How to make work more inclusive and equitable

At CareerBuilder, we continue our focus on building a more equitable and diverse environment through thoughtful conversations. We hosted a panel discussion for our employees on equity and inclusion in the workforce, how companies can be useful partners to communities, and allyship. 

Our panelists are: 

  • Pastor Corey Brooks, Founder and CEO of Project H.O.O.D. 
  • Esther Franco-Payne, Executive Director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid 
  • Alyscia Raines, Founder and Principal Consultant of ADR Consulting Group 
  • Antonio River, Director of Inclusion Strategy at Intouch Group 

This panel was moderated by Tonya Mompoint, VP of Global PMO at CareerBuilder. 

Below are a few highlights from the discussion, edited for clarity. You can read more about each panelist at the end of this article. 

Tonya Mompoint: To start our conversation, I want to share with the audience what we mean when we say we are here to talk about inclusive and equitable workforces. We are all aware that diversity translates into race, religion, gender, culture, physical and mental health, etc., however, we’re here to discuss what does taking that next step to being equitable and inclusive mean. 

Alyscia, your work focuses on the holistic health of an organization. As part of this work, can you share what an inclusive and equitable workforce translates into?  

Alyscia Raines: Sometimes when we hear “DEI,” we say it in one setting, like it’s all the same. Each letter represents something different.  

Diversity is: what can we see when we look at the makeup of a group of people, in this case, a workplace?  

Where I find most people struggle with inclusion is that it’s intangible. You can’t touch it, you can’t necessarily put your name on it, but it certainly has a lot to do with feelings. So, inclusion is going to look like – do people feel like they belong? Do they feel like their workplace is inviting? Do they feel like their voice can be heard? Are there opportunities or levels of access that go across the board? These are a lot of the things that come up with inclusion; it’s a lot of feelings.  

When we think about equity – this is really about what you do. If diversity is what you see, and inclusion is what you feel, equity is going to be what you do. And if we want to be successful at creating inclusive work environments, equity has to be at the center. What does that mean? Equity looks like when we have job applications, are we including certain things that exclude certain demographics from being able to apply? Equity looks like access and literally accessing our workplace environment, or if you’re remote, does everyone have the same level of access to the materials that they need to get the job done? If we’re in person, can we adequately access the workplace?  

You have to constantly be thinking about how can I make this – insert whatever process, operation, whatever requirement – how could I make this more accessible and equitable so that everyone, in whatever way, shape or form they approach the work has what they need to get the work done and in ways that make it feels like we’re honoring our humanity and our dignity.  

And that’s a delicate balance, and it is a hard job, even as a consultant who does this work every day. It is really challenging, and yet, since we work with people, since people are the ones that make up our labor and our workforce, we owe it to those people, we owe it to each other. This is how we continue to do good work and be good to each other in community. 

Tonya: Thank you for breaking it down in that way because those are the things we need to remember – each of those words mean something. There's an action required behind each of those words. I think that was really helpful, so thank you.  

Esther, since representation, and subsequently building mechanisms to endorse equity, takes many forms, are there any additional layers of complexity of what an inclusive workforce looks like?  

Esther Franco-Payne: To me, the first thing we have to consider is, “Who is missing?”  

In order to create inclusivity in the workplace, what systemic barriers exist within our workplace that perpetuate the exclusion of others? In the work that I do and the advocacy we engage in at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, the population we work to support and the outcasts from the workforce are those individuals with criminal backgrounds and the people who are negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. The unfortunate reality is that overwhelmingly this translates to black and brown people living in poverty who have been unfairly impacted by criminal justice, from arrests all the way through incarceration.  

Just to give a few statistics: in 2020, the American prison system held approximately 2.3 million people and over 70 million Americans have a criminal record. That's estimated to be around 1 in 4 adults. The stark realization is that 38% of those impacted by the system are African-American but African-Americans make up only about 13% of the population. The “Human Resource Executive” cited that “Blacks are not equal in the role as executives or as C-Suite professionals. As only 2.3% are in senior leadership positions and only .8% hold CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies.” This leads us to the question of, “how can 13% of the population yield 38% of the prison population but lag by 75% in filling senior leadership positions?”  

We have to think about the impact of the criminal justice system and what that means as it relates to employment. There are over 1,100 unique (what we call in the field) permanent punishment laws in Illinois, and these types of laws restrict people and their rights in terms of involvement in employment, and over 900 of those prevent or hinder people from accessing jobs. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring, and applicants with a criminal background are as much as 63% less likely to get a call back or a job offer than an identical applicant without a record.  

We have to think about that and process that. We have to think about who’s missing and what this all means. We've essentially created a system that purposely eliminates a population of people from effectively participating in the workforce and being contributing members of society. And the only way to address this issue is to start with an internal analysis of our contributions to the problem, meaning examining our own workplaces, and we must ask ourselves, is our workforce inclusive? What are doing to create an inclusive workforce, a diverse workforce, and again, who is missing?  

I think overall, we are all entitled to the same human rights, and equal opportunity and access to employment is a human right. Without this recognition, we’ll continue to perpetuate the same oppressive systems that we are working to dismantle. I think that is the first question – who is missing?  

Tonya: That takes us into our next point – I’m curious to hear, Pastor Brooks, with your work in the community and how you see this, these numbers and the programs that your organization puts on, what’s your take on this? Any feedback to what Esther shared? 

Pastor Brooks: One of the things she talked about is the prison numbers and one of the things we’re trying to do with Project H.O.O.D. (H.O.O.D. stands for Helping Others Obtain Destiny), we’re realizing a lot of people are not getting opportunities. A lot of people in our community, especially young black males between the ages of 19 and 35, are missing out on trainings and opportunities to get involved in the workforce. What we try to do is give them that opportunity, give them the access, give them the training so they can become entrepreneurs or contractors or construction workers and participate in the trades because we believe when we do that, it’s one of the ways we reduce the crime in our neighborhood, it’s one of the ways we reduce poverty in our neighborhood. If we can give people an opportunity to get into corporate America, to get into places that they would normally not have the opportunity, it will help alleviate some of the problems that we face, that we’re faced with on a daily basis. Our goal is to simply do that: give opportunities, access and training.  

Tonya: Which is huge, right, because when a person is seeking resources and options, where’s the first step? Organizations like yours are at least providing that in an equitable way in order to give resources and opportunities to people who need it the most when it may not be equally provided across the board when seeking employment. I want to build on that, Pastor Brooks, when you look to partner with a company, what do you look for in an effective partner? Are you looking at how they handle diversity, inclusion and equity as well?  

Pastor Brooks: Absolutely. We try to pick companies that have some type of diversity policy that fits what we’re trying to do. That means, when we partner with individual companies, we want to know that when we train individuals, when we give individuals the counseling and the tools that they need to work for you, you are going to assist them in any type of way in making sure that they are successful. Not just us training them and developing them and turning them over to you and they just go to work – no, we want to make sure that you still have adequate resources, adequate tools and that you’re going to be patient enough to help that person become successful. A lot of the companies that we deal with, our relationships are based on them trying to help us but also us trying to help them. We want to make sure we send individuals who are ready to be in the workforce and who have worked out all their barriers, and at the same time realize these individuals might need a little extra as far as the help to become successful.  

Tonya: It’s very intentional, your approach. It isn’t just about the resource that your organization can provide in that moment, it’s about the continuous journey for that person, ensuring they have everything they need to be successful from that point forward, not just in that moment. That's really awesome.  

Alyscia and Antonio, you are both DEI practitioners who actively work to either change an organization from within or from the outside. Based on your experiences, what are some of the challenges you’ve seen organizations face, and how do you think best to address them?  

Antonio Rivera: When you talk about change, you’re also talking about resistance. They kind of go hand-in-hand. As we’re partnering with leaders, we have to be empathetic, because we’re all unlearning and learning things. That’s one of the biggest things that I dig into as I come up to these challenges.  

One challenge is a lack of empathy. I think people don’t practice it enough to have it in the right moments that matter most. One of the ways we work to practice empathy is to create or integrate experiences into existing workshops and educational opportunities that practice things like empathetic writing, where you’re reflecting on the emotions of someone in the audience. We have a notepad or a chat to decompress because you wind up with a lot of emotions. We create space to practice that empathy because we know it’s there, but you have to practice it when it’s prime time. Sometimes you’ll talk to people and they’re like, “oh I treat people equally.” Yes, but lean in and validate some of the stories you hear from the people that come to you, especially if you employ a lot of people. For example, if you’re a white manager and have several black employees, empathy goes a long way.  

