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The qualities of diversity, equity and inclusