No more 'West Michigan nice': It's time to talk about race, gender & leadership in the workplace

A new research project tells the stories of female leaders of color in West Michigan, and the women's words make it clear: we must be better when it comes to fighting, and acknowledging, racism and sexism in the workplace.
Shannon Cohen and Patricia Sosa VerDuin are fed up with hearing the same story, time and again, in West Michigan.

“You hear this myth of, ‘Oh we tried, but we didn’t get any qualified candidates who are women of color,'" Cohen says. “But guess what? Our community is replete with women of color that are talented, innovative, well-educated, and ready to lead. We are here.”

Not only are they here, but they are consistently being overlooked for board service and executive career opportunities at, for example, local schools and healthcare companies to progressive nonprofits, says Cohen, who, along with VerDuin, just wrapped up a year-long research project that shines a spotlight on the experiences of female leaders of color in Kent and Ottawa Counties.

Over the past year, 120 women of color from these two counties participated in the project that Cohen and VerDuin conducted in conjunction with their W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellowship. Entitled “Invisible Walls, Ceilings, and Floors: Championing the Voices and Inclusion of Female Leaders of Color in West Michigan,” the study aims to bring dramatic and sustainable change to a workforce that often excludes and tokenizes women of color – including by changing the false narrative that there are no qualified women of color to fill vacancies in public, nonprofit and private sector leadership positions.

“This work was not deficit based; it was asset based,” Cohen says. “A lot of the things that women of color bring to the table – our resilience in the face of historical trauma, cultural approaches, and modalities – these are elements of our competitive advantage, and these are things we leverage in the workplace to be innovative and to bring a perspective that would otherwise be missing.

“Our resilience makes us fire fighters, fire preventers, and fire starters,” she continues. “We’re willing to take risks and think outside the box. We can handle multiple hats and a lot on our plate because we’ve always had to.  Beyond disparities, we need to begin asking as a community what our organizations, municipalities, and nonprofit sector is missing by not engaging the talent and assets found in women of color.  What are organizations and municipalities missing, what are the talents and assets you’re overlooking, when we’re not involved and authentically engaged as leaders?”

After a year of listening to women’s stories, including studying data from a survey of the 120 women and focus groups of 20 women, Cohen and VerDuin are set to debut their findings, which they’re hoping will prompt both dialogue and action regarding the intersection of race, gender, and leadership in the workplace. The two women will host two free community forums to share survey findings and recommendations, as well as engage attendees in a “call-to-action conversation,” on Thursday, March 2 at 12pm and Thursday, March 16 at 6pm. The first gathering will be held at Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus in the Grand River Room. To register for this forum, please go here. The second event will be held at GVSU’s downtown campus at the Loosemore Auditorium. To sign up, please go here.

Pat Sosa VerDuin
From lived experience, a research project is born

As African-American and Latina professionals who have held leadership positions in Kent and Ottawa Counties, Cohen and VerDuin were inspired to work together on this project after discovering they were experiencing similar emotional tolls as they navigated their careers.

Both women are incredibly successful and are well-known community leaders; the two have, for years, been active members of regional and national philanthropic and community development efforts. After retiring as director of the Juvenile Services & Adult Drug Treatment Program of the 20th Circuit Court in Grand Haven in 2008, VerDuin went on to become the executive director of Holland’s Ready for School program and is now a principal of Mobius Coaching, working as a transformational coach with diverse social leaders. Cohen has created, managed and scaled several movements, initiatives and incubator efforts designed to foster community renewal and stem public health problems; she is also the founder and principal of Shannon Cohen, Inc., an all-purpose consulting firm located in Grand Rapids. Both are fellows with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network.

All of that is to say: they are smart, talented and accomplished women with full professional (and personal) lives. But, both women knew the weariness of frequently being the first and/or only woman of color in their various work spaces.

“We informally started having these strategy sessions to help each other navigate the emotional toll,” Cohen says. “Out of our conversations came an understanding of the battle scars you incur in leadership and what it means to be under a microscope when you are the first and only [woman of color] and the weight of that. These conversations were a space to be honest about those battle scars; it became a healing space for both of us.”

Pat Sosa VerDuinFrom these talks came inspiration: What if they could create a network of support for female leaders of color throughout West Michigan? What if they could have similar talks – about leadership, about race and racism, about prejudice and bias, about dreams and goals – with women who are far too often sidelined and silenced? What if they could tackle, head on, the lack of diversity of boards and nonprofits, including organizations that have mission statements of diversity and equity? What if they could break down “West Michigan nice” and have real conversations about women of color’s experiences in our community’s workforce?

Almost immediately, the researchers knew where they wanted to start: with stories directly from women themselves. They wanted to know the faces and the stories behind the numbers. And they wanted those in the community who had not hired people of color because of their race (something which a number of women reported they have directly been told  by interviewers who said so without fear of being sued because women have been fearful they’ll never find another job if they pursue litigation) to hear these stories.

“You can’t have numeric data alone,” Cohen says. “When you add qualitative stories, like the ones the women shared, you can’t ignore that. People have told me their stories, and they haunt me. They bring tears to my eyes because these are real people, real experiences, real families, real people who call this community home.”