Lack of prioritization is another challenge. We want to boil the ocean and that’s a problem. We have to go little by little, take steps to create a plan. That takes me to the next challenge which is a lack of self-awareness. I think the first step is knowing where your barriers are and realizing that you are part of the issue. We all are part of the problems that exist for other people because we all walk around with prior biases and we’re all constantly working on ourselves. We have exercises on biases integrated into the workshops that we do where participants make lists of their networks and identify common themes. We find ways to integrate opportunities to practice self-awareness and understand your biases.  

The lack of alignment on language is a challenge. Language is critical and great people like Angela Davis gave us really powerful phrases to help us communicate complex concepts. It's really important that we focus on the language. When we talk about equity, what do we mean? People use it interchangeably with equality – no, equity is the process, it’s ongoing, it doesn’t end. Equality is the outcome. Inclusion is a choice; it’s not the same as diversity.  

Those are the things I feel like are challenges but the way that we help is work with department leaders to find ways to integrate into the employee experience as learning opportunities.  

Tonya: Very actionable, very realistic, very actionable but takes intention. Alyscia, what would you add to that? 

Alyscia: I think when we talk about all the things we want to do when we want to create equitable and inclusive work environments, we have to be realistic about the challenge that presents. I wanted to uplift a lot of what I heard Antonio say. Two big things I’m walking away with that Antonio shared were about a lack of empathy and a lack of self-awareness. We can’t think that we can show up and benefit our communities and our workplaces if we don’t know ourselves, if we don’t know the biases that we hold, if we don’t know the privileges that we hold, and if we don’t know the marginalization that we hold. We can’t be expected to advocate on behalf of others if we don’t know ourselves.  

There are a couple of other things I would throw in there for when we think about how to create inclusive work environments. A lot of the work of my organization is thinking about sustainability so that when you are thinking about how to develop new initiatives or programs, whatever idea you have for the DEI umbrella you want to bring to an organization, it has to be rooted in the mission, values and goals of your org.  

It cannot be an add-on, it cannot be supplemental; we really have to think about what is the present mission, what are the present values that we have at our organization right now? Where does equity seep into that? How can I fit inclusion into what’s already there? Because if what you do is just an add-on for one specific month or one specific program, or one specific town hall or one specific affinity group, you will miss the mark. It will feel performative and it won’t be long-lasting. You will lose out on that motivation because it was never rooted in who you are and who your company espouses to be in your current operations. Don't try to add on new things. Find where it already fits and exactly who you are and then we develop out goals as far as what kind of programs and initiatives that we’ll do.  

So that's one barrier. The other is that I would just add that when we think about instances, like we brought up racism as an example, we do a disservice to ourselves when we only think about it on an interpersonal level, as if racism only exists between two people or a small group of people or at one particular place. We're not looking at it for systemic values and the ways that it’s structurally and systemically and systematically embedded into the fiber of our country. It is an ugly truth of our nation and it’s up to us to continue to name it for what it is.  

We can’t act like it’s just on this lower level of “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist.” Literally the systems with which our country operates are racist, are sexist and it’s up to us to keep disentangling and deconstructing if we really want to see us living out a vision of equity.  

Tonya: That’s awesome. What you highlighted there is being intentional but also integrating – it's not the thing on the side, it’s part of the fiber of what we do.  

Thank you to our panelists for a great conversation! We hope their insights help you in your efforts to improve diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives at your company. Keep reading to learn more about them. 

Alyscia Raines, Founder and Principal Consultant, ADR Consulting Group LLC 

ADR Consulting Group, LLC seeks to vitalize organizations and embolden employees. Founded by Alyscia Raines, M. Ed., a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner with nearly 10 years of experience, the firm's goal is to help organizations to create inclusive work environments where everyone is treated with respect, dignity, and equity. We work with colleges, universities, K-12 schools, nonprofits, privatized corporations, government agencies- frankly any place where people want to bolster inclusive spaces and cultural competency. ADR provides workshops and training related to equity and inclusion, as well as coaching services for those who want one on one feedback on how to operate with equity as a lens. Additionally, ADR Consulting Group offers consulting services for those who would like a more hands-on approach from our team, utilizing data and assessment to create sustainable change. The hope is that clients feel empowered to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion with data-informed results, a toolkit in their pocket for sustained progress, and trusted accomplices to navigate the journey. 

