellence, holism, learning and respect,” Petersmith said. 

She alluded to enhanced curriculum, encompassing holistic education on disparities and “associated health determinants,” and aims to cultivate positive social change and active citizen leadership.

Learning is “book-ended” by a Community Engagement 101 orientation and the Educated Citizen capstone course to integrate participants’ roles as heath care professionals and educated citizens. Students are also exposed to CDCE mobile screening clinics, which Petersmith said emphasize prevention.

“We also utilize mobile units to improve the point of access to health care, especially for disproportionately affected populations,” she said.

For instance, its mobile diabetes center conducted 62 site visits, served 811 people, identified 370 at-risk pre-diabetics, visited 65-plus sites for vaccines, and administered 2,685 and 768 COVID-19 and influenza vaccine doses, respectively. 

Petersmith further spotlighted notable strides made in the CDCE’s first six months. Progress included the creation of an NMC DEI strategic plan, 75 community partners to support clinics and events, collegewide DEI-related training, the launch of an LGBTQ+ group, and ongoing needs assessments for faculty and staff – not limited to one-on-one meetings to pinpoint needs, concerns and opportunities.

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Future efforts include launching a DEI advisory board, undergraduate community transformation course (spring 2023), work with the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) faculty senate committee, and college-wide efforts to elevate diversity among students and faculty/staff. 

Thus far, Petersmith appeared buoyed by its community partnerships, saying: “We … are continuing to flex and model our clinics based on the needs they observe. As a result, we are continually seeing more potential partners reach out to engage and collaborate on needs.”

A Transformative Anchor

A global network of grassroots LGBTQ+ centers and organizations, CenterLink found that just seven of the country’s top 50 cities are not served by a local LGBTQ+ center. Omaha is one of them.

“Many are … rightfully frustrated these services aren’t already available,” said JohnCarl Denkovich, director of OmahaForUs, the nonprofit dedicated to growing LGBTQ+ focused, culturally-responsive programming in a new, local center. “Decades of under-resourcing this type of care means we have that much further to go.”

Denkovich noted that OmahaForUs receives daily emails, calls and website inquiries from those seeking referrals for LGBTQ+ services and support. 

“The fact that many of these requested services have no secondary referral option tells us it’s an emergency,” they said. 

In late June, the organization announced the launch of its community support campaign, aimed at raising $75,000 in 75 days. 

“The $75,000 raised from our #75k75day campaign ensures we could secure an annual lease with ample space for both the center’s operations and programming, as well as the subsidized co-location of local, LGBTQ+ serving organizations,” Denkovich explained. “So many individuals, local businesses and nonprofit organizations have already reached out to discuss partnership or volunteering.

“As thankful as I am for this outreach, I’m only one person. Until we raise the funds necessary to hire the staff we need, to me the most meaningful gift anyone can give is a donation of any amount.“

Tax-deductible donations can be made online at the website or via Venmo @OmahaForUs.

“The center is a transformative resource. In the short term and long term, a center positively impacts social determinants of health for LGBTQ+ individuals and families,” Denkovich stated. “Whether or not someone is LGBTQ+, everyone benefits from a center offering these dedicated services. With as many as 85,000 self-identified LGBTQ+ people calling the Omaha metro home, but few LGBTQ+ resources, a center anchors the community.”

Among other implications of its efforts, Denkovich said a local center supports the state’s ongoing battle with “brain drain” and workforce development. 

DEI on the Fast Track

There are myriad employee and business benefits to fostering an environment that allows employees to be their best, according to Kristen South, Union Pacific Railroad senior director – corporate communications and media relations. South noted the railroad supports a diverse culture and inclusivity – ranging from improved morale and safety to better decision-making, problem-solving and strategic thinking.

“In 2020 Union Pacific set aggressive diversity goals to be reached over the next decade,” South said. “By 2030, we want to increase our people of color population from 29.4% to 40% and double our female population to 11%.”

She referenced strides toward these goals, with its people of color (POC) increasing from 29.4% to 31.3% between January 2020 and December 2021. Other efforts to reach its diversity goals revolve around inclusivity in the hiring process. 

“We’re removing bias by using software tools to confirm gender-neutral language in all job postings, as well as providing video demonstrations and visual cues during physical abilities tests,” South added.

