Human Resources

Creating an anti-racism environment in the workplace

Cascade Engineering goes to great lengths to create comfortable environment.

February 1, 2013
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Dialogue around the issue of racism in the workplace began in earnest in Grand Rapids 15 years ago with the creation of the Institute for Healing Racism.

Robert Woodrick, former D&W CEO and chairman, founded the program in West Michigan, and partnered with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce to bring it to the business community.

To date, more than 2,000 people have participated in the program, which is still offered through the chamber as well as through Grand Rapids Community College’s Woodrick Diversity Learning Center.

One of the program’s early participants was Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering.

“He went to an Institute for Healing Racism, and that experience actually changed him,” said Kenyatta Brame, chief administrative officer and group senior vice president of services for the company. “He became aware of the situations in our community that he hadn’t been aware of before. He came back to Cascade Engineering and said, ‘I want all of my leaders to understand issues of race in this community.’”

After Keller’s experience, all the firm’s leaders were required to attend the Institute for Healing Racism, and the company began its efforts to create an anti-racism environment.

Today, the company is considered a leader for its continued efforts to develop an anti-racism environment, and this past year Cascade Engineering sought and achieved the highest anti-racism designation from local organization Partners for a Racism-Free Community.

The organization, itself an offshoot from the early days of the Institute for Healing Racism and several racism summits held in Grand Rapids, is a nonprofit that helps companies evaluate their anti-racism policies, procedures and work environment.

Lisa Mitchell, executive director for PRFC, said in order to determine which of three designations applies to a company, a committee looks at six key areas: leadership engagement; internal policies, practices and processes; external collaborations and relationships; contractor, supplier and/or vendor practices; client, congregation, customer and/or marketplace practices; and measurement and results.

At least 10 organizations have applied for designation through Partners for a Racism-Free Community.

Mitchell said there are several actions a company can take to begin the process of creating an anti-racism environment. Examples include forming a diversity group and dedicating financial and staff resources to that group, providing education opportunities to all employees, creating a strategic plan and draft or outlining policies and practices that support that plan, facilitating conversations around the history of racism and why it exists, and making sure all levels of the company participate and understand their role in moving the process forward.

One of the first steps for Cascade Engineering, according to Brame, was to develop an anti-racism statement.

Cascade Engineering is an anti-racism organization,” the statement reads. “Cascade Engineering defines being an anti-racism organization as creating an environment where all employees regardless of race or the color of their skin know they are valued. We acknowledge that racism can be unconscious or unintentional and identifying racism as an issue does not automatically mean those involved in the act are racist or intended the negative impact. As an anti-racism organization we will purposefully identify, discuss and challenge issues of race and color and the impact(s) they have on the organization, its systems and its people. We will also challenge ourselves to understand and correct any inequities we may discover within Cascade Engineering and gain a better understanding of ourselves during this purposeful process. Being an anti-racism organization is a journey and it is the learning along the way that makes this work worth all of our efforts.”

New employees go through an orientation that includes an extensive discussion of the anti-racism policy. Brame said issues of racism are discussed at all levels of the company, and company leadership is expected to take part in related programs or projects, which are typically spearheaded by employees. The company also developed a Diversity Coordinating Committee.

Last year we had our first annual Young Persons of Color Conference,” Brame said. “All the work was done by young professionals of color at Cascade. What we wanted to do was provide an opportunity for people in Grand Rapids to come together and learn how to effectively deal with issues of race in the workplace.”

Brame said the company has not yet achieved a completely racism-free environment, but he said what it has done is create an environment to talk about the issues that remain.

“We are an organization that is willing to look at, identify and address issues of racism,” he said. “I think that is the key. You want to have an environment where people can have frank and open discussions. Racism is part of the legacy of our country. It’s an onion with many, many layers. We want an environment where people of all races and ethnicities can come together and have a discussion about it in a safe environment, where you can actually ask a stupid question and not worry about being called a racist. You can actually explore some feelings you have without worrying about being labeled a certain way.”

Brame said a company shouldn’t decide to just have a dialogue about racism. He emphasized the importance of creating the right environment for that discussion or it could have the opposite impact and be quite damaging.

A couple of ways companies can help facilitate initial conversations might be through having members attend the Institute for Healing Racism or one of the lunch and learns provided by Partners for a Racism Free Community.

“Not every company has an environment where they can successfully navigate these waters,” he said.

Brame said the next step for Cascade Engineering is to identify behaviors. The company is in the process of asking itself, “Am I exhibiting the behaviors that go along with a company that touts diversity and inclusion?

“Business can have an enormous impact within the community. We have a great opportunity to provide employees with chances to communicate with a diverse group of people that they may not experience in their homes, schools, churches or other groups. Many of us spend more time at work than we do at home. Some of us spend as much time with our coworkers as our families. Getting to know and understand the people we work with can enrich the work experience and our personal lives.”

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