DEI: Traverse City businesses incorporate diversity and inclusion

For countless companies and organization throughout the United States, 2020 was a wake-up call for race relations.

When a Black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May of 2020, it ignited a racial reckoning that shook everything from the entertainment industry to the national political system. For businesses and brands, it was an “a-ha” moment – one that quickly made DEI (short for diversity, equity, and inclusion) a top-of-mind concern. Here, suddenly, was a powerful social movement with potential implications for a company’s branding, PR, stock price, workplace culture, recruitment, retention, moral responsibility, and more.

In the wake of Floyd’s death and the movement it started, businesses committed themselves to diversity in a way many of them never had before. Per a survey from the global human resources association WorldatWork, a staggering 83% of organizations reported that they had taken action on DEI initiatives in 2021 – 29% of them for the first time ever.

Several of those organizations are in Traverse City, which has seen some of its first dedicated DEI positions taking form in the past two years. The TCBN touched based with several local organizations that are delving into DEI to find out how this phenomenon is taking root locally and what it means for the future of workplaces in the area.

Hagerty

As one of Traverse City’s biggest employers, it’s perhaps no surprise that Hagerty has taken up the mantle as a local DEI trailblazer. In March of last year, Hagerty hired its first ever director of diversity, inclusion and belonging. For that job, the company tapped seasoned DEI expert Mary Garcia – previously the global diversity and inclusion leader for Lockheed Martin and the manager of diversity talent research and recruiting at Hilton, among other impressive experience. The job involves developing and implementing Hagerty’s DEI strategy and programs, which will ultimately impact everything from employee training to internal and external communications.

Garcia

According to Garcia, who has been involved in DEI for years, the organizations that have joined this conversation in the past two years are affectionately referred to in the DEI community as “the class of 2020.” With Hagerty, Garcia says she saw an exciting opportunity to join that class.

“What I saw was an opportunity to come in and not only influence business operations, but also to make some really impactful changes in the car culture,” Garcia explained. “Hagerty had this great brand already, but I also knew that there was this untold story around diversity, inclusion and belonging (in the car world).”

Garcia says that future demographics and trends show that humans in general are going to be more diverse.

“So how do we listen differently to what our members are wanting? How do we continue to be inclusive in our approach to our events?” she said.

She points to the stories that could be told about some of Hagerty’s underrepresented members.

“And are there certain ways that we could tell stories around some of our passionate members of the car culture that shows a little bit more diversity?” she said. “For instance, we have so many women involved in the car culture, but they’re often underrepresented.”

Garcia stressed that Hagerty is still “at the beginning of our journey” as far as DEI is concerned, and that the company is taking its time to design policies and strategies that will be impactful in the long term – rather than rushing to put shallower responses into place.

“We want to package this in a way that sets us up for success in the future,” she explained.

To that end, Garcia says that most of her first year with Hagerty was spent listening to employees and leaders, “gauging organization readiness” for different types of DEI, and just generally looking underneath the hood of the company, to assess where Hagerty stands with diversity and belonging right now and where it needs to go.

Among those efforts is a push to understand Hagerty’s staffing makeup on a more granular level. DEI, Garcia notes, is often a powerful tool for talent attraction and retention, because it serves to “empower people to do their best work, and to show that we value and respect their whole self when they come to work.” Amidst an ultra-competitive market for talent, DEI is more important than ever to help companies like Hagerty grow and thrive.

“What does our workforce look like?” Garcia asked. “Where are the opportunities? Where are the future pockets of talent that we know we’re going to need? And how do we ensure that our process for recruiting and hiring is inclusive – especially now that we have such a broad hybrid-remote talent pool that allows us to just naturally tap into more diverse talent than we did prior to COVID?”

In terms of DEI initiatives that Hagerty has implemented so far, Garcia said the organization has started holding cultural celebrations and rolling out e-learning opportunities around diversity. In the coming months, Hagerty will launch its first employee resource groups (ERGs), employee-led groups dedicated to fostering inclusivity and building community within the organization.

