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As Colorado's Workforce Diversifies, Nonprofit Trains Companies To Be More Inclusive

Stephanie Daniel
Actors perform Breaking Ice at an event space in downtown Denver. The performance collage features dialogue created from their own experiences with microaggressions, common misperceptions and implicit biases at work.

Scott Alexander likes to bake cakes for his employees to celebrate their birthdays.

"Typically, something traditionally from their country of origin," he said. "I was a gourmet French chef in college so I can make pretty much everything."

Alexander is the district manager of two Corner Bakery Cafes in downtown Denver. His employees, he said, come from all different backgrounds.

"We have older people, younger people. We have every color, race, religion, creed imagined."

Colorado's unemployment rate for December 2019 was 2.5%, which is the lowest rate since the state began surveying households in 1976. State data from 2018 shows that 12.7% of employees are people of color or didn't identify solely as white.

The restaurant industry is one of the most racially diverse in the state. At Alexander's cafes, about 70% of his employees are minorities.

"Your business is best served by getting involved in the lives of your employees to the extent that you try to benefit them. In turn, they will try to benefit you," he said.

To help his employees feel comfortable on the job, Alexander, his boss and three other company managers took a morning off work to attend a performance about diversity and inclusion.

Creating conversations

Five actors are on-stage calling out phrases at an event space in downtown Denver.

"He throws like a girl."

"We piled in the car like a bunch of Mexicans."

"Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?"

"This place is a looney bin."

"He's a low man on the totem pole."

The actors are part of Breaking Ice, a performance collage from the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury House + Theater. The dialogue comes from their own experiences with microaggressions, common misperceptions and implicit biases at work.

The goal of the performance is to create conversations around the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

"So that everybody sees themselves reflected," said Noel Raymond, Pillsbury House + Theater co-artistic director and one of the actors. "Everybody sees something that they've done, that's been done, that they've had done to them in order to then spark that conversation."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Corner Bakery Cafe general manger Scott Alexander (left) and his boss, Jamey Cutter, stand behind the counter. They attended a Breaking Ice performance along with three other company managers.

Breaking Ice was hosted by Colorado REACH (Respecting Ethnic and Cultural Heritage). The nonprofit provides diversity training and cultural competencies for companies and educational institutions.

"Many organizations have challenges around diversity and inclusion," said Michelle Campbell, executive director of Colorado REACH. "They say, 'I can't find them. I don't know how to recruit them. I don't know how to retain them.' We provide those skills to do that in the classroom and in corporations."

REACH began in Seattle in 1978 and Campbell, who is an engineer, has worked with the organization for about 30 years. She started the Colorado chapter a decade ago to help companies and their employees.

"For people to dive into understanding cultural competencies around education," Campbell said. "Understand and achieve some of their goals within their diversity and inclusion, which is retaining and recruiting and hiring folks with their corporations."

The organization has several initiatives including working with companies, an entrepreneurship training in South Africa and community outreach programs, including Breaking Ice and a post-performance debrief.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Michelle Campbell, executive director of Colorado REACH, Ryan Ross, Leslie Juniel and Drew Rippel at the Breaking Ice event in downtown Denver.

Colorado REACH's first project was a two-day conference for educators to learn how to develop and build a more inclusive curriculum. Campbell said she created the conference to support school districts.

"School districts like Aurora Public Schools, Denver Public Schools (were) really crying out for a multicultural education, empowering their teachers to teach to a diverse audience," Campbell said. "I saw a need."

Over the past 10 years, the conference has grown to include employees from other industries, and more than 1,500 people have participated in the workshops. The conference provides an evidence-based curriculum and other supports that participants can take back to their classrooms or companies to further develop with their goals and objectives.

Aurora Public Schools employee McKenzie Vallot attended the conference during the summer of 2017. The second-grade teacher said she learned about culturally responsive education, celebrating students' culture and how to think about the way students are taught.

"If oral storytelling is part of their culture, it's important to factor that in," Vallot said. "As a teacher, it's important to acknowledge student's differences and celebrate them."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
McKenzie Vallot teaches her second-grade class at Murphy Creek School in Aurora. She attended a REACH conference during the summer of 2017.

REACH also trains people to become facilitators who can direct workshops, teach the curriculum and lead debriefs like the one held after Breaking Ice.

Kathy Vining, an online instructor at a Dominican University of California and retired Colorado K-12 educator, is a REACH facilitator. She's worked with other teachers and support staff on how their implicit biases can impact their students and coworkers.

"(The curriculum) provides an opportunity to reflect on (our) own thinking and biases," Vining said. "It's an on-ramp to start discussion."

Inclusivity and leadership

Diversity in the workplace extends beyond race to include other characteristics like ethnicity, gender, religion, age and sexual orientation.

Timothy Meeks was a senior executive with the U.S. Department of Energy when he began working with Campbell more than five years ago. He was part of REACH's diversity and inclusion task force. At one of the meetings, a transgender auto mechanic shared her experience working in the male-dominated industry. She was able to succeed, Meeks said, because her manager recognized and supported her transition.

"It reaffirmed that inclusivity comes from leadership and the belief in it," he continued.

Meeks now works as an engineering and environmental industry navigator at Metropolitan State University, a Hispanic-serving institution. Through his relationship with REACH, Meeks was connected to the Colorado General Contractors Association.

"Hopefully because of that connection now our students can have a pipeline to jobs and in that industry that they may not have right now," he said.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
An audience of businesspeople, entrepreneurs and educators watch Breaking Ice at an event space in downtown Denver.

Shared experiences

The Breaking Ice performance concluded with the actors sharing personal "I am from" statements.

"I am from women who determine their own destiny without ever hearing the word feminism," said actor Noel Raymond. "I am from hippy campouts, rental properties and latch-key afternoons. I am from a blended family of stoics."

Ryan Ross, associate vice chancellor for student affairs equity and inclusion for the Colorado Community College System, attended the event to learn more about how art can facilitate conversations around equity. The "I am from" statements resonated with Ross, he said, because of the students who attend community college.

"Our students are so diverse and so different," Ross said. "It's so important that we know who they are so we can meet them where they are in order to support them and help them to get to where they want to go."

After the show ended, the actors hopped off the stage and joined the audience of about 50 businesspeople, entrepreneurs and educators. They formed smaller groups and sat around tables, discussing the themes of the performance and sharing personal experiences. The debrief was led by REACH facilitators.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Businesspeople, entrepreneurs and educators discuss Breaking Ice and share their own experiences with diversity and inclusion at work.

Drew Rippel is a business development manager for Weitz, a general contractor and construction company. This is the second time Rippel has seen Breaking Ice. He said Weitz values diversity and inclusion because they make the company stronger and more competitive.

The dialogue in Breaking Ice portrayed real-life situations, including generational conflicts that occur between millennials and baby boomers. This scene stuck with Rippel.

"That's so funny because it just really addresses all those generational gaps," Rippel said. "I find myself too being that old curmudgeon that's like, 'Man, those millennials,' and it's just like, 'Oh wait, they, they'd say the same stuff about us, right.' So, it just makes you cognizant of the need for understanding."

Leslie Juniel, executive director of equity and culture for Denver Public Schools, said the event and debrief provided an important opportunity to unpack the scenarios, learn from each other and recognize their similarities.

"This isn't about a job. It's not about a title," Juniel said. "This is about our human capacity to have empathy for each other and be willing to understand and learn about the lived experiences of other people."

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