Monday, June 13, 2016

Local First: Introductory steps towards inclusion and equity

Even during a recent mild national jobs report, I enjoyed the month of May with local businesses and National Small Business Week!

In my hometown I was thrilled to stop by a successful local store, Gazelle Sports which fulfills their goals of profit and sustainability as a Certified B Corporation.  It is also my destination for North Face gear (a great leader in corporate social responsibility), and where I reconnected with a college classmate.  I purchased great outdoor apparel from Patagonia---another leader in creating products responsibly.  Just as much as my former classmate was talking about business, he was equally energetic about the Gazelle Sports Foundation that promotes healthy lifestyle and fitness in the community.

A few days later in-between project work I stopped for a late lunch at Tacos El Cunado, a great eatery that sources many ingredients from Michigan.  Their efficiency in delivering my probably too-specific order was only rivaled by their empathy in being concerned about why I was eating so late!

In both cases, I received personal care and excellent service from local businesses who value the well-being of customers and communities.  The two businesses are members of Local First---an organizational leader in the Midwest focused on supporting and advocating for its 800-plus locally owned businesses.  Progress Strategies+ has served Local First as a Diversity & Inclusion Project Area client because they are equally committed to being an organization of choice for social and economic inclusion.

Local and Small can meet big challenges of social and economic inequity

I appreciate corporations who uphold inclusion through diversity managers, supplier diversity initiatives and many other programs.  I have even more appreciation for small local businesses whose size and profit margins do not allow them to have such programs.  However, some of them are working to do better through sheer force of will, market motivators and passion for their communities to do what they can to promote inclusion and social/racial equity. 

Local First is taking the challenging journey to do so as they realize these points that can uplift or upset their goal of a positive local economy:

·         A 2013 study in the Harvard Business Review found that businesses with multiple dimensions of diversity were notably more innovative and enjoyed market growth than less diverse businesses.

·         A local economy cannot fully thrive if culturally and ethnically diverse communities are not owning local businesses.

·         An ally organization must believe in diversity more than for membership.  Such an organization is aware of the conditions of exclusion that certain communities face, and it advocates for solutions. 

·         To be an organization of choice for all people means that the organization must assess and address its own internal and external roadblocks to promoting cultural competence, inclusion and equity. 

Local First.  First steps toward equity.

Progress Strategies+ appreciated Local First’s commitment to our five-month cultural competency, inclusion and equity training and partial policy development.  Our Local First E3 (Equity, Environments of Inclusion and Engagement) with Diverse Communities provided them instructional facilitation sessions and creation of introductory policies to advance inclusion and promote inclusive strategies for the authentic engagement with culturally diverse communities. 

Progress Strategies+ remains excited of Local First’s immediate embrace and use of inclusion tools and first steps such as:

·         100% staff completion of rigorous cultural competency, inclusion and equity training and acquisition of new skills to connect mission with internal and external inclusion strategies.

·         501(c)3 board and education foundation board completion of the same.

·         Adoption of recommended policies promoting workplace equity and religious accommodation.

·         New ethnically and culturally diverse board members immediately joining existing board leaders and staff as a dedicated work-group implementing key inclusion and equity action items in areas from cultural competency sustainability to communications and equity accountability.

Small and Local:  The first gateways to equity.

Again, there are many reasons not to be surprised by such an embrace from an organization.  It is my belief that one reason is the knowledge that more local business owners see themselves as potentially being the inclusion ally of first resort because they are connected to (and dependent on) a local economy that is fair and functioning for all.

It is the local neighborhood store that can instantly see the moral and economic negative effects from a city that is exclusive to many.  It is that local store owner who can be the first business before the large corporation to have Spanish-speaking employees adapt to a growing Hispanic population not via marketing data but because they see the diverse communities in their parks and pews.  Years before the mega-supermarket receives the accounting position job application from the African-American college graduate, the local store in her neighborhood may have given her the first high-school job as a cashier.    

Local business can be the most natural ally for inclusion because when a local owner is wondering if they are effectively promoting workplace and economic equity, they do not need a national scorecard or research brief.  They only need to connect their heart and head to look down the street to be aware of the talented entrepreneur of color who can be their vendor-of-choice as opposed to being economically detached from community. 

More impactful is the fact that local business does not need to take a long process of hiring that person in order to promote inclusion.  They can instantly respond with agility, awareness and action because they are local.  When it comes to inclusion and equity, local business and Local First can be the leader of first resort.  It is good to see them taking such a journey.

Eric K. Foster is principal and president of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm serving corporations, businesses and organizations.  Progress Strategies+ also specializes in four social responsibility client project areas----Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Public Policy and Advocacy and Grant Writing/Grant Management.  His first jobs in high school were with local stores----Kingma's Produce (where he never ate oranges, grapes or apples at work) and Reynolds & Sons Sporting Goods (where he learned sales by selling every gym shoe and hat possible)