DEI & Workplace Culture

"There needs to be intentionality with building a foundation for the work if we want to see those big strides, big leaps in progress."—Chevon Bowen

DEI & Workplace Culture

S3 Ep1 | 26m 48s

DEI and workplace climate and culture can be a personal topic for some and a political topic for others. But history and present-day disparities support the fact that it remains an important topic for all of us. Workplace Culture Strategist Chevon Bowen provides her perspective on its impacts in and around the workplace.

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Chevon Bowen

Chevon Bowen

Chevon Bowen is a Workplace Culture Strategist at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, WI. Her work ensures that equity, diversity, and inclusion practices are prioritized and executed within specific schools, disciplines, and departments. Bowen holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Occupational Safety and a Master of Science degree in Environmental Health and Safety, both from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


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Announcer: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.

Angela Fitzgerald: As the name of this series suggests, topics related to race and racial justice remain important to many of us who work hard towards a more diverse world.

But with the 2023 Supreme Court decision to eliminate the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and with legislation being passed across the United States to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI initiatives, many are left wondering what the future holds for diversity in the workforce and schools.

Let’s find out why race matters when it comes to diversity in workplace climate and culture.

On June 4, 1965, during Howard University’s commencement ceremony, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that “…freedom is not enough.

“You do not take a person who “for years has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, “bring him up to the starting line of a race, “and then say, you are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Those words came before his signing of Executive Order 11246 on September 24, 1965, which established requirements for non-discriminatory practices in hiring and employment on the part of U.S. government contractors.

President Johnson’s words come approximately one year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and approximately four years after the term “affirmative action” was used for the first time by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he issued an executive order mandating that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure “that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Now, affirmative action is designed to identify barriers to equal employment opportunity and eliminate them through action-oriented programs.

And despite these efforts to create a more diversified workplace, employment and workforce disparities remain.

For example, recent data from the United States Department of Labor show that for every dollar earned by a white worker, 73 cents and 76 cents are earned by Latinx and Black workers, respectively.

Wisconsin earning data shows a slightly larger gap, with Latinx earners earning 69 cents and Black workers earning 74 cents for every dollar earned by a white worker.

Affirmative action remains a hot topic of discussion, largely driven by the 2023 Supreme Court decision to effectively eliminate the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Workplace culture strategist Chevon Bowen provides her perspective on this important work.

How are you doing today, Chevon?

– I am doing wonderful, thank you so much for having me.

– Appreciate you coming to join us.

So tell us about the work that you do as a workplace culture strategist.

– Yeah, there’s actually quite, I feel like there’s a lot that is embodied by my role, but there’s a few key areas that I feel that I focus on.

So one of the main areas is in regards to professional development around the various equity and inclusion efforts that we’re trying to implement at Madison College.

And so we have a lot of different workshops that deal with topics like how to create a sense of belonging for students and employees, how to deal with some of those frustrations that employees and students of color may have to deal with in the workplace.

We will tend to dive into things like microaggressions, right?

And how to create psychologically safe spaces.

And so I really, and that’s where my passion is, that’s really the heart of the work that I do where that is, and so I spend a lot of time working with other colleagues in different units across the college to design these workshops to find ways to make them engaging for our employees so that it doesn’t just feel like another check in the box type of training, but something that’s actually meaningful, and they’re gonna get some really good information out of it and also learn from each other.

I feel like that’s a critical thing.

I like being able to teach different concepts, but I know that a lot of the learning comes from those engagements that they have with each other, so we really try and create those environments in the different workshops and trainings that we develop.

– Wow, your area of work sounds so interesting and like it could take so many different paths.

So not only is it equity work within an organization, but it’s an organization focused on education, so, like, even just the layers in and of itself right there.

I feel like I have some follow ups for you around what does that work actually look like for you, and kind of how has it maybe shifted or evolved in response to things that are happening in the world around us.

Before I get into that, how did you get into this lane of work?

Like, I feel like workplace culture strategist, I wouldn’t have even known what that was probably, like, ten years ago.

So how did you get here?

– You know, what’s great is I didn’t even know what it was not too long ago, so we’re in the same boat, it’s okay.

And so, the first thing that I wanna share is my background, my degree and everything has, people would say that it has nothing to do with this work.

So my undergrad that I got is in occupational safety and health from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and then my master’s degree is in environmental health and safety from UW-Whitewater as well.

When the events of George Floyd happened and our president said we need to really start putting a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, then our college started having these different initiatives that started coming off, right?

And so the first one was we need to have our different schools formulate committees that are going to champion this work.

And so, you know, the associate dean I was working with at the time came up to me and said, “Hey, this thing is going on, would you wanna do it?”

And I had to recognize there was probably a couple different reasons why that was asked of me, but I was okay with it because I knew it was a chance for me to do some good for the institution just outside of the safety realm, and really take some of those skills that I learned from my master’s program and be able to apply them to a different discipline.

So I was very excited to do that, and I’ll share I was also excited to do that just because of my history.

I grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin.

It’s a predominantly white town.

Navigating that and growing up in it was interesting in itself, so I really also wanted to jump on this work because I wanted to better understand how my lived experiences have impacted me, and then be able to translate that into the work and help other people.

– And do you find that, or have you found that the work has shifted for you over time?

How does it look different now?

And I ask that because, you know, we acknowledge that the climate around us has undergone some changes in terms of how collectively we embrace the idea of equity.

So just in general, what have you seen over time, and where do you see this lane of work now?

– Oh, yeah, mm, that’s a heavy one.


Because, you know, when I first, and I think the reason why I say that is there’s a couple different angles, so bear with me here.

So on the one end, I think when the work started, it was a bunch of us that were thrown into it, trying to figure out what are we supposed to do with this?

And you talked about how a lot of organizations kind of started jumping on the bandwagon.

And I think that what we’ve seen since this work has started is that there needs to be intentionality with building a strong foundation for the work if we want to really see, like, those big strides or those big leaps in progress.

And so we kind of jumped into the work, we knew something needed to be done, right?

We had a new equity and inclusion plan that was developed, and you know, all of these directives of what we should be doing, and so we just kind of dove in and started trying to build things.

I remember when we first started doing the work in the institute, and you know, we knew that we wanted to find ways to be able to embed different types of learning outcomes related to DEI into various classes that students are taking.

You’re throwing a lot of people in and asking them to do this work, and they may not have a lot of knowledge around it, and it’s not their fault, right?

It’s because if we’re gonna ask someone to do something, we need to make sure that we’re giving them the tools and the knowledge, and everything that they need to be successful.

I struggle with saying that our work has actually changed.

I do recognize that because of things that have happened that are outside of our control, that we’ve had to shift a little bit, right?

So I originally started this work working in the Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.

We’re all still there, but now we’re called the Division of College Culture and Climate.

It doesn’t bother me that we changed to that, to be honest, because that really is what we were doing.

All the work that we’re trying to do in terms of, you know, creating equitable spaces, right?

Inclusive spaces, creating a sense of belonging for everyone in our community, you know, that hasn’t changed any.

It’s just all of those things that we were doing was ultimately to try and develop a healthy culture and a healthy climate for everyone who’s a part of it.

– So Chevon, tell us, as the broader context and climate around your area of work shifts on a national level, how do you and members of your team maintain a sense of psychological safety that allows you to still feel, I guess, empowered to do what you do every day?

– Yeah, sometimes that’s a little bit of a challenge, and I think that a big part of the reason why it’s such a challenge is because we have a team of individuals who are so passionate about this work.

I also feel the need to recognize that our team is mostly made of employees of color, and so you know, when you think about that, that’s a lot of employees who are… who are putting themselves out there, and putting their truths out there to try and get that message across and get people to buy in to why this work is really needed.

And the vulnerability that comes with that, and you know, how much it can tax you.

I’ve definitely, you know, myself and others on the team, we have felt the repercussions of that, right?

I think that sometimes when the climate shifts and we find ourselves frustrated, and we’re like, “Why are we doing this work?

Can we even do this work?”

One of the things that we tend to go to right away is, like, within that learner safety aspect.

So we need to learn more about why the climate changed, but we have to shift, and so we need that time to shift.

We recognize that we need to rebuild our foundation some, going back to that piece.

And so we need that time to rebuild, we need that time to relearn or learn new things, and then figure out now how can we incorporate this into what we already wanna do so that we can continue to advance this work to ensure that the work is still meaningful, that it’s still gonna impact our students, especially our students of color, the way that it needs to?

– Absolutely; I think being strategic is very timely with this work, which historically, I feel like we’ve always had to be strategic around how do we achieve our objective, given that the larger world around us is not advocating for what we’re trying to achieve?

– And I think we just, you know, one of the things is that we try and keep at the forefront is, you know, obviously we’re doing something right.


– Exactly.

– ‘Cause if we weren’t doing something right, then, you know, those who don’t want to see these changes wouldn’t be going to such lengths to try and stop the work.

And to your point, it’s not like this hasn’t happened before in social justice movements.

