Sense of belonging for all Kentuckians emphasized at Inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit

More than 400 Kentuckians gathered on Wednesday for the Kentucky Chamber’s Inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) Summit to have conversations on business practices, supplier diversity, education, and much more.

Kentucky Chamber Foundation’s Center for Diversity Equity and Inclusion Executive Director Joe Frazier spoke on the organization’s efforts to engage business leaders and transform workplaces across the Commonwealth to build a stronger Kentucky.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Matter of America’s Economic Competitiveness and Prosperity

U.S. Chamber Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach Rick Wade kicked off the conference by noting diversity is everyone is “invited to dinner” regardless of who they are or where they come from. Equity is when everyone has a good seat at the table and gets an equitable portion of the meal. And inclusion is when everyone feels welcome and their thoughts and ideas are heard and respected. 

Wade added that DE&I cannot become a political football and instead the country must focus on the fact that everyone benefits when the equity gap is closed. He said the U.S. Chamber’s Equality of Opportunity Initiative focuses on making it a matter of America’s economic competitiveness by looking at ways to improve education, employment, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, criminal justice, and more. 

What is the Role of Public Policy in Fostering a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Commonwealth

In a panel about the role of public policy in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Commonwealth, lawmakers noted the many difficult conversations that happen in Frankfort and said race and equity are no exception. 

Kentucky state Senator Gerald Neal said Kentucky is very late to take action from a legislative perspective, as well as in other areas. 

“These issues have manifested from our history. What you don’t do in policy also has a big impact. And I am gaining energy from this conference and gathering,” Neal said. 

In recent years, the General Assembly established the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity to begin holding these vitally important conversations and bring necessary data to the forefront. 

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, co-chair of the commission, said younger generations are concerned about equity and opportunity. The commission, which meets once a month, is working toward policy development and convening important conversations in areas where opportunity exists, such as education, juvenile justice, and more. 

Education was a key conversation in the panel. Rep. Samara Heavrin, the other co-chair of the commission, said it is important for Kentucky to consider how we are equipping young adults as it is the best way to help with education for the future. 

Terrance Sullivan, executive director for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights said that students would have a greater chance of succeeding if systems were set up to support their needs.

Supplier Diversity: Importance, Impact, and Barriers

Supplier diversity is a crucial area that companies across the state and nation are taking a harder look at in recent years. A panel moderated by Gifted by Design Leadership and Consulting Founder and CEO Lettie Bailey-Johnson focused on the importance, impact, and barriers to making those efforts a reality. 

The panel, featuring Women’s Business Enterprise Council Ohio River Valley Associate Vice President of Strategic Planning Fesha Buie, University of Kentucky  Supplier Diversity Manager Marilyn Clark, Equity Solutions Group, LLC Owner and President Ray Daniels,  Louisville Metro Sewer District Equity and Compliance Officer Kellie Watson, and Kentucky Department of Education Deputy Commissioner and Chief Equity Officer Thomas Woods-Tucker, Ph.D., agreed that ensuring supplier diversity must be intentional and a top-down approach within an organization. 

The leaders stated businesses looking to diversify must work to be intentional about where money is being spent and what vendors are being used. Furthermore, panelists agreed this comes from a streamlined approach that is a part of everyday operations and is focused on building trust, particularly after a lot of false promises made by companies. 

As for how minority-owned businesses can ensure they are involved in the process, panelists highlighted certifications as a crucial way to ensure businesses are in the room with those looking to work with new companies. Daniels noted it is becoming clear that many minority-owned businesses can’t do this on their own because they are already wearing so many hats as a business owner. To address this, there are efforts underway in Lexington to create a third-party entity to operate as business development officers for these companies.  

This week, the Kentucky Chamber Foundation launched the first-ever platform in Kentucky that includes all certified minority-owned businesses in one place to help businesses looking to diversify their supply chain and provide exposure and resources for certified minority-owned businesses. 

“And what the Kentucky Chamber is doing is exactly what we need to do. All disparities start and end economically. We have a talent and talent retention problem in the Commonwealth, especially in black and brown communities because they don’t think the system will get them to prosperity. The Chamber is truly helping to redefine this conversation,” Daniels said. 

