Virginia's Newly Appointed Diversity and Inclusion Director is Tackling Issues Head On

Virginia's Newly Appointed Diversity and Inclusion Director is Tackling Issues Head On

Bryan Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber, said diversity, equity and inclusion in business is more than just a program, it is an imperative.

“If you are in business today and you want to be successful, you have to have a diverse and inclusive workforce,” Stephens said at the Chamber’s Diversity and Inclusion Forum on Oct. 22 at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.

In the 18 months since the Chamber began its series on the topic, it has seen positive growth in the commonwealth, he said. “In fact, just this year Gov. Ralph Northam has appointed the first-ever statewide director of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Janice Underwood, formerly director of diversity initiatives for Old Dominion University and chair of its President’s Task Force on Inclusive Excellence, is the inaugural appointee and was the keynote speaker for the event.

Underwood said in the next two and half years (the length of her term), she will tackle the issues head on.

“The topics that we are discussing here today and hopefully discuss going further, such as promoting D and I for all businesses in the region, really cut to who I am right at the core of what I believe,” she said.

Underwood has spoken at a variety of local workplaces including the public education system, print media and public libraries and said she is committed to doing her work on a broader scale to include ways to advance certified minority businesses, address maternal and other health inequities and diversify Virginia’s public and private workforce.

“These and so many other issues are viscerally important to me,” she said. “Not because I read about them in a book or a briefing document recently, but because these are important to my family and personal for me.”

In her newly created position for just a few weeks, Underwood said she believes firmly that if you want something you’ve never had before you have to do something you’ve never done before.

“Whatever has been done historically over the last say hundred years or so isn’t working; I don’t want to try those things anymore,” Underwood said. “Change happens now.”

With the realization that change makes some uncomfortable, Underwood said it’s her job to help people learn how to lean into their discomfort.

“Because I believe that’s where transformative work begins,” she said.

She sees her work — #diversitywins for social media’s sake — in two ideological buckets: short-term and long-term.

For example, she has been charged with creating a statewide plan to increase the state’s workforce diversity. Another focuses on advancing equity and opportunity for SWaM and disabled veteran-owned businesses.

Accepting the fact that one person cannot solve the problems of the last 400 years in just two and a half years, Underwood said she intends to work collaboratively to lay the important infrastructure for the work to continue unlike it ever has before.

“I look forward to rolling up my sleeves with each of you as we put one foot in front of the other to confront the hegemonic issues we are facing today,” she said. “We are the next generation of change agents, community members and business leaders that we are all counting on.”

The day’s events also included former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who helped create the volunteer citizen group Virginians for Reconciliation in 2018 to begin to confront the issues of racism and lack of civility through strengthening bridges of trust and understanding.

“I can’t think of a more important time, in 2019 in the United States of America, to talk about the issue of diversity, inclusion, reconciliation and civility,” McDonnell said, stressing people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. “When the heart changes, the culture changes and when the culture changes the laws change.”

A panel discussion about best practices for hiring, diversity and inclusion included Jim Bibbs, chief human resources officer at the Port of Virginia and vice chair of diversity for the Chamber; J.D. Myers II, senior vice president of Virginia and North Carolina regions, Cox Communications; Susan Jacobs, vice president of human resources administration at Newport News Shipbuilding; and Faith Fitzgerald, executive director housing and residence life at Norfolk State University.

“We are hopeful that today’s discussion will be a catalyst for positive change and will help find solutions to those issues, challenges and concerns that face minorities in the business community here in the region and in the commonwealth,” Stephens said. “We must ensure inclusive hiring practices and equal advancement opportunities to create workforce diversity throughout the region.”

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