When Tracey Robertson moved to Oshkosh eight years ago, she experienced emboldened racism on a regular basis.
At the grocery store, people would ask her if she had moved to the community because of the prison, which Robertson didn’t even know existed when she first came. Others would assume that all black people who arrive in Northeast Wisconsin are from either Milwaukee or inner-city Chicago, but always the ghetto.
“I moved here, and I was very displeased with how this community made me feel about being a person of color here,” she says.
Robertson, who did happen to grow up in Chicago, was raised in an upper middle-class community. She and her children moved to Oshkosh after she and her husband divorced and she wanted a fresh start in a new city. What she encountered, however, was bias.
At a small shop she frequented, she had befriended the owner. Upon hearing Robertson’s daughter was returning to Chicago for the weekend, the owner said to her, “You must be really happy to be getting back to the ‘hood.’” It was the kind of uninformed and tone-deaf remark Robertson had heard all too often.
Incidents like these prompted Robertson to partner with her friend, Janine Wright, a white woman married to a black man and raising four biracial children in the community, to begin hosting a series of community discussions called Color-Brave Community Conversations. They became popular and would regularly draw 30 to 40 attendees.
At a certain point, though, Robertson and Wright realized they were preaching to the choir and wanted to take their message further. In 2014, Robertson worked with Dr. Jennifer Chandler, a regular Color-Brave Community Conversations attendee, to launch Fit Oshkosh, a diversity education and social justice advocacy group. Robertson, who serves as executive director, and Chandler wrote some race equity curriculum and started delivering training to clients, beginning with the Winnebago Literacy Council, Oshkosh Police Department and Oshkosh Area School District.
Today, the work of Fit Oshkosh includes customized training for corporate clients throughout the United States and Canada, including Associated Bank, Humana and Schreiber Foods. Companies approach the organization for a variety of reasons. Some may reach out for help to address a racialized incident in the workplace. Others may seek assistance in recruiting and retaining people of color.
The organization spends much time educating on implicit bias. One tool it uses is the Intercultural Development Inventory, or IDI. Leadership and selected employees within a company can take the assessment.
After taking the test, the IDI provides users with a score that tells them where they think they are in intercultural engagement, where they actually are and a plan specific to where they land on the continuum. Spoiler: People almost always think they’re doing better than they are.
“How do you position yourself as a community of choice or an organization of choice?” Robertson says. “You do that through really having the skills to address your implicit bias and how that’s showing up in your engagements and interactions with people of color.”
Green Bay’s Schreiber Foods is one of the companies leading the way in diversity and inclusion initiatives. The customer brand dairy company does business across 40 facilities in 11 countries, and that position on a global scale has influenced the company’s efforts.
Stephanie Vander Zanden, Schreiber’s director of diversity and inclusion, says business partners have high expectations for the company around diversity and inclusion. Likewise, Schreiber has begun to engage suppliers in its diversity efforts. The company’s biggest growth comes from outside the United States, and it needs to adapt or be left behind, she says.
Three strategic priorities guide Schreiber’s diversity and inclusion work: cultural and gender fluency, attracting and developing great people, and measurement and accountability. For its employees, or partners, as Schreiber calls them, it has created business resource groups for women, the LGBTQ+ community, African-American Dairy Professionals, a multicultural resource group and an intergenerational group.
“Creating an environment where our partners are empowered to bring their authentic selves to work enables an atmosphere where they can pour their talent and energy into things that drive value for our organization, instead of having to mute or mask some aspect of their identity to fit in,” Vander Zanden says.
Laurie Radke, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Chamber, praises Schreiber along with corporate leaders Humana and Associated Bank for their work in the organization’s diversity and inclusion taskforce.
These three companies, she says, have worked to create curriculum and best practices. In addition, they’ve helped other businesses develop diversity and inclusion strategies and are willing to share non-proprietary resources in this area.
“Community leaders have really embraced this, and not in name only,” Radke says. “It’s not just a pledge. It’s
not just a quote.”