Culture Matters: Why What Got Us ‘Here’, Won’t Take Us ‘There’

Frost Brown Todd LLC Chief Diversity Officer Chris Johnson offered the keynote about why culture matters in an organization. 

The DE&I space, Johnson said, has been focused on representation, workshops and trainings, and advocacy. We have to continue to do more of these things, he said. But this space is evolving, and to take us “from here to there,” the work now must involve transparency, community, well-being and psychological safety, social responsibility and sustainability, employee engagement, and authenticity.

According to statistics, the wants and needs of employees are changing on these issues as well. Johnson shared that eight out of ten employees say it’s important for their company’s values to align with their own, 52% of employees would quit if the organization’s values conflicted with their own, and companies see a 30% drop in engagement when employees are disappointed in their employer’s stance on a social issue. 

To build trust and progress, companies and individuals must focus on data-driven decision-making, improved feedback, ongoing education, leadership scorecards, targeted and authentic communication, mentors and sponsors, employee resource groups, and professional and personal development. 

When companies build trust, he said, there is 40% less burnout, 50% higher productivity, and 75% more engaged from their employees. 

In the end, Johnson said, diversity, equity, and inclusion is about a sense of belonging which entails making sure people are seen, connected, supported, and proud. 

Education Equity in Kentucky: Disparities in Representation, Retention, and Talent Attrition

“You cannot fix what you refuse to face.” – James Baldwin. Dr. Kevin Cosby, President of Simmons College, pointed to that quote when discussing equity in education in Kentucky. 

“Until we are willing to repair the damage that has been done over centuries, we will never close the gaps. That work requires acknowledgment, repair, and closure,” Dr. Cosby said. 

Dr. Jessica Cunningham, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Statistics said the most recent data shows Hispanic and Latina students were the only group that did not see any increase in graduation rates, and we are seeing disparities with women outperforming men in education. The state has also seen huge shifts because of the pandemic and childcare. 

Dr. Kish Cumi Price pointed to the number of underemployed Kentuckians and stated in many cases stems from a lack of confidence during school. She noted that many students are doing a lot at home that is difficult for them. Then, at school, she said they are not met with understanding, which exacerbates the issue. “We have to create a sense of belonging for the student and the parent in the school system,” Dr. Price said. 

“To have a strong, thriving economy in Kentucky, we must have a strong, educated workforce. So we must ensure no one is left behind,” Council for Postsecondary Education President Dr. Aaron Thompson said adding the state has been closing gaps faster than many other states but there is still much work to do especially in ensuring minority communities understand the opportunities exist for them. 

Equity in the Criminal Justice System

Kentucky has the eighth-highest rate of incarceration in the country with more than 30,000 Kentuckians behind bars and has one of the highest incarceration rates among women. The United States spends more on the prison system than any other nation. 

Dennis Richie with Goodwill Industries of Kentucky noted Kentucky is spending more money on corrections than on family services and other things that can help avoid incarceration. 

“More time in prison does not lead to better results.” J. Michael Brown, director of pre-law and constitutional studies at Simmons College. Nothing can be equitable unless we fix the sentencing and parole systems, he said. 

ACLU of Kentucky Policy Strategist Kungu Njuguana said penal code reforms are crucial so some of the money could be used on addressing many of the disparities that were discussed throughout the day at the summit. 

The panel all agreed the state must be focusing on restorative justice, serious conversations around second chances, and a strong focus on treatment over incarceration. 

The Backbone of Inclusion: Human Resources and its Role in DE&I

A group of human resource professionals from the health care industry shared their insights on ways their companies are working toward equitable spaces for employees and patients. 

At Baptist Health, the organization has undertaken a DE&I initiative called Embrace, which is a strategic business commitment focused on cultural growth that is anchored around inclusion and belonging for all employees. The plan focuses on self-awareness, social awareness and cultural change, and includes efforts including re-examining job descriptions, benefits, and much more to make sure the company is being inclusive. 

At Norton Healthcare, many policies focused on DE&I have been in place for a while. Now, the company is taking intentional steps by building a hospital in the west end of Louisville, having providers that look like the patients, and much more, which they believe helps ensure employees can bring their authentic selves to work and patients feel safe and accepted. 

The professionals encouraged attendees to meet people where they are to have these important conversations in the workplace. 

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Jacqueline Pitts
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