A company’s diversity-management success depends on the support of its surrounding community, according to the Diversity Awareness Partnership (DAP). That’s why the St. Louis–based nonprofit is striving to promote the
importance of diversity and inclusion to the region.
Led by Executive Director Reena Hajat Carroll and with the support of nine corporate sponsors, DAP hosts a variety of programs to educate the public on the current issues of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity so “all sectors are working together and invested in a meaningful way,” says Carroll.
These include a 90-minute corporate diversity-training course; the Give Respect – Get Respect Youth Program; an annual diversity summit of 300-plus attendees; free Community Forums featuring panels or educational movie events; and published media.
“It’s about getting St. Louisians to start thinking about diversity, why it matters for the city,” and giving them tangible resources, explains Carroll.
Improving Workplace Diversity Starts at Home
Carroll’s work plays an integral role in shaping what she refers to as the strong “marriage” between corporations and their communities. “If people in their homes are practicing discrimination or buying into stereotypes,” she explains, “those negative mentalities carry over to the workplace. Communities are what make up the workforce.”
Carroll notes St. Louis’ “divided infrastructure” and explains how local neighborhoods are very homogeneous in terms of diversity, namely Black (49.2 percent) or white (42.2 percent). “You don’t have to see others of different races. There’s no forced integration; everything you need is in your own community,” she says.
“If people aren’t accepting of diversity in their communities and at work, where will the mindsets begin to change?” Being able to break those barriers is the challenge for companies today, Carroll says. People take lessons in diversity and inclusion home from work to the dinner table, and that’s what kids are being socialized with, she explains.
“We need it to be successful as a region to grow and remain competitive with other cities,” says Carroll. “We need to change the general mindsets about diversity and focus on creating a more inclusive community.”
Gaining Buy-In for Diversity & Inclusion
The DAP has run several successful campaigns to increase and promote awareness for diversity and inclusion to “St. Louisians.” Carroll notes an upcoming fall campaign with the NFL’s Rams, which will showcase athletes from different ethnicities with diversity messages. This is similar to past campaigns that included the MLB’s Cardinals and NHL’s Blues teams.
“These are such wonderful opportunities to increase public awareness for diversity. People put the posters in their workplaces, schools and public places,” says Carroll. Their latest project: a sexual-orientation and gender-identity workbook for organizations to use as a tool to become more inclusive to LGBT employees. Carroll hopes to launch the workbook later this year.
When Carroll, who is Asian Indian, moved to St. Louis nine years ago, she immediately recognized the city’s underexposure to diversity and inclusion. “People really didn’t know where to put me,” she says. She recalls being stopped in a grocery store and asked “what” she was. “This person really didn’t know. I could see this confusion.”
Experiences like this “culture shock” inspire her to make a difference through cultural-competence education. It’s also why Carroll accepted the executive-director position at Diversity Awareness Partnership. “I felt like I could do something about all the complaining I had been doing at that point.”
Carroll’s home life provides its own lesson in religious diversity and inclusion. Her husband is Black, and they have a biracial daughter. Additionally, her father grew up in Africa and is Muslim; her mother grew up in India and is Hindu.
“Listening to my parents’ stories, coupled with my own experiences—it all just came together and made me really passionate about diversity work,” she says.
Experiencing the “facets of two religions” helps Carroll bring a unique perspective to her work, she says. For example, one of her annual projects was publishing an interfaith calendar with more than 250 religious holidays. These were distributed as a free resource and are being used in schools and companies to assist in appropriately scheduling tests and meetings.