Leveraging Your Power in Policymaking: Carolynn Johnson in Conversation With Erica Miles

On Nov. 4, 2020, during the third annual “Women of Color and Their Allies” event, DiversityInc premiered a fireside chat with DiversityInc CEO, Carolynn Johnson and Erica Miles — since the event was held after Election Day 2020, Johnson’s segment with Miles was recorded prior to the virtual event. In their discussion, Miles talked about her role as the director of diversity and inclusion of the House Committee on Financial Services at the U.S. House of Representatives (created by Chairwoman Maxine Waters, the first ever subcommittee dedicated to diversity and inclusion in the history of Congress); how she handles the inherent red tape of congressional politicking; and how she leverages her role to promote diverse and inclusive policymaking.

Miles began the conversation, explaining that inclusive policymaking is a concept often met with pushback — especially within the government. “The biggest challenge is navigating laws that prevent us from changing the laws,” Miles said, referring to constitutional challenges to legislation that would help promote equity but would also involve racial preferences. Since the status quo of the industry has not prioritized diversity and inclusion on its own, and since there is a lack of substantial legislative movement in the current Congress, Miles said she has to get creative and discuss other solutions that would circumvent the legal stalemate. 

Miles said one of the go-to solutions is holding companies accountable for the existing rules, requiring the industry to make “some type of [formal] acknowledgement and review of their diversity and inclusion results, policies and procedures.” Miles achieves this through numerous meetings — to not only establish but to also maintain relationships with key industry players. The good will of these meetings and relationships are a requisite step of turning mere discussions of plans and objectives into drafted initiatives of — and actual investment in — racial equality. Miles said she often acts as a mediator to ensure diversity and inclusion are always part of the conversation and to ask questions like “‘How does that affect communities of color? … How does this affect women?’ Or when we talk about the racial wealth gap: ‘How is this going to affect that single mom that can’t even maintain a minimum balance to have a bank account?’” Ultimately, Miles’ role is to “make sure that we don’t leave the marginalized out.”

Miles is quick to note that she doesn’t do this all alone. She credits Chairwoman Waters and her vision to establish this subcommittee because prior to its creation there wasn’t necessarily an emphasis or attention paid to diversity and inclusion practices on the federal level and various industries — investment companies, federal financial regulators, private and public sector, startup and larger corporations, banks, trade industries, etc.

In addition to the allyship of Chairwoman Waters and committee Chairwoman Joyce Beatty, Miles collaborates with what she proudly calls her brilliant and likeminded team of 40-plus staff members. “You can’t come to the Financial Services Committee and meet with our staff and not know what you’re talking about in financial services. They know their stuff,” she said. “But then we layer on ‘How are you going to create equity with your policies?’ Not only with who works in your firms, but who you spend your money with, and what investments are you putting back in the community?” Miles also cites the industry itself as an ally since it afforded her the opportunity to meet chief diversity officers and CEOs, including Johnson herself. “I don’t take it lightly that I get to be in that space, and that those people have helped me [build a network], and then we can do things together,” Miles said.

Working toward community with intentionality and advocating for policies imbued with true civic, equitable value is seemingly part of Miles’ DNA. She is the granddaughter of Calvin Farmer, the first Black elected official in Humboldt, Tennessee, and both he and his wife were also in the financial services (Miles’ grandfather worked in insurance and her grandmother was on the housing authority board). “They were community stalwarts. I grew up with ancestors who cared about community,” Miles said. “My grandfather was almost single-handedly responsible for integrating the municipal services in Humboldt. He was responsible for creating opportunities for the first Black firefighter, police officer, even someone to work in the utility company.” 

Miles revealed that Farmer actually passed away the day before she went in to interview for the House Committee position. “I never got to tell him about this [role], and I was so excited that while I was going through grieving and losing him, I felt I was being prepared for a new opportunity,” Miles said. “It strengthened me in some way, to be honest. To have that full strength of the ancestors behind me and flowing through me … The same things that I watched him fight for as a little girl, he passed the mantle on [to me] and he didn’t even know that’s what he was doing.”