So it’s just a matter of how do we reset, make sure that we’re still good in our core, and then yeah, strategize to, okay, we’ll take a different route, but the work still lives.

– Yes.

– Yeah.

– I appreciate that explanation because I can imagine some folks wondering, like, what does that mean to, like, change the name of a unit that has such a very specific focus?

And not wanting it to come across as though the original intention is being taken away from, but rather know where, in some ways, it seems like intentionality around broadening who all is included in this, because at times, it feels like there’s a maybe selection bias in terms of who actually becomes involved in this work, and arguably, we all should have shared ownership.

– Yes.

– In a space like an educational institution, right?

I’m curious, because you mentioned this earlier, the idea of equity, inclusion, even climate and culture work being checkbox work.

How do you avoid that for some who may feel as though, “Yep, I did my plan, I did the thing.”

– How to avoid the check in the box syndrome?

I don’t know that it’s completely inescapable.

I think that we are trying to implement strategies to make it more inescapable, and you know, something that I have been really trying to teach myself over the past year is that I know that I want to change the entire world, but I also need to be okay with focusing on what’s within my locus of control.

As much as I would love to shake every single individual and say, “No, this is important, you should believe in it.

“You should want this to be a part of your being, right?

A part of your breath,” I understand that I can’t do that.

And so it’s kind of one of those things, and you know, there’s different versions of how you hear about this, but when you talk about culture and trying to change things, right?

They’ll say, you know, and this is just kind of the rough estimate, that you’ll have, like, 20% of people within the community that are, you’re excited about it, they’re gonna champion what you’re trying to change, right?

They’re the first ones that are willing to try it out.

And then you have, like, 20% at the bottom that are like, “I don’t really care what you’re trying to do.

“I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing, and nothing you can do will change that.”

And then you’ve got, like, that 60% that’s kind of in the middle and they’re on the fence.

They don’t really know which way to go.

Something that I’ve noticed is that if I myself am trying to bring them along, that’s very taxing ’cause it’s requires me to be even more vulnerable, I would say, at times about my intersectionality, about my experiences, about how I got to where I am, which can lead to being very drained.

And that’s not always healthy, right?

For your mental health, your physical health, emotional, all of those things.

And so I’ve been trying to be okay with the fact that I can’t do it all, and really trying to put my trust in others to help bring along those individuals who may not be quite there yet.

– So I guess I was curious what you do to support maybe that 20% who might be engaging in a way similar to you of, “I’m constantly sharing parts of myself, and just doing a lot that could be very taxing on me.”

And then what do you need to feel supported in this area of work?

– The ways in which those of us, that upper 20% support each other, there’s numerous, right?

So I know many of the people that I work with, we often have one-on-one conversations and just kind of check-ins and see how we’re doing.

I will say that when we have team meetings with individuals who do this work, we intentionally have those meetings a little longer than probably what you need for a working meeting because we wanna make sure that we give that space for people to be able to share about their struggles or their successes, right?

And be able to have that safe space for us to be able to talk about what it is that we’re going through.

And to be honest, I suppose another thing that I try and do personally, and maybe it’s different.

Like, when I share my personal struggles or my stories or things like that with those who are in the trenches with me, it doesn’t feel as taxing.

It feels sometimes like I’m trying to share with them, like, this is what I’ve gone through because I don’t want you to go through it.

So you know, an example that I will give, last year, we were getting ready for our art gallery for the Black Women Affinity Group, and I ended up missing the gallery because I wasn’t taking enough care of myself.

I was in very deep in this work at that point in time, there were some personal things that were happening to me related to the work at that time, and my body just said, “Yeah, we quit.

You can’t make it that day.”

And so that’s a story that I often share because then I try and explain to people, you know, when they’re saying, you know, “I’m just so worn out.

“You know, I’m drained from how taxing this is, “from how much of myself that I have to give to others for them to understand.”

And I just, I’m like, “Well, this is what I did.

“Like, I was in the same place you were, “and this was how it impacted me, and you know, these are changes that I’ve made now, right?”

So you also say about things that I need for myself.

You know, I’m a big fan of therapy.

[laughs] I go to therapy, right?

I’ve really started to focus more on things like meditation, right?

And also, before doing this work, the idea of missing work ’cause I was sick just sounded crazy to me.

Like, I would drag myself into my jobs and be sick as a dog, ’cause that’s just, a lot of times, that’s what’s expected, right?

And so, just getting myself to realize that, like, I’m learning that.

– Yeah.

– And recognizing that when you are starting to feel worn out, it’s okay to take a day for yourself.