And in the next six to 12 months, there are plans to adopt a new environment, social and governance (ESG) strategy, which will tie into Hagerty’s DEI plans on a deep, future-focused level. Finally, the business is currently hiring for its second DEI role – a diversity, inclusion and belonging manager – who Garcia expects will only help make issues of diversity and belonging more central to Hagerty’s operating ideology.

“DEI used to be something that we said was ‘the right thing to do,’ or something that we ‘should’ do,” Garcia said. “Now, you’re seeing the shift of it becoming a business imperative. Today, DEI is just becoming a part of the DNA of a company. That’s what we’re looking at for Hagerty. We want to really strive to lead in that space – not only regionally, but within the industry.”

Commongrounds and Oryana

While a huge number of organizations nationally are working to improve DEI, critics say many of those entities aren’t committed to the work. According to JoshBersin.com, a California-based HR consultancy, “roughly 80% of companies are just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable.”

The JoshBersin report indicated that the majority of organizations embracing DEI don’t have measurable DEI goals and don’t incorporate DEI into leadership development protocols, among other shortcomings.

Redman

For Commongrounds and Oryana, two of the Traverse City entities committing themselves most wholeheartedly to DEI, a key to that commitment is organizational structure. Both businesses are cooperative orgs with large-and-growing lists of member-owners. According to Kate Redman, project director of the Commongrounds real estate cooperative, the co-op structure naturally lend itself to conversations about inclusion.

“DEI and the pursuit of belonging are core to the Commongrounds mission, to empower community to connect to each other and activities that improve their quality of life through food, family, arts and wellness,” Redman told the TCBN. “Fundamentally, our community ownership structure supports this by inviting anyone in the community to become an owner and invest resources – time, money, or social or intellectual capital – to have voice and skin in the game for decisions that affect them and their neighborhood; it’s a concept nerds call ‘inclusive stakeholding.’”

Commongrounds strives to develop real estate that meets community needs and increases quality of life in the region. The organization’s pilot project – a four-story mixed-use building on Eighth Street – is currently under construction and is slated for completion this fall. The building will combine office space, housing, food and drink, performing arts, childcare, and more under the same roof.

In addition to the organization’s push to invite a diverse array of stakeholders to be a part of the project, Commongrounds made DEI central to its search for its new CEO. The job listing for that position called for a person with the ability to “strategically incorporate values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into the blueprint of our workplace and community and nurture a culture that supports this work.”

For her part, Redman sees the “risks” of betting big on DEI – and not just in the sense of becoming one of those organizations that is simply “going through the motions.” Especially in a politicized landscape, Redman is wary of how DEI and other progressive ideals could turn something like Commongrounds into an echo chamber.

“We run the risk of creating an echo chamber where people connect only with people that already think the same way they do and unintentionally cause others to feel excluded,” Redman said. “Our dream for Commongrounds is to create a culture of connection and belonging that goes beyond the ‘us versus them’ mentality and offers space where a truly diverse group of people and ideas feel welcome to enter.”

While Redman calls the dream “lofty” and “difficult,” she says it can happen with the right mix of continuous learning and effort.

“Everyone who enters is empowered to extend that culture of welcome to others. And together we hold space for each of us to belong as part of a culture where we work to listen and learn from divergent experiences and perspectives,” she said. “This is a lofty, difficult dream, and that requires awkward moments, continuous learning, and effort from all of us. And we can only do it if our community owners take as much ownership over it as our board and staff.”

Like Redman, Steve Nance – general manager of Oryana – sees the co-op model as implicitly lending itself well to matters of DEI.

Nance

“Cooperatives have always been a socially conscious business model,” Nance said. “Established with the members’ capital and hard work, cooperatives exist for the wants and needs of their owners – and, in most cases, their communities. Whether a retail food co-op like Oryana, an electrical service like Cherryland Electric Cooperative, or even a credit union like TBA, co-ops strive to fulfill the cooperative principles, which include open membership, democratic control, and concern for community. As we say at Oryana, ‘People, planet, and purpose, before profit.’”