Diversity and inclusion is one of the pillars of the organization’s Greater Green Bay Economic Development Strategic Plan. Radke says the issue is vital to the quality of life and economic prosperity for any community.
The Greater Green Bay Chamber has chosen to make the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion a primary focus. Noting that by 2050, there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States, this national movement includes a CEO-driven commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
CEOs who choose to sign the pledge commit to following a specific set of actions toward creating a trusting and welcoming environment in which employees feel comfortable and empowered to discuss diversity and inclusion, according to the organization’s website. The Greater Green Bay Chamber became one of the first chambers to sign the pledge. The leaders of Schreiber, Humana and Associated Bank also have signed.
Vander Zanden says achieving a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can thrive requires a concerted effort that includes organizational strategy, company-wide execution and commitment from the highest levels of leadership, up to and including Schreiber CEO Mike Haddad. It’s a never-ending journey, Vander Zanden says. As part of its continued efforts, Schreiber plans to launch an inclusive leadership course that will include using the IDI assessment.
Still a long way to go
For Renita Robinson, CEO of YWCA Greater Green Bay, it was difficult to come to the decision to get involved in racial justice work, one of the tenets of the YWCA mission.
“Our two pillars are eliminating racism and empowering women,” she says. “Race work is really difficult for a person of color.”
Robinson, though, did finally choose to take on the role in January. She says Northeast Wisconsin is doing well in some areas around diversity and lagging in others. The biggest spoiler to progress is ignoring the marginalized, she says, so continued moves toward normalizing the conversation around race and concerted efforts such as those of the Greater Green Bay Chamber are important.
Robyn Davis, president and CEO of the Brown County United Way, says she feels hopeful and excited for the opportunity the organization has in joining the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s taskforce. She’s seen the diversity increase and the landscape change in the 15 years she’s lived in Northeast Wisconsin. At the same time, however, she says the conversation needs to continue, and people need to work through difficult and uncomfortable feelings they have around race.
This month, she’ll speak as part of a panel discussion for a YWCA Greater Green Bay Stand Against Racism lunch and learn. It will feature an intergenerational panel of people of color sharing their experiences in the workplace. Davis worked as an attorney, judge and nonprofit leader before taking her current role. When she first got involved in diversity and inclusion work, she spoke at a Greater Green Bay Chamber breakfast dedicated to embracing diversity.
“When I spoke, I shared these are the kind of challenges I’ve faced ever since I went to law school. And some things haven’t changed, and some things have,” she says. “It was more of an education. Be aware of the kinds of things that folks that don’t necessarily look like you face every day. My thought process sometimes is very different based on my experience.”
For Robertson of Fit Oshkosh, she says it is time to address issues proactively and not simply hope the next generation will do the work for us.
“Nothing gets fixed because of exposure. I think that needs to be fixed — thinking that the problem will die, and we’ll do better. We won’t do better unless we choose to do better,” she says. “We all have to make a concerted effort to increase our intercultural competence. It’s got to be conscious.”
Where to turn for help
Many resources are available to companies wanting to become more racially literate.
• The Global Education and Services department at Fox Valley Technical College offers several classes, including a Working Across Cultures course and training related specifically to race relations. “I think it’s going to get more diverse whether you like it or not,” says Aaron Gorenc, global education and services manager at FVTC. “If we can prepare our workforce for the inevitable, they’re going to be better prepared to solve breakdowns in communications.” fvtc.edu/global-education
• Fit Oshkosh offers a multitude of customized training services. Schreiber, for example, used its popular Upstander and Bystander training. fitoshkoshinc.org
• The YWCA Greater Green Bay offers a Stand Against Racism series. ywcagreenbay.org/events/stand-against-racism-series
• Read more about the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s diversity and inclusion efforts in its Economic Development Strategic Plan: greatergbc.org/media/3045/strategic-plan-booklet-web.pdf.
• Learn more about CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion: ceoaction.com/the-pledge