Commentary: Go beyond / Organizations become more diverse when they dig deep
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Sometimes facts act like snapshots. First they record a moment, then they help us remember it, then they help us understand its long-term relevance. To demonstrate, here are two local facts from each of the past two years: In 2009, Allegheny County Council barely passed an ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity -- and then only after carving out a huge exemption for religious, charitable and fraternal organizations. In 2010, census data revealed that among the nation's 40 largest population centers, the Pittsburgh region has the highest poverty rate among working-age African-Americans.
Taken together, these factual snapshots reveal that our region has work to do. We have not yet overcome persistent barriers to employment, barriers that stem from a generational legacy of racism, heterosexism and other interconnected social inequities. But the good news is that when we see contemporary employment barriers as the result of a generational legacy -- and not just momentary acts of individual discrimination -- then we can see the importance of acting collectively and acting for the long-term.
Over the long term, our region can only respond to persistent employment barriers as employers recognize how those barriers have imbedded themselves within their organizations. This is a steep challenge. Compared to overt bigotry, which has gone out of fashion, it is far more difficult to pinpoint the subtle nuances that advantage some while disadvantaging others. Besides, in our PR-driven world, organizations are resistant to the idea that they have a problem; stating and enforcing a nondiscrimination policy often seems like a sufficient response.
But it is precisely the organizations that go beyond the mere adoption and enforcement of a nondiscrimination policy -- organizations that actively manage for diversity and inclusion -- that are rising as industry leaders. These organizations are retaining loyal employees, building team cohesiveness, better communicating with customers and identifying emerging opportunities. They understand that actively managing for diversity and inclusion is a smart business strategy just as much as it is indispensable to the evolution of an ethical, socially responsible organization.
This kind of active management does not occur automatically, however. It takes time. It takes time to acquire a multilayered knowledge base, and it takes time to develop leadership capable of leveraging that knowledge to guide the organization through process-oriented change. Moreover there are no cookie-cutter solutions. Every organization must identify solutions appropriate for their business model and stage of development.
Understanding diversity in these terms opens two questions for Pittsburgh-area organizations. How do we acquire the knowledge base? How do we develop the leadership? To help Pittsburgh-area organizations answer these questions, this year a small group of local professionals started a new nonprofit entity: Working Diversity Inc. Working Diversity matches a volunteer consultant with an individual or organization. We work with organizations that have started building a diversity vision. but want to make it stronger. We also work with individuals attached to organizations that have not yet developed a diversity vision. We help those individuals become organizational change agents.
As a result of identifying this niche, Working Diversity is the only nonprofit corporation in our region that focuses on directly helping individuals and organizations create more diverse work environments. We are also different from other nonprofits and for-profit consultancies because we have no fee schedule. Instead of working to generate revenue by selling services to potential clients, we look for promising relationships where our investment in people and organizations will create a community benefit.
Although we are glad to help the individuals and organizations that grow from our guidance, our primary allegiance is to the people of the Pittsburgh region. We believe that when we help organizations create more diverse work environments, the communities where those organizations operate are positively affected. And as our region's organizational landscape changes, so does our regional ability to redress the historical legacy of identity-based inequalities. Working together for long-term change, we can reduce the hidden employment barriers that impede the social and economic development of the Pittsburgh region.
First Published October 27, 2011 12:00 am