– I guess I wonder what words of encouragement or advice you have around even starting something that looks like or mirrors what you do?

Like, what does that look like?

Like, what would you say to someone who is interested in starting an affinity group, you know, at their organization or just doing something that feels like there’s a first step towards creating an organizational space in which I feel like all of me’s accepted and where we’re moving towards the goal of equity?

– Yeah.

– What would you tell that person?

– This kind of work, I don’t think can be done in a silo, and I don’t feel that it’s healthy to do it individually.

When I first started doing it, I wasn’t really, like, I wasn’t really talking to my family about it, I wasn’t really talking with my close friends about it.

Sometimes I would worry, you know, going back to how I grew up, right?

Like, a lot of my friends are not Black, they’re not minority, right?

They’re white, and so even just trying to figure out, like, oh, my goodness, now I’m in this space, and recognizing my identity and I’m doing all this work, and I wanna talk about it all the time, and then you sometimes get in these spaces and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should talk about it.”

And I would even sometimes feel that way with my family because even those generational differences can make the conversation challenging.

So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t need to.

“I’ve got people at work and know other people in my professional network and that’ll be fine.”

And what I’ve learned is that doesn’t work.

At least for me, I realized it didn’t work.

But those who are in your community who truly care about you and truly love you, they’re gonna be there even if it’s awkward, right?

And so once I was able to push through some of that, some of those challenging feelings, it really became helpful for me.

So I’d say that would be the other piece too, is just be comfortable with sharing your story with those who are in your community, and trust that the ones who you have in your community, you know, care about you enough that they want to hear your story, and that they wanna support you in any way they can.

– Wow, community is so important, like you said, especially for work that can feel isolating, depending on who you have around you.

I remember taking classes where I’m like, “Well, man, every time they talk about Blackness or a Black person, it’s always something negative.”

We’re lowest on this, we’re negative on that, and just feeling like, how is that impacting me in ways I don’t even recognize?

So I guess I’m curious, not to diminish the reality of disparities that are very real for all of us and especially in the state of Wisconsin, but how can we be thinking about this work from a strengths-based perspective?

– Yeah, and I appreciate what you’re saying, because we can’t ignore those facts, right?

Those do need to come out.

But I think what can be done is, you know, we use that information to set the stage for how we can make things better.

And so a lot of times when, you know, when I’m working with others and we’re delivering, we have a couple different workshops that we do, and one of them I’m thinking of is our culturally-responsive practices workshop, you know, we share those, we share that information, right?

We talk about, you know, where the gaps are, where the struggles are, especially when it comes to our Black and Brown students.

But then we’re like, okay, now let’s shift that focus.

So we get it, we get what the problem is, we get what our current reality is, but how can we move that forward?

And so really trying to spend the majority of the time focusing on what I would consider the positive side of the story.

– Yes!

– And really just thinking about, you know, what are those things we need to do when we’re thinking about making relationships, like, building relationships with our students and our coworkers?

And, you know, what do we need to understand in terms of their intersectionality and their lived experiences?

And, you know, what does trust look like?

And that looks different for our different populations, and we need to understand that.

So having conversations around that, having conversations around, you know, you need to understand your own identity, you know, and how you bring yourself to the table.

So how can we do that, what does that look like?

How can we look at those different layers of culture and understand how that’s impacted us in the way that we have been brought up in the world?

And so that’s all we’re really trying to do, yeah.

– Wow, that was beautifully stated, Chevon.

As a workplace culture strategist, what does success look like to you?

– Oof, this will be a little personal.

I think that success for me will be me walking into the institution feeling like I truly belong in all areas of the institution.

There are the pockets, right?

I’ve talked about, like, the people who I get to work with, and you know, those who are moving forward and in the trenches with me doing the DEI work, and I feel really comfortable in those spaces, right?

When I sit in a Black Women’s Affinity Group meeting, I feel so good in those spaces.

But that feeling isn’t in many other areas of the institution, so when I can walk in and feel comfortable everywhere I’m at, I can sit at any table and feel comfortable and confident, and know that there’s respect there, right?

That there’s trust there between me and everyone else, I think that might be when I really feel like we’ve succeeded at our mission.

And I know that that’s personal.

I don’t feel bad about that, though.

Yeah, that’s it, I’m just, I’m really looking forward to what the next year is gonna bring and how we can really help to continue to benefit our employees and our students.

– Thank you so much, Chevon.

– Oh, my goodness, thank you so much for having me.

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Announcer: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by UnityPoint Health Meriter, Park Bank, donors to the Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programs, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

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