Walk the talk: Local business leaders gear up for action to foster inclusive workplaces

Last year, a group of Dubuque business leaders gathered to hear Northeast Iowa Community College President Dr. Liang Chee Wee and former John Deere Dubuque Works Operations Manager Ernest Jackson offer a perspective that many in the group had never experienced: Being a minority in the workplace.

Wee and Jackson, who also owns of Ernest Jackson Painting LLC, shared experiences with code-switching, the way some workers of underrepresented populations — including people of color — consciously or unconsciously alter expressions of themselves because they feel the need to “fit in” or not stand out in their jobs or other settings.

These alterations can include their speaking style, slang or colloquial language, vocabulary and dress. Often, they do this because they have a challenging time feeling accepted at their jobs and/or finding their way within an organization or profession. Even worse, they might be dealing with overt hostilities within a truly unwelcoming environment. The stress can lead to employees underperforming and eventually leaving.

After the presentation, the other leaders in attendance expressed how eye-opening the discussion was. Here were two peers opening up about workplace challenges that they, as minorities, have faced. If someone who now is a president, CEO or other high-level leader could feel such discomfort, how might employees at other levels of an organization feel?

This type of learning and dialogue takes place every other month when the Business Leader Equity Cohort meets. Convened by the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, the cohort formed in 2018 with the understanding that for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to truly take hold within an organization, top leaders must understand the issues facing minority workers and fully commit to building workplaces where all people feel welcome.

When they first came together more than two years ago, the cohort members all shared a commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. The reasoning speaks for itself: The talent pool locally and nationally is becoming less racially, ethnically and culturally homogeneous, and these potential workers need to feel that they work for an organization that values them for who they are.

Since forming, the members have focused on deepening their knowledge through guest speaker events, enriching readings and frank discussions. Beyond the code-switching conversation, the group has dug into issues like the value of mentoring and community engagement for retaining minority employees and how organizations should respond to and address issues of the day, including anti-racism demonstrations.

Many gatherings include guests from local organizations sharing the experiences of people in the communities they serve. At one meeting, the cohort welcomed Pastor Stan Samson, of Dubuque Paradise Church, which has a predominantly Marshallese congregation.

He led a discussion about the economic and health challenges Marshallese residents face and how they could benefit from better engagement with employers and programs that prepare youth for local jobs.

Today, the cohort is looking to translate their learning into action. In other words, “We need to walk the talk.”

• How do companies support efforts in the K-12 and higher education systems to help Dubuque’s increasingly diverse student population train for in-demand jobs?

• In what ways can companies support career advancement for employees of color?

• What can businesses do to help move unemployed and underemployed workers into a pipeline that leads to good-paying jobs?

• How can the business community support the city of Dubuque’s poverty prevention plan?

Solutions to such complex challenges aren’t simple, but they are within reach, especially when a group of leaders — no matter how different their organizations seem on the surface — works together with a shared commitment toward diversity and inclusion.

The cohort members also understand that to make the biggest impact possible, the group must grow. We are actively looking for top leaders from businesses and organizations of all sizes, representing all sectors, to join us. The only requirement is a commitment to fostering a welcoming and inclusive culture throughout the business community and the Dubuque region as a whole.