According to Nance, it was those ideas that ultimately led Oryana to take “a public stance for racial and social justice in 2020 and 2021.” But while the events of 2020 prompted new work on the DEI front for Oryana, Nance stressed that the co-op’s stance on equality and acceptance “was not new” and predates the current movement by several years.

In 2016 and 2017, for instance, Oryana worked with several other local organizations – including Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology, Up North Pride, and the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities – to bring ERACCE (Eliminating Racism & Creating/Celebrating Equity) to the region to facilitate a workshop on DEI. ERACCE is a Kalamazoo-based organization that aims to “eliminate structural racism and create a network of equitable anti-racist institutions and communities.”

In 2018, Oryana removed all gendered language from its employee handbook, and in 2020, the organization introduced pronoun pins that staff can wear.

Other initiatives include DEI-focused courses for Oryana leadership, covering everything from unconscious biases to allyship; support for minority-owned farms through Oryana’s micro-loan program; and a brand-new Oryana Community Room at Oryana West, which will have a teaching kitchen and meeting area “designed to be accessible for individuals with physical disabilities.”

“Oryana has, for its history, worked to be an open and inclusive retailer and employer,” Nance said. “Everyone is welcome at the co-op and we have long had a comprehensive equal-opportunity policy that was one of the first in the region to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and political beliefs in the policy. The importance of moving further down the path of a truly fair and equitable society, where all are included and supported, has challenged Oryana to learn more, teach more, and support more to help break down systemic causes of inequity.”

Aspire North Realtors

While not following the same cooperative structure as Commongrounds and Oryana, Aspire North Realtors is an association that exists to serve hundreds of real estate professionals throughout the five-county Grand Traverse region through advocacy, education, and collaboration.

Miller

According to Government Affairs Director Connor Miller, the local association follows the lead of its parent organizations – Michigan Realtors at the state level and the National Association of Realtors at the national level – in observing “a longstanding commitment to DEI efforts.”

In particular, Miller said that DEI efforts at Aspire North and throughout the real estate industry focus heavily on the concept of “fair housing,” which pushes for equal access to housing for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors. In a fair housing environment, all people have equal opportunity to rent or buy property, to access housing loans, to secure property insurance, and more.

Each April – “Fair Housing Month” in the U.S. – Aspire North sponsors and attends the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan’s Fair Housing Workshop series. Members are also offered fair housing courses multiple times each year, designed to keep everyone “educated on the current laws, rules, and regulations concerning fair housing and civil rights,” said Miller. Thanks to support from the National Association of Realtors, these courses are free for all Aspire North members – a factor Miller said has helped make the courses widely attended over the past two years.

In addition to more traditional training, the National Association of Realtors also encourages associations to use a tool called Fairhaven: A Fair Housing Simulation to give members a more visceral learning experience. Miller described Fairhaven as an “immersive online simulation training which puts National Association of Realtors members in the shoes of a client experiencing discrimination as they try to buy a home. This fair housing simulation is inspired by real stories and provides our members with customized feedback to apply and continue to improve their daily business interactions to combat discrimination in real estate.”

While much of the push for DEI at Aspire North is coming from national and state levels, Miller stressed that the local association is also extremely committed to these initiatives on its own. Miller himself sits on Traverse Connect’s diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging committee, and Aspire North more broadly has its own efforts aimed at training members to be sensitive, open-minded and equity-invested professionals.

“We are blessed as a local association to have access to the great resources of Michigan Realtors and Aspire North Realtors to continue to educate and strengthen our members’ commitment to fair housing in the real estate industry,” Miller said. “However, we also recognize the importance of continued efforts at our local association level to help our association and our members protect housing rights for all.”

 

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