North Highland's Black Employee Network Launches The Impact Series: Conversation Around Community Pillar

On June 19, in alignment with Juneteenth, North Highland's Black Employee Network’s (BEN) leadership team hosted the first session of The Impact Series, a three-part series of conversations focusing on how “Diversity and Inclusion” impact organizations today across three pillars: community, recruiting and mentorship & development. This first session centered around the community pillar, focusing on elevating inclusion and diversity topics, awareness and conversations encouraging dialogue, action and behaviors. The panel was hosted by Teyardia LeRoy, Senior Associate – Experience Design and co-founder of BEN, and Dianne Bernez, Head of Corporate Philanthropy. The panelists included: 

  • Loretta Penn, North Highland Board Member 
  • Keith Wetmore, North Highland Board Member 
  • Ron Baker, North Highland Master Practitioner  
  • Schellie Fanfan, Mental Health Therapist  
  • Zakiya Mabery, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategist  

The conversation kicked off with the panelists’ discussion of their first experience with inequality. Loretta detailed how the policies set forth by her dream university made happiness unattainable and success far more difficult for Black students than others, including rules that prevented Black students from living on campus, eating in the cafeteria or accessing the student union building. Keith examined how he came out as a gay man before starting his first legal job in 1980. Zayika discussed her experience of having to attend special needs classes after being assaulted and how the school system tried to prevent her from attending college based on her class profile and background, while Schellie explained how she lost a prosperous business opportunity, where she was the most qualified candidate, when the hiring managers were surprised to see a black woman at the table. Ron added that he witnessed hiring managers discredit a Black man – his friend and former colleague – from being hired in a position where he was the most eligible candidate.  

“My parents had to be my advocates and fight for my right to reasonable SAT accommodations. I now have my bachelor's and master's degrees, and am working toward my PhD. In life, you hear a lot of people saying no. It’s not the no’s in life that lead to success, but the yes’s. You must persevere on the yes’s and build a healthy, positive tribe of people to surround you.” - Zakiya 

“We went for the bid and knew we were the best candidate for the job. During this bidding process, we knew that we were winning. When we got to the negotiation process, it became clear that program managers were not expecting two black women to walk into the room. The conversation and environment changed from there and then the contract went to another party.” - Schellie 

Loretta then discussed what actions executives can take to aid in the advancement of minority employees, including the importance of both a recruiting and retention program that helps employees from diverse backgrounds assimilate into the work environment. She noted that one of the most important factors of success for minority employees is a sponsor who can take new minority employees under their wing, introduce them to the right people and help them navigate the politics of the workplace.  

“A sponsor absolutely does not need to be a person of color. A sponsor needs to be someone who believes in you, who has the heart of democracy and sensitivity and empathy and realizes that we are a multicultural world. And if that sponsor happens to be a person of color, well then fantastic.” - Loretta 

Zakiya addressed how affirmative action impacts the workforce and the need for new policies, explaining that there is a difference between affirmative action and an affirmative action plan. Affirmative action doesn’t go far enough – an organization must look at policies, procedures and hires and how these are affecting the underrepresented groups within the organization. She also highlighted the need for organizations to do a self ID campaign, polling the workforce to see who has a disability multiple times a year.  

“People can join a disability community at any given time. You must make sure your policies are up to date.” - Zakiya 

The conversation moved to racial trauma, with Schellie adding that intergenerational trauma is fundamental to understanding racial trauma. Trauma can be passed down through generations and racial trauma includes the trauma of having to be separated from one’s true identity as a Black individual. She explains that the biggest piece of racial trauma is the part that people don’t see – the elevated heartbeat of a Black woman walking into a room of only white colleagues or the effort needed to go the extra mile to deal with implicit bias every day.  

“When we’re talking about the workspace, we’re talking about connectivity and interacting with people. Black people have learned to do well in these environments, but by the time we’ve gotten through all of the racial trauma and then get into the workplace and thrive – there is so much mental energy to get to that place that it can lead to a breakdown.” - Schellie 

When asked about his definition of true ally-ship, Keith explained the two major aspects of an effective ally. The public-side of ally-ship means elevating the issues of concern for the underrepresented, without the underrepresented having the burden to be the voice of their concerns. The internal-facing part of ally-ship means being a friend and sounding board. 

“An ally isn’t an echo chamber, but someone who is in a place to test whether your perception is valid.” - Keith 

Ron shared his thoughts about working with companies and client sites with more diverse workforces and how that can drive change. He explained that companies can start putting pressure on those who supply them, telling other businesses that they won’t work with their company unless they meet a similar level of balance in the workforce. This could start a cascade effect that creates impactful change. 

When I started a new job and given a chance to establish credibility, sometimes the benefit of the doubt wasn’t as easily given to me as it was to others. I had a longer road to gain traction than my colleagues. I have a master's degree in mechanical engineering. The minority employees that I worked with tended to also have advanced degrees, but my other counterparts did not. Yet we were in the same role. It gave the perception that we had to do more to be on par with others.” - Ron 

Closing out the conversation, Zakiya explained how individuals can use their voice when they’re faced with bias from colleagues of all races, saying “Utilize your words. Words have so much power. When you’re trying to come across as helpful, work on your inflection of your voice and how you get your point across.”