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Championing women's voices & inclusion: Survey aims to empower leaders of color in West Michigan

Shannon Cohen

How do we open the professional doors that are rarely, or never, open to women of color who aspire to be leaders in West Michigan? Two fellows from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Shannon Cohen and Pat Sosa VerDuin, aim to break down these barriers and dismantle racism with data from a new survey of women of color in Kent and Ottawa Counties.
This post is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Shannon Cohen, an active member of regional and national philanthropic and community development efforts for the past 16 years. She has created, managed, and scaled several movements, initiatives, and incubator efforts designed to foster community renewal and stem public health ills with a special focus on youth. The founder and principal of Shannon Cohen, Inc., an all-purpose consulting firm located in Grand Rapids, she is also a fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network.

I was taught…no, correction: it was drilled into me that I if I went to school, excelled in my education, graduated from college, and worked hard, doors of opportunity would open to me. I am the proud descendant of a family replete with community servants, entrepreneurs, and hard workers, but the first in my family to obtain a college degree.

Relentless and resolved, I did everything I was taught to do. I studied Japanese at my Detroit high school, grew increasingly fluent and went to live for several months in Japan at the age of 16. I went to college and graduated with advanced degrees…both times in the top 1 percent of my class. I received honors and awards, worked with excellence, served in my community, and acted with integrity. There were doors that parted, doors that budged, but there were many doors that never opened. I quickly realized that there were some doors, floors, and spaces of mobility, influence, and access where education, talent, and work ethic weren’t the right keys. These doors, systems, and institutions had skeleton keys, secret handshakes, and invisible levers that I would later find were relationally accessed by special invitation and invitation connected with hue of skin, heritage, gender, and cultural fit.   

I am a Gen X leader that has lived, worked, and served in Grand Rapids for 16 years. I have seen our community evolve in its willingness to dialogue openly about the intersectionality of race, gender, and leadership and its connection to access, mobility, voice, place, and presence.  However, in many spaces, conversations regarding root causes to such inequities remain surface.

I, along with my friend and colleague, Pat Sosa VerDuin, have embarked upon a third year research project in conjunction with our W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellowship entitled, ‘Invisible Walls, Ceilings, and Floors: Championing the Voices and Inclusion of Women of Color in West Michigan.’ As Latina and African-American female professionals that came of age professionally in Ottawa and Kent Counties, this work truly emerged out of a merger of head and heart. We are committed to changing the narrative that there are no qualified women of color to fill vacancies in public, nonprofit, and private sector leadership spaces. We are committed to championing the voices and inclusion of female leaders of color in the West Michigan workforce.

Local data is replete with numeric accounting of racial and gender gaps and disparities. Data exists underscoring the business case for diversity in a creative class and knowledge-driven economy. But we don’t have stories like those of the women we are talking to.  Local quantitative data is missing its bed partner—qualitative data. There is an absence of documented qualitative data that reveal the implicit or explicit ways in which systems, policies, and modalities foster invisible walls, ceilings, and floors that restrict access, stifle voice, impair contribution, and constrict the movement of women of color in leadership. These narratives are critical for any true community or organizational conversation committed to rethinking talent attraction, retention, promotion, and employee engagement.

Existing local data is also missing the story of what we as a community lose when women of color are not authentically engaged or retained in executive leadership. Modern scholarship about mindful leadership, authentic leadership, and what it takes to lead is reflected in the stories of women engaged in this work. This project speaks to the strength, resilience, talent, and ambidextrous nature of women of color. This asset-based collection of qualitative data from emerging and existing women of color in leadership reveals their ability to thrive under pressure, bounce back from adversity, and problem solve in non-linear, non-traditional ways to achieve measurable outcomes and deliver results. There is a direct correlation between skills needed for executive leadership and the skill set of women of color afforded as a result of their lived experience, heritage, and ancestry.

Inquiring minds have asked: What will you do with the research?  We envision the wisdom shared by women engaged in this study serving as a catalyst for the reform of systems, processes, networks, and workplace culture in West Michigan. This work will partner with other important work already underway in our communities to foster authentic leadership possibilities where women of color are invited, retained, and empowered to be transformative in the marketplace, increasing their numbers as leaders in all sectors. Ultimately, we hope this project will reframe popular narratives to include previously marginalized voices. Numeric data isn’t enough.  Quantitative data must be married to qualitative data that captures the voices of those who daily serve, work, and live at the intersection of race, gender, and leadership.  

Our goal is to engage 500 women of color in this project.  If you are a woman of color, age 30 to 60, live and/or work in Kent or Ottawa County, and currently occupy or aspire to mid/executive management opportunities in the public, private, or nonprofit sector, please take the survey here.  The first 500 respondents that complete the survey on or before September 6th will receive a $10 Amazon e-gift card.

There is great vulnerability and risk for women of color bringing this level of honesty and disclosure into community spaces. Yet, for the first time we have central cities in both counties with women holding mayoral office, both communities have more organizations than ever before with equity and inclusion as focal areas, and we are witnessing the outflow of significant grant dollars to cities like Grand Rapids to analyze, address, and dismantle systemic racism.  Now is the time to continue forging together as a community to have ‘real talk’ conversations about the root causes of documented disparities and full engagement in generating and implementing sustainable solutions.   

Final note:  In Spring 2017, Shannon and Pat will complete phase one of this work by partnering with several community partners to host public community forums to share research results and recommendations.
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