Alyscia Raines, M.Ed. serves as Principal Consultant and Trainer at ADR Consulting Group LLC. Alyscia has been engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work for nearly 10 years, facilitating workshops, producing scholarship, leading trainings, and coordinating large scale cultural programs. Alyscia’s portfolio focuses on providing clients with solutions to create more inclusive workspaces, with a health and wellness lens. 

Pastor Brooks, Founder and CEO, Project H.O.O.D. 

Pastor Corey Brooks is the founder and Senior Pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago and founder and CEO of Project H.O.O.D Communities Development Corporation. Pastor Brooks attended Ball State University, University of Florida, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Grace Theological Seminary. He has been pastoring since 1990. He established New Beginnings Church of Chicago in November 2000 in the heart of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood - this opportunity was his first glimpse into the despair in the city of Chicago served as the catalyst to his ongoing efforts to date.  

Pastor Brooks and his wife Delilah have fully invested in the community of Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side. He and his wife are spearheading a community initiative called Project H.O.O.D. to revitalize the neighborhood. Through it, they are raising up a new generation of peacemakers, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs. Current Project H.O.O.D. programming includes a Core and Carpentry Level I course, which places participants in entry-level construction jobs post-program, an entrepreneurship course and separate business workshops for aspiring and new business owners, a co-working office space for business owners, job placement programs and community-wide events including The World’s Largest Baby Shower. 

Esther Franco-Payne, Executive Director, Cabrini Green Legal Aid  

Esther Franco-Payne is the Executive Director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, where she leads the strategy, fundraising and overall management of the organization. With a long career in violence prevention and criminal justice advocacy, Esther’s personal commitment has been to serve as a voice for underserved communities of color. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, she understands the issues that permeate communities impacted by crime, poverty, and disinvestment. Through her work with CGLA, Esther aims to spread CGLA’s impact through Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois. She is a long-time advocate who has engaged the public in the development of effective criminal justice and juvenile justice policies and continues to educate the community about issues related to exposure to trauma, violence prevention, and criminal justice reform.  

Ms. Franco-Payne is an alumnus of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. She is a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, the federally mandated State Advisory Group to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Department of Human Services and Chairperson of the DMC Committee, focused on eliminating racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.  

She was a member of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Research Advisory Council and was recently appointed by President Preckwinkle as chairperson of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) Community Advisory Board.  

Before the creation of the Illinois Justice Project, Ms. Franco-Payne worked for Chicago Metropolis 2020 and Metropolis Strategies where she was a staff member with the Justice and Violence Group, the predecessor to the Illinois Justice Project. Her previous employers include the Illinois Center for Violence Prevention and the Circuit Court of Cook County Family Violence Coordinating Council. 

Antonio Rivera, Director of Inclusion Strategy, Intouch Group 

A Bronx-born “Nuyorican”, Antonio Rivera has been living in Chicago for about 12 years and happily calls Chicago home, not just for himself but for his wife and two daughters. Prior to transitioning into DEI strategy work at Intouch Group, Antonio had over a decade of Digital Marketing experience helping brands launch fully integrated campaigns to engage with both the general market and multicultural audiences. Since 2018, he has been leading the Inclusion & Diversity efforts at the Intouch Group, a healthcare marketing agency recognized in 2019 by Med Ad News as “D&I Champions”. A passionate catalyst for change, he works with Senior Leadership, HR, and Learning & Development to lay a foundation of knowledge and empower agency leaders to promote an inclusive culture, which ultimately begets inclusive marketing. He has led the development and execution of several I&D initiatives including integrating educational content such as the “Safe Space Certification” interactive modules, social identity workshops for managers of people, the creation of the Inclusion + Diversity Alliance, “Black Intouchers Connect” weekly regroups as well as moderated panels where Intouchers share personal stories to inspire empathy. Together with his counterparts in Talent, he has also supercharged Intouch’s diversity recruiting efforts through strategic partnerships with organizations such as RippleMatch and The BrandLab. He believes footprints are move valuable than echoes when it comes to how organizations integrate inclusion and diversity into their culture. He wants leaders who embark on their own journey to have a path forward but more importantly, there needs to be evidence of action or steps forward. 

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