Prior to her current role in the U.S. House of Representatives, Miles had worked in banking and spent 15 years working for the government and in public services — from the Government Accountability Office to serving as detailee under the late Congressman Elijah Cummings. Miles said that although she has hit glass ceilings in banking and even in government, she noted her current position has allowed her to use her entire skillset because she isn’t bogged down by one specific job role. More importantly, Miles touted it as the first position where she can be her complete self. “I can be Black, I can be a woman, I can be from the South, I can be a sorority person, I can be a banker. I can be a government official,” she said. “I can be all the things and all of it is received and respected … [and I] feel like I’m adding value. Not only as an individual, but when we put it all together as a team, I think it’s even better.”

The subject of code-switching was brought up by Johnson, who then told an anecdote of when DiversityInc was asked to testify at the House Committee on Financial Services in June 2019. After Luke Visconti, founder and chairman of DiversityInc gave a hearing titled “Diversity in the Boardroom: Examining Proposals to Increase the Diversity of America’s Board,” they all walked toward the elevator and had an impromptu sidebar about the session. 

“You used a phrase that showed me that you actually can be your authentic self,” Johnson recalled. “You said ‘That gave me life.’” 

Johnson explained that it’s sort of an unspoken rule for women and people of color; while they’re not specifically told to “change their vernacular, fix their face,” it’s something they are used to doing, nevertheless. Johnson said when Miles expressed that colloquialism, she could tell Miles was content with both her work and work environment. “[When you achieve that level of comfort,] that’s when we get the most done and make the greatest impact,” Johnson said. “Just that one thing told me, ‘Okay, we got a winner.’”

While Miles admitted that she’s caught the “[Capitol] Hill bug,” she’s also cognizant of the fact that the tenure of her role isn’t meant to be forever, that the subcommittee’s ostensible end goal is no longer needing a formal subcommittee to hold financial services accountable. “I worked for the government accountability office because I like the idea that I was in a role that was nonpartisan. It was non-ideological,” she said. “We simply looked at the data and made advice and recommendations intended to make government better, and to make community better.”

Speaking of data, when Johnson asked about any short-term goals, Miles said the subcommittee is currently working on a bill that would push for mandatory data disclosure to the Offices of Minority Women Inclusion. Although Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act has provisions stating the data can be requested, Miles clarified that “the regulatory agencies got together and, based on a particular rule of construction in the law, decided to interpret it as ‘voluntary.’” Miles said she and the subcommittee are hoping to put forth a written draft of the bill and delegating available resources to push it through because “data disclosure creates transparency” — not for the purpose of “naming and shaming” but if certain financial services don’t make the “good list,” then it should signal to them that they have to do better. “It is a business imperative. Companies that forgo being diverse, that forgo creating an inclusive environment for their employees and participate fully within their community, they’re missing an opportunity to be more profitable and to be more efficient,” Miles said.

Johnson then asked Miles if she could share any advice for others hoping to work in the diversity and inclusion space, particularly on the corporate level. “Unfortunately, from where I sit, I’ve seen people bury D&I as a human resource function. I understand why it starts there, because you’re talking about recruitment, you’re talking about retention, promotion, and also training oftentimes falls under human resources,” Miles said. Instead, Miles reiterated that the expectation to view initiatives through a diversity and inclusion lens should start from the top —the CEO, the president or the person in charge of an organization. Additionally, Miles said for-profit organizations need to make it clear that diversity and inclusion is both a moral and economic benefit.

“I am not in favor of poverty pimping,” Miles said, bluntly. “I’m not in favor of institutions just saying they’re going to make an investment in the community because they want to get temporary extra credit. And then they’re going to also make money off of those efforts. What I am in favor of and what I fully support is understanding that these communities add value.”

Ultimately, diversity and inclusion are a catalyst to equity, a lack of which is tied to so many societal problems. “At the end of the day I want home ownership opportunities for people. That helps everyone when the community is built up and not torn down. That helps municipalities. It helps at the local level. It decreases homelessness. It improves a family’s opportunity to have equity out of their home, to send their children to college and/or to start their own businesses. These are all things that have been proven to close the wealth gap for anyone, no matter what their race,” Miles said. “That’s good business — diversity’s good business.”

 

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