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NEIU’s “Black at Work” Virtual Panel

September 10, 2021

On Aug. 31, NEIU’s Career Development Center held a virtual event where three individuals provided profound insight on their work history, experiences and strategies to overcome systemic/institutional barriers that many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) face. During this event, students and faculty were given the chance to learn about these increasingly prevalent topics from panelists who, while residing in various academic fields, conveyed nearly identical messages. 

Coordinated by Office Support Specialist Valerie Olson, the “Black at Work” virtual panel featured Timothy Mays, Velshay Stokes and Dr. Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan. 

Obtaining his M.A. in higher education from Loyola University Chicago in 2016, NEIU’s own Timothy Mays has spent his years researching the exoticism, disposability and healing of Black bodies. 

Next, Velshay Stokes is the manager of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for the tech organization “Lucid.” Her concentration is toward healthy work and school environments, specializing in creating equitable environments within these spaces and encouraging authenticity.

The third and final panelist was none other than Dr. Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan, who has left his mark on an international level. Dr. Loganwho, among many other noteworthy titles, is recognized as a leader, educator and authorcontinues furthering his knowledge and expertise in racial and ethnic identity development. 

Although they were asked only a handful of questions during the hour-long event, the panelists covered a wide variety of topics, addressing essentially every aspect that accompanies race in both remote and in-person workplaces.

In your experience, what challenges have you found in articulating or highlighting what racist structures look like in the workplace? What channels currently exist to understand what is and is not working for Black-identified employees?

The panelists concurred in noting the difficulties BIPOC and/or anyone who experiences oppression face when trying to make their voices heard, especially those new to a job or field.

Stating that her role at “Lucid” is more entry-level and that she often finds herself being the youngest person with the least amount of work experience in many professional settings, Stokes often questions whether she is experiencing racism in the workplace or if she is overreacting. 

“Is this really racist or am I just being sensitive? Is it really racist or is it in my head? And I think that right there often stops me from moving forward,” Stokes said. “These racist structures look like they’re normal because we’re so used to them. … So when you are the only Black person on a call, it’s like, how do I articulate exactly what’s happening when no one on this call is going to understand what I’m saying?”

As for the channels that exist or are being created in order to understand black-identified employees, Dr. Logan stressed what he is doing, saying, “I’m hired to come in and interpret and articulate and highlight the racist structures that are in place and to coach Black, Brown, and white leaders to help them develop intercultural competence and racial equity committees and task forces and that type of thing.”

How can a workplace efficiently provide employees with accessible avenues and DEI resources to support them and to report racial inequities?

This time, the panelists had a wide variety of answers including, but not limited to, implementing policies, collective community and colleague help and professional growth and development.

Mays, who brought up the point of professional growth and development, expanded on this idea, noting the importance of division of labor within a company or institution.

 Mays said, “When there’s initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion or anti-racism training, Black and Brown people are oftentimes the ones asked to take on that work, and I think there has to be serious consideration of the labor and how it’s divided up. Oftentimes Black and Brown folks are the ones who are leading the work but also receiving the micro and macro aggressions in the workspace … .” 

When Mays addressed the lack of labor division in professional settings, he echoed sentiments espoused by his fellow panelists; implementing policies and collective community and colleague help are imperative.

What are some of the specific ways that you have advocated for change and the successes and challenges you’ve faced specifically in promoting transparency and accountability? What DEI goals are already in place? What progress has been made?

On the topic of advocating for change, Stokes provided an anecdote as a means of evidence on how she was able to bring about change for her and fellow BIPOC within her and other workplaces.

During her many years of work experience, Stokes once found herself being the only African American employee at a start-up company. Because said company’s HR department was essentially non-existent, she was often subjected to racist remarks with no recourse.

“That really pushed me to advocate for change and fight for HR … let’s fight for diversity training,” Stokes said. She continued by stressing the importance of fighting for what you believe in and doing your research in order to find your voice and make your voice heard.

Stokes added, “It felt good to speak up. It was super hard, and it was super scary. … But I knew that in the end I’m not going to be the only black person at this company forever. There are going to be more Black people after me, so if I have to sit here and do all of this and make this ruckus, then I’ll do that so that, in the future, we can begin to hire more black people and treat them properly when they get there.”

As for Dr. Logan, he stood in solidarity with Stokes’ notion on the matter, providing his own anecdote when stressing the importance of BIPOC making their voices heard within an organization.

“I’ve worked with a lot of companies … I cannot tell you how many times I was called in because of that one black employee who kept poking the bear, who kept, to Velshay’s [Stokes’] point, making their voice heard and calling it out, and a lot of times they were ostracized, they were criticized … and unbeknownst to them, it was their voice that actually ended up bringing me in,” Dr. Logan said.

As reiterated by Stokes and Dr. Logan, BIPOC continue to make their voices heard in professional settings that transcend just the national level, and as a means of mitigation against racist work environments, their experiences and anecdotes detail how organization-altering changes can blossom from only a single person. Furthermore, regardless of the repercussions (e.g. losing their jobs or public ridicule), those who are being oppressed are making monumental DEI advancements in the workplace.

Overall, the virtual panel was a huge success and was incredibly informative across all facets of the professional workplace. Mays, Stokes, and Dr. Logan touched on numerous topics while noting what hardships they have experienced within racist work cultures and environments, what can be done in order to identify and combat these issues in favor of BIPOC and what they have seen and/or done in hopes of creating DEI goals and advocating for change in these toxic environments. 

Although BIPOC continue to face racial adversity in the workplace on levels unfathomable to the world, let alone the nation, it is incredibly crucial for leaders—specifically white leaders—and employees to not only educate themselves about the languages and history of other races but to be accepting of them as well.

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