During a recent virtual summit, local leaders highlighted a lack of diversity among businesses and community boards and stressed the need to open the interview process to all ages, races and genders.
“(When) you include different kinds of people with different strengths, different kinds of abilities, that leads to really becoming more successful. . . As an organization, you’re as strong as your people,” said Brian Patchett, president and CEO of North Central Sight Services.
The annual Leadership Summit, put on by local training program Leadership Lycoming, aims to explore topics that are relevant to the Lycoming County business community. This year’s conference, held virtually, focused on the importance of diversity in the workplace.
Six community advocates — Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter, Airneezer Paige Bingham, Brenda Nichols, Monica Brooks, Brian Patchett, and Dawn Zell Wright — discussed the joys and challenges involved in making diversity, equity, and inclusion (commonly referred to in the business world as DEI) a company priority.
With DEI, the leaders explained, it is important to understand the nuance of each word. ‘Diversity’ includes but is not limited to things like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and physical/mental ability. ‘Equity’ is the guarantee of fair treatment access, opportunity, and advancement. ‘Inclusion’ refers to bringing traditionally excluded individuals or groups into the same processes, activities, and policy-making that the rest of the community enjoys.
Nichols, a community volunteer and business advisor, referred to a description of DEI she once heard that compares the acronym to different aspects of a party.
“Diversity is being asked to come to a party. Inclusion is being asked to dance at that party. . . Equity is when you actually get to dance as much as everybody else,” Nichols said.
All speakers agreed that while Williamsport has moved forward in its attitude toward DEI in recent years, the city still has a long way to go.
Zell Wright, vice president of Human Resources at UPMC Susquehanna, recalled an encounter she had with an acquaintance shortly after moving with her family to the area. After telling the acquaintance that she’d chosen Williamsport Area School District for her children, Zell Wright heard a pause, followed by a whispered response. “You know that’s the diverse school, right?”
Zell Wright recalled feeling appalled by the question.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’. . .The fact that you think it’s okay to say to me means you think it’s okay. And that is not okay.”
Evaluating hiring practices
Organizations can move forward by taking a hard look at hiring practices, the summit leaders discussed. Too often, company leaders exclude the general public from job searches. They preclude certain candidates based on implicit biases against people who might be different from themselves.
While this sort of bias may be a societal side effect, the important thing is to acknowledge and correct it. The more organizations look at potential hires through the lens of DEI, the better they will reflect and connect with the people they are serving.
“The best practice is to have a work community that represents the community at large — where individuals feel like they belong, that they have something of value to contribute to the organization,” Airneezer Paige Bingham, founder of Wealthwave and Community Connection, said.
Most important, the Leadership Summit speakers agreed, is the ability to celebrate our differences, rather than fear them. Only then, Bingham said, can we begin to heal.
“It’s all about giving to this beloved community. . .We live in the same area, we’re sharing the same life, we’re walking the same paths in a lot of respects in Williamsport. So we need to be able to have those conversations and come together with ideas.”