Union Pacific’s reimagined college recruiting spans online networking to tap into a larger, increasingly diverse pool of students from across the country – difficult to obtain via in-person university events. Additionally, she spotlighted its Second Chance hiring program, which debuted last fall. Designed to give formerly incarcerated individuals a “fair chance” at employment, South said the program aligns with DEI initiatives and builds a diverse pipeline and workforce now and into the future.

Pivoting from new to time-tested initiatives, South said its 40-year-old Supplier Diversity Program “has never been more critical to supporting our [environmental, social and governance] efforts.”

“Our spending with diverse suppliers grew 23% from 2020 to 2021 and has more than doubled since 2017,” she explained. 

Civil rights-era programs were designed to spur the use of vendor-businesses owned by underrepresented populations, and Union Pacific was reportedly the first Class I Railroad to establish a formal, company-wide Supplier Diversity program. In its first year, $10 million was spent with minority- and woman-owned businesses. Today, the program formerly centered on reporting spend and supplier counts is focused on outreach resources to connect and collaborate with businesses. 

Generating Healthy Culture

OPPD’s efforts to support DEI go back three decades. But a focus to recruit ethnically-diverse talents and better reflect customers “deepened” in 2015, according to Director of Diversity and Inclusion Joyce Cooper. Fifteen strategic directives emerged, as did its Corporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategy. Since then, the strategy’s 10 internal and external goals have been updated twice to adapt to business needs. Most recently, its D&I department committed to serving in strategic consulting roles to leadership within the business and their teams. 

Javier Fernandez, who succeeded Timothy Burke as president and CEO this summer, further directed execs to develop and implement DEI action plans aligned with its Powering the Future 2050 strategic vision. 

Cooper highlighted dozens of OPPD leadership, training, and other types of resources, partnerships, and programs. More recent highlights included the 2020 Town Hall on Race, an all-employee meeting co-sponsored by OPPD’s executive leadership team to spark “courageous conversations.”

“The conversations about race continue through small-group discussions and trainings delivered across the different business units,” she said. 

Efforts are bearing fruit; Cooper said OPPD has seen “increased representation on every level of the company.” In addition to Fernandez, she referenced the promotions of a Black woman and member of the LGBTQ+ community to key VP roles, and how women make up 50% and 27% of boards of directors and executive leadership teams, respectively. 

“There has also been an increased sense of belonging and feeling psychologically safe,” Cooper said, alluding to increased contributions and potential industry-transforming innovation.  

“Many companies like OPPD are on the same journey,” she said. “When we all work towards this common goal, collectively, we create an inclusive community.”

Inspired Action

The Conference on Opportunity, Diversity and Equity, which took place Oct. 6, merged distinguished keynotes courtesy of Janet Stovall and Jeff Raikes, pre-conference professional development and networking with numerous breakout sessions, exploring everything from workplace practices for disability inclusion to building diversity into business strategy. 

“For companies to maximize the potential of a diverse workforce, they need to empower, engage and create safe spaces for everyone to be heard, valued and respected in whatever position they hold within the organization,” said Dell Nared, director of diversity, equity & inclusion at the Greater Omaha Chamber, which put on the conference. “Research and our CODE Assessment tell us that creating a diverse workforce increases engagement and morale, which is true; however, it is not about how diverse your workplace is. The question is, ‘Are you educating your organization on how to keep it?’”

The assessment refers to the Chamber’s Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity (CODE), characterized by its Employer Coalition and CEOs for CODE groups to expand DEI in workplaces and break down barriers, and to drive changes at the executive level, respectively. 

The first step in sustaining workplace diversity, Nared said, is to ensure all employees’ traditions and backgrounds are respected and valued.

“Organizing diversity and inclusion awareness events and training activities at all levels of the organization, starting from the top, will show that DEI is a part of the company’s DNA,” he said. 

Another nod to the many topics covered in the conference’s breakout sessions, Nared referred to nine ways companies can achieve workplace DEI. The journey each company takes to “get there” varies. But the process boils down to creating a comprehensive strategy; setting key performance indicators; building fair hiring; adding DEI conversations into onboarding, meetings and website communications offering DEI education; achieving pay equity; carving out employee resource groups; developing norms on how religious, multicultural and holiday traditions and practices are recognized; and being pronoun friendly.