While many of the details of these stories won’t be discussed until the community forums, or will remain private in order to protect the individuals in the study, Cohen shares that, repeatedly, she and VerDuin noticed accomplished women who would undervalue themselves.

“There were a lot of women who said, ‘Am I a leader?’” Cohen says. “Because of their title, they wouldn’t see themselves as a leader, even when they clearly are. Someone’s title will be coordinator, when they’ve really been director.”

Pride & trepidation: The women who told their stories

In order to reach female leaders of color, VerDuin and Cohen designed a survey that covered everything from microaggressions in the workplace to hiring biases. Then, the two researchers partnered with the Calvin College Center for Social Research to create an online survey for data collection.

Participating in that survey were 120 women between the ages of 30 and 60 who are Black, Hispanic/Latina, Asian, and American Indian. Of those 120 people, 80 said they’d be interested in being in a focus group  an important sign that the majority of the participants felt supported by the researchers and interested in the project, Cohen notes. With their resources, VerDuin and Cohen were able to conduct two 10-member focus groups, one in Kent County and another in Ottawa County.

“It was really important to us to not have the usual suspects," Cohen says. "In a small community like ours, cherry-picking can become commonplace.  It can be easy to go to the same one or two people and be like, they speak for all the people who look like them – and that’s not the case."

"We wanted to make sure we made room to hear as many stories as we possibly could with the resources we had," she continues. "We shared the survey everywhere; we shared it through our network; area affinity groups, faith communities… we shouted it from the mountaintops.”

For Cohen and VerDuin, a huge piece of the research project was managing risk for the women who participated.   The researchers worked relentlessly to ensure that the information the women shared would not be used against them. In other words: they did not want employers to be able to recognize workers and penalize them for discussing sensitive matters, such as racism and implicit bias in the workplace.

“Participating in this work was risky,” Cohen says. “We’ve seen people before speak out and then tacitly no longer get employment or leadership opportunities. We were very intentional in creating environments where women could speak, and without experiencing backlash in their work, their livelihood, their solvency, or their ability to be upwardly mobile in their careers. The fact that [women of color] are so easily identifiable in organizations because there’s so few of us makes it scary.”

Shannon Cohen“I know for every woman who participated, there’s a lot of women who didn’t because there’s fear,” Cohen adds.

For the women who did participate, it was an emotional experience. “Women cried and told real stories,” Cohen says. “These are women who are not looking for a handout. Seventy-five percent of the women surveyed said that their desire to occupy spaces of leadership is rooted in wanting to make a difference in their community.  These are women who have fought tooth and nail for every step they’ve taken in their lives and every opportunity they have had.”

Those tears, the researchers hope, will lead to major reform of workplace culture in West Michigan. In other words, they want everyone from CEOs to human resource officers to take a hard look at their organizations, at who they are, intentionally or unintentionally, excluding from their workplaces – and understand how they can change that.

But it’s not just hiring practices that need to be reassessed, Cohen notes – there also needs to be discussion and action about what happens within the workplace around decision-making, retention, promotion, and recognition.

“When you’re the first and only [woman of color] in a white male dominated space, the real executive decisions happen in non-traditional spaces and during non-work hours,” Cohen says. “Gatherings to go kayaking, golf or join an intramural evening league, aren’t always women of color friendly. These become exclusionary things where you can’t compete with your counterparts because you’re not invited, or you can’t go out at night because you’re at home with your family, wearing the other hats you wear.”

Women who participated in the study also spoke of feelings of isolation in the workplace.

“After the shootings of black men, survey respondents talked about being worried about husbands and sons,” Cohen says. “People were going to work, and their coworkers would be talking about their plans for the weekend or gardening, like nothing tragic had happened.”

What happens next?

The transformation of work culture that can be resistant to change is a big endeavor; Cohen, VerDuin and the research project’s participants know this. But, after this project’s findings are presented and the women’s stories are told, they believe change will – and must – come.

“Women of color that participated in this study envision a community where all women of color make a difference because they have received the informal and formal supports and resources that prepare them to serve in executive and highly visible community roles,” Cohen and VerDuin write in their final report.  

As part of the research process, the study’s authors and participants offered a wide array of recommendations on creating healthier work environments, attracting talent that is demographically representative of the community, on being an ally, and addressing racial disparities in leadership across sectors.

In addition to offering specific recommendations, Cohen and VerDuin will speak to those who attend the community forums to ask: What will you do now that you’ve read this report?

“How will this change the spaces you show up in to give leadership to?” Cohen asks. “What are you going to do differently?”

Interested in learning more about the study, “Invisible Walls, Ceilings, and Floors: Championing the Voices and Inclusion of Female Leaders of Color in West Michigan”? You can attend the two community forums led by Shannon Cohen and Pat Sosa VerDuin on Thursday, March 2 at 12pm and on Thursday, March 16 at 6pm. The first gathering will be held at Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus in the Grand River Room. To register for this forum, please go here. The second event will be held at GVSU’s downtown campus at the Loosemore Auditorium. To sign up, please go here.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her via email ([email protected]) and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.
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