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Diversity, Inclusion & Sustainability

Q&A With Angela Fox & Jonathan Jelks: The Impact of Diversity & Inclusion Practices on Environmental Sustainability

This month, we've delved deep into a couple different aspects of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace—from how to get business owners on board, to how to engage employees in the movement. While there are many avenues we can take this topic, we wrap up our D&I series with how environmental sustainability in our communities is influenced by a more diverse and inclusive work climate.

I sat down with TIS Office & Traffic Manager and sustainability guru Angela Fox and Midwest Tech Project Co-Founder Jonathan Jelks to chat about how the adaption of D&I thinking in our professional and personal lives drives sustainable communities and businesses. It was a treat to witness the energy between these two during this discussion that went on without a single lull. It goes to show how sharing passion and commitment for such important, progressive work truly brings folks together.

First of all, how did you two meet? And how does your work intersect and help each other?

Angela Fox: Jonathan and I met two years ago while planning the Think Green Jobs Fair that was coordinated by his organization The Midwest Tech Project. I was working mainly in the environmental sector but had not done much diversity and inclusion work at that point. When I met Jonathan, I learned how interconnected the two spaces were. At that time Grand Rapids ranked as the second worst city economically for African Americans.

Jonathan Jelks: The article released by Forbes reporting that statistic is exactly why my business partner Alvin and I decided to start The Midwest Tech Project. Grand Rapids' African American community holds a 53% unemployment rate, and there're a lot of factors that contribute to this harsh reality. It wasn't until the last couple years that I was opened up to the idea that there is a huge opportunity to bring employment to GR's underserved communities in the technology and green jobs sectors.

"There is a huge opportunity to bring employment to GR's underserved communities in the green jobs sector." –Jonathan Jelks

AF: Yeah, there's a definite opportunity there that we're just starting to figure out. "Green"/environmentally-related careers are the future. Our generation has a lot of wrongs to right, both regarding how we treat our people and how we treat our planet. Why not work to correct two problems with one solution?

JJ: Exactly, Ang. Seems like the perfect marriage to me.

Can you expand on these "wrongs" and why you feel green jobs might be a solution?

AF: For generations, we built our country with little regard for the planet. When we needed to build a coal plant, an incinerator or we needed to dispose of waste, we often did it with a “not in my backyard mentality.” Low income and often minority neighborhoods were often where we went and with little or no regard for the health and safety of the people who lived there.

"Our generation has a lot of wrongs to right with how we treat our people and our planet." – Angela Fox

JJ: And while there is a lot of work to do, these communities do not want someone to solve the problems for them. They are not looking for a handout. What they want is to be part of the decisions on how best to move forward. What these communities need are tools and resources to support their efforts to find the right solution.

AF: Right... and the solution for environmentalists the last few years has been as Jonathan puts it “the parachute method” where we swoop in and try to save the day for the community without the community's input. Just recently though, we have seen huge progress both locally and nationally where environmental groups and community leaders are working together to solve all sorts of problems.

JJ: It is tough, but it's not impossible. Like Darel said a few weeks ago, it's messy work—but it's necessary work. Green jobs are just the start and one piece of the puzzle. Creating jobs and opportunities will have a ripple effect in all sorts of ways.

So, where do we start?

JJ: It all starts with connection: Connecting one another and acknowledging the work that each entity has put in. We have to put together a strategic plan to get things implemented in a fashion that makes sense, and that begins with ensuring the right people have a seat at the table in the beginning to create and reform policies and drive change. In regards to jobs, we're working with local industry leaders on creating jobs and training programs that can address the 53% unemployment rate in GR. 

“We need to ensure the right people have a seat at the table in the beginning to create and reform policies and drive change.” –Jonathan Jelks

AF: The exciting thing about the green sector is that there is so much opportunity for all types of skillsets. Green jobs stretch across most industries from farming to technology and help address the issues communities are facing.

JJ: Grand Rapids is working hard to not be reactionary anymore; people are coming to the table on the front end. The more we can collaborate, have important conversations on funding and policy, and understand and respect the work that’s already been done, there’ll be more opportunities to make progress in reducing unemployment while also decreasing our environmental footprint and fostering healthier communities.

AF: It really does start at home. I feel it's a lot harder to effect change at the state or federal level, but as individuals, we can get together with our neighbors and figure out how best to tackle pressing issues on a local/community level. I'm seeing a lot of organizations and the City coming together on a variety of issues while being thoughtful to include everyone in the decision-making process.

“As individuals we can get together with our neighbors and figure out how best to tackle pressing issues.” –Angela Fox

I like that—it starts at home. What should we be keeping in mind as we work to tackle these issues in our own backyard?

AF: We need to accept the fact that it will feel uncomfortable in the beginning. When I first began working with Jon and seeing how the D&I piece fit with the sustainability piece, it definitely was a step outside my comfort zone. I was afraid to say the wrong thing at first, but I soon realized that if your heart is coming from the right place, the words eventually come easier. Jon and Annie Hertl at Michigan League of Conservation Voters were huge inspirations for me and created a safe space to find my voice.

JJ: This piece of advice goes right along with getting comfortable with being uncomfortable—be bold. Don’t be afraid to form partnerships with folks you don’t know, from different backgrounds, with various areas of expertise. You need a variety of trusted entities to guide the process of change and need to be mindful of what the entry point needs to be for each of these entities.

Be bold. Don’t be afraid to form partnerships with folks you don’t know, from different backgrounds, with various areas of expertise.” –Jonathan Jelks

JJ: Also, remember that minority communities aren’t going to be thinking about climate change and recycling when feeding their family is at the forefront every day. That's why we need to explain the benefits of working in the green industry and implementing sustainable practices at home in a practical way that will make them understand why this shift is important.

AF: Exactly—addressing the key issues wile also teaching the beneifts of being environmentally conscious seems to be the proper approach. Sustainability efforts will lower energy bills, water bills, and improve health.

Any final pieces of advice regarding how to approach D&I and sustainability?

AF: Be patient, empathetic, and as Karen said a couple weeks ago, spend more time listening.

JF: The days of traditional factory work are no more. There's a big opportunity/need to employ African Americans and other minorities facing high unemployment rates in GR (and nationwide) in this new wave of industries and jobs… technology and environment being two of the most prominent. 53% unemployment for African Americans in GR is unacceptable. Let's work together to close that gap.

Interested in learning more about D&I and sustainability?

Angela and Jonathan are both more than willing to chat more on this topic with you.

Click here to get in touch with Angela Fox.

Click here to get in touch with Jonathan Jelks.

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