Businesses stepping up for racial equality
by Anita J. Martin
On July 22, more than 50 folks got together for a deeper look at inequity, why there is urgency to address the problem, and how businesses in the greater Madison area can step up.
Dane Buy Local sponsored the program, which took place at The Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) on Park Street. The director of the Wisconsin Council for Children and Families Ken Taylor presented the Race to Equity report along with Erica Nelson, and a panel discussion of next steps and solutions followed. Ruthie Goldman moderated the panel, and Kim Sponem, Sara Alvarado, and Keetra Burnette took part in the discussion.
Taylor began by noting some inconsistencies with how we tend to think of ourselves as individuals and residents of a Midwest state. He told a story, “a tale of two cities,” with City A having low unemployment, a low rate of child poverty, a pretty high graduation rate, etc. In contrast, City B has five times the unemployment rate, 11 times the child poverty rate, four times the lack of proficiency in reading, 10 times the student suspension rate, and more than seven times the rate of adult arrests.
While a logical conclusion would be that City B would be Detroit, in reality, Taylor said, City A is what’s happening in White Dane County, and City B is the state of things in Black Dane County.
“Dane County is often considered one of the best places to live in America,” he stated, often at the top of, or near the top, national magazine rating lists. Yet despite the county being resource rich and considered progressively minded, “there’s something particularly challenging going on here.”
Taylor noted the “special dynamic in Dane County that we need to take a look at,” and clarified that ‘we’ means business leaders, people in the private sector, and folks in the community as a whole. “We need to have this conversation all over…,” he stated, stressing the need to individually as well as systemically look at the broad and deep challenges that exist.
Taylor reiterated that it’s a system issue, indicating that it “isn’t a zero-sum game…we all benefit when we address these challenges, and we are all hurt when we don’t.”
Is it a Chicago thing?
He raised the question, which often comes up, “‘Isn’t it really the challenge of people from Chicago?’ The question is on people’s minds,” Taylor indicated. “We all have different perceptions on that and we all need to talk about those things.” Though he himself lived in Chicago before moving to Madison, Taylor, who is Caucasian, pointed out that “no one questions that about me.”
While there’s talk going on nationally about changing demographics, Taylor said a lot of people think about Wisconsin and Dane County as how it was in their parents’ generation. “Since 2000, the African American population in Dane County grew by more than 50 percent, whereas the White population grew by 10 percent,” said Erica Nelson.
She alerted those in attendance to the fact that when looking at cities and evaluating well-being, most of the parameters that the researchers looked at — economic well-being, family function, education, health, child welfare, juvenile justice, criminal justice, and mobility — were worse in Madison than in 9 major cities. The 2011 unemployment rate for African Americans in Dane County was 25 percent, higher than it was in Wisconsin (23 percent) and in the United States (18 percent); further, “the African American community was disproportionately affected by the recession.” Given the high unemployment rate and the low median household income for black folks in Dane County ($20,664/yr. according to 2011 statistics), “it’s not surprising that the child poverty rate would be “exceedingly and shockingly high.”
Third grade reading proficiency
Nelson showed a slide revealing that a high percentage of students in Dane County are not proficient in reading by the time they’re in third grade. Specifically, 48 percent of White third graders in Dane County and 86 percent of Black third grade students lack reading proficiency.
“Neither of these numbers are good, but the 86 percent is unacceptable,” she said, as up until Grade 3, kids learn to read and then beyond Grade 3, they read to learn. What ensues if a child does not have reading skills in third grade is essentially a trying-to-catch-up situation, Nelson detailed: “Third grade reading proficiency is a sentinel indicator for future academic success.”
When it comes to a student that has been suspended in Madison, it’s “15 times more likely that a suspension involves an African American student than a White student.” It’s understandable that a kid that’s having trouble reading feels frustrated and is trying to figure out what’s going on in the classroom would act out, Nelson explained; the good news is that the new conduct code is beginning to address this.
Then there is the matter of the ACT test. “Not enough African American students are taking the ACT (test) and going on to secondary education,” she stated.
The juvenile arrest rate for black youth is higher in Dane County than the national average, though through targeted effort, some progress has been made. “However, it still runs outrageously high…but it shows it is possible to make changes,” Nelson declared. For adults, Dane County has the highest African American male incarceration rate in the entire nation.
There is a tendency to explain these inequities as class issues and not race issues, the presenter said; yet middle class African Americans in Dane County are impacted as well, regardless of their level of education, their profession, and their job.
Factors that contribute to the exceptionally disproportionate rates include what’s been dubbed as the labor market mismatch: “There are far too few routes to family supporting jobs in Dane County for less educated, less networked workers.”
Due to the oversupply of people with advanced degrees, “entry-level positions are being occupied by people with master’s degrees in the Madison area.” Also, job applicants often need to supply five references; so not knowing a bunch of people that can help network you into a position is a deterrent.
Do the right thing…
Taylor emphasized that addressing these issues is the right thing to do, and “it’s also the smart thing to do economically.” A report by the Kellogg Corporation showed that adding diversity brings more customers, higher revenues, more market share, and less absenteeism.
“We all have a role. We need to be thinking about employment, the employment within your own organizations,” Taylor stressed. He underscored how paramount it is to address diversity in the public sector, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector as well. The bottom line is: if as an employer you’re not networked into communities of color, you are missing the boat in a number of ways.
He advocates for a two-generation approach in dealing with inequity, targeting kids’ reading skills in third grade and making sure their parents have family supporting jobs.
Quick to point out that there’s no one silver bullet that’s going to fix the situation, Taylor said, “We need to work collaboratively. We need to be fair…” Both a sense of urgency and a long-term commitment are crucial to avoid a “flash in the pan” approach, and it is critical to stop the blame game.
Key questions include: What can I do? What can we do? Where do I have value to add? From a personal perspective, it’s “the internal work that we need to do,” as well as external involvement via tutoring, being a Big Brother, etc. In a professional capacity, he stated that the hiring issue is one of the keys, and systems advocacy comes in as far as making a case to leaders. Publically, it’s essentially to have this conversation with other folks as well.
“We have many strengths and assets that if we address this now, we can build on those strengths,” Taylor said referring to Dane County. He looks at adding 1,500 jobs and “really addressing the challenges of 3,000 to 4,000 kids” as the way to make a big dent in the problem.
Nelson underscored Taylor’s sentiments, stating that 1,500 jobs over the next five years would reduce the child poverty rate and “have long-standing implications.”
What would authentic engaging in problem solving on this actually look like? “Ongoing, repeated, honest, small, medium, and large two-way conversations where you develop deep, ongoing relationships over time,” described Taylor.
Find out what it means to me…
Sara Alvarado, co-owner of Alvarado Real Estate Group, commented on the concept of authentic engagement and what it means to her. “The hard part for me is knowing who I am in the world, and then I engage with others. I’m just showing up as me and where my truths are at.”
Alvarado said when she first saw the Race to Equity Report at a TEMPO luncheon last year, she was floored. Then she saw some things in her own family that got her thinking, and she subsequently attended the YWCA Racial Justice Summit and started asking herself what she can do.
“For me, my personal opinion is this stuff starts inside and then it goes outside,” said Alvarado, who is married to a Mexican person and has a “fairly white and brown world.” After she got to thinking that “maybe my world isn’t broad enough,” she decided to make an intentional effort to call and go out to lunch with people of different racial and ethnic heritages.
“If I don’t know enough people that are African American or Hmong or Asian, are they going to be on my (work) team? Probably not,” she stated.
Kim Sponem, the CEO and president of Summit Credit Union, described herself as being in a learning mode. She was on the board of the United Way and they had been talking about the achievement gap “but I didn’t know what to do about it.” The problem seemed massive, Sponem reported, leaving her feeling at a loss as to what she could personally do about it. She decided to reach out to other leaders — leaders of color — to gain an understanding of the issues.
By asking Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson whether there are enough teachers of color, she learned that “what’s lacking is recruiting.” Sponem’s assessment: “That’s probably because we’re not in the spot we need to be in to get applicants…,” which led her to question what she could do at her own workplace to help increase diversity. Soon she contacted Lisa Peyton Caire for ideas and suggestions.
After seeing the Race to Equity Report at a United Way board meeting, Sponem noted that the inequity is about “a mismatch of employment with employers. This is something I can do something about.”
Senior Director of Community of Impact of United Way of Dane County Keetra Burnette introduced herself as the mother of three college students; all having the same father, the person to whom she is married and with whom she owns a home in Madison. Burnette has a degree in journalism.
She said that she’s honored to see so many white faces, because when it comes to talking about racial inequality, often it’s people of color talking to people of color. Folks typically have one of two reactions when they see results of reports such as this, she said: “ ‘Yeah, uh, and…’ ” or, “ ‘Huh? What?’ ”
“If you’re surprised, I hope you’re surprised enough to be angry and to do something about it,” implored Burnette.
Be the change agent…
Burnette, who called upon those in the room to be the change agent, said she is happy to connect people with qualified candidates of color. Don’t rely on traditional avenues when looking for employees, advised Burnette, instead, intentionally recruit someone and reach out.
“Get out and find the person you want, just like you would anything else and everything else,” she recommends. Burnette recalled a position she had applied for that involved community engagement, but which required a master’s degree and she does not have one. She talked to the CEO about whether an advanced degree was necessary, given she had been doing community engagement for some time without it.
“We’re an academic town,” she said, and it’s easy to say that a higher degree is needed for a certain job. Burnette encouraged people to look at the job requirements and whether having a master’s or the like is truly essential to perform the required tasks.
She also recommended, “When you find that talented, diverse candidate, hire them.”
Burnette recalled a situation involving someone contacting her for a recommendation for a person of color to fill an executive position for one of the largest employers in town.
After the candidate went through several interviews, the company chose not to hire her, and she decided to move out of Madison. Instead, the company hired the internal white candidate because the learning curve would be less and she already had connections within the organization.
“When you’re presented with that opportunity, please make sure you hire that person,” said Burnette. “You can make a difference. You can do your small part…as employers, you are empowered to make a difference, each day in a small way.” She suggests taking one step at time and encourages folks not to let the feeling of being overwhelmed impede your progress.
“Take on the fact that there’s a learning curve,” advised Nelson. She also lamented the brain drain as the result of African American professionals that move away.
A WWBIC representative pointed out that if one in three businesses in the area hired one person, the 1,500 target would be reached. Even if 20 business would hire one person, she indicated, that would be a good start.
Burnette invited everyone to attend the upcoming Agenda for Change Conversations hosted by the United Way. For details, visit http://unitedwaydanecounty.org/2014/07/conversations
Alvarado expressed hope that the business community can come together to address these issues. She would like to see folks in the business arena get together a couple of times a year, and to use each other as resources on an ongoing basis.
In closing, Ruthie Goldman, director of a new yoga studio on Monroe St., concluded, “Start where you are, with what you have, and do what you can do.”