‘We can’t let it be a fad’

'[Having diversity] is good business, good politics and the right thing to do,' according to former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer


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Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in corporations and education have faced increased cuts and political push back across the country over the past year.

John Bailey, founder of Joint Effort Witherspoon Jackson Princeton Safe Streets, during the week-long program earlier this month raised questions about what needs to be done differently and outside the box thinking regarding DEI in a conversation with panelists inside the Arts Council of Princeton on Aug. 8.

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“What was clear is that DEI was creating some contentiousness within the corporate culture, U.S. politics and definitely creating some contentiousness in the education environment,” he said. “Many of us are aware that democracy is elusive and just as elusive is diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Diversity is having a diverse group of folks like this scenario here this evening, Bailey noted.

“Equity is about making sure that everyone can live up to their own potential no matter where they find themselves, and inclusion on the other hand means that you can be inclusive but does not mean that the relationship will be equitable,” Bailey said.

Phil Woolfolk, vice president of the African American Chamber of Commerce New Jersey, noted in the first fireside chat of the evening that “things get done corporately through incentives.”

“People do what they are measured on and do what they are being paid to do,” he said. “If you really want to impact diversity, equity and inclusion on a corporate standpoint, you incentivize managers from the top down to make changes and they will positively impact things based on how they are being compensated.”

I think for the most part people don’t have the will to make these changes, because they don’t want to, Woolfolk added.

He explained that diversity professionals or officers do not tend to have any authority over procurement – people who help a company or entity secure service needs.

“As [chief of diversity and inclusion] you can jump up and down all you want, but if you do not have the authority to tell [procurement] what to do they are going to continue to give contracts to folks they have been giving contracts to,” Woolfolk said.

“That is what is happening in a lot of companies and is happening in the education sector. The procurement people are in charge and the diversity, equity and inclusion folks are basically window dressing.”

At the state level lacking goals is a problem, according to Assemblyman Dan Benson (LD-14), who is running for Mercer County Executive.

“The other problem is often times when they do disparity studies, the granularity [level of detail] is not there, so it glosses over a lot of disparities in subcontracting,” he said.

Benson, who serves as chair of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities, said the assembly committee and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly have been working hard on getting more information out on large contracts that happen on transportation projects.

“Making sure that bid information on everyone who has bid on the contract is made public early, so that those who are subcontractors know who they can try and pair with before the contract is final,” he added.

Benson spotlighted the county’s second supplier diversity study and said the study did show huge progress, but also lacks a certain level of detail.

“It shows the increase in designated business entities, one of acronyms you will see about these things, usually women, minority, veteran owned businesses, and that category has increased for the county,” he said. “But if you asked, how many Black businesses, veteran owned businesses, you do not have the data. That is a problem.”

Benson added the study also showed that businesses don’t go through the trouble of getting registered and it is unclear on how many designated business entities are from Mercer County.

“You have to register, and you used to have to pay [for registration],” he said, adding the county “did the right thing” and dropped the costs. “We have to be very engaging … and go seek [out vendors] before we put a request for proposal (RFPs) out. [We need to ask] what the barriers are to applying for this.”

Government entities also do a lot of professional services and those professional services often times dwarf the vendor relationships, Benson said, noting that aspect is not measured at all.

If elected this November, he looks forward to working with the commissioners on making sure the county has a DEI officer in personnel to make sure they have the right training and climate within employment; to make sure the county has goals; and has someone in charge of diversity in the county’s vendor relationships. Also to set goals for the first time in professional services.

Mercer County Commissioner Sam Frisby pointed at the economic disparity in New Jersey, where he said, “the average white family in the state can get their hands on about $350,000 worth of wealth and the average Black family in the state about $10,000.”

“This disparity is that large,” he said. “We talk about the fact that we need to do disparity studies. We know what the disparity is. Do we have the will to actually do something about the disparity?”

Frisby chooses to use the JEDI [Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] acronym when focusing on the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“You can’t have all those things without talking about justice in the process,” he said. “We have to make sure when we are talking JEDI that everyone recognizes they have a seat at the table and just because we are elevating other people to make sure that folks recognize they can be that or can get there, does not mean you are forgotten.

“But also, it does not mean that there has to be room made at the table. You are not going to be 90 percent of the call all the time.”

When Doug Palmer, former mayor of Trenton and now principal of Palmer & Associates, became Trenton’s first Black mayor in 1990, he moved forward on his efforts to have the most diverse and qualified cabinet.

“I felt pretty good about that, because we had talented people,” he said. “I’d have cabinet meetings and look and say this is how I want this to be. I was patting myself on the back.”

A year or so goes by, Palmer went to African American city attorney Rocky Peterson’s office to go see him.

“I did not go into the office much, so I go in to see him [and I see that] all the attorneys were Black,” he recalled. “I go to Department of Inspections to see Len Pucciatti, they are all Italian, I go to recreation and natural resources, Francis Blanco, who was Latino, they are all Latino.”

“To the point where I [told each department], you are hiring no more Blacks, you aren’t hiring any more Latino, and Len you aren’t hiring any more Italians.”

Palmer urged people be more conscious when talking about diversity.

“[Having diversity] is good business, good politics and the right thing to do,” he said. “Because each and every one of us has differences that we need someone else to do. We have to look out for each other and push for diversity and inclusion. It is not just because it is the right thing, but it is good for the bottom line.”

People think DEI is a fad and it will be if we do not push, Palmer added.

“That means all of us pushing. We can’t let it be a fad.”

For companies, Hal English, president and CEO of Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, suggested that there be better education on how having a real diversity, equity and inclusion program is profitable.

“We have to stay strong and tell people but does anyone in this room like to be told what to do,” English said. “I think something is missing in our diversity and inclusion and what we are not hitting at is why are businesses in business.”

“They are in the business to make money and make a profit. Some are philanthropic, God bless them and yes, some are charitable, God bless them. We need more to do that, but [some businesses] are in it for the bottom line.”

English said if diversity and inclusion is done right, they will get more skills on their boards, in their workplace, and get happier and happier employees.

“…We have to support diversity and inclusion officers; they have to get through middle level managers,” he added. “We need to do better education. We can’t be Florida and be revisionist history. We have to get companies to relate to why are we doing this and not that you have to do it and have to be diverse.”

He explained that respectful and reputable companies treat people right and do much better.

“There are statistics that say if you do have a successful diversity and inclusion program, your chances are increased by 35 percent to be the most profitable in your area if you are a pharmaceutical company,” English noted, saying they need to “keep up the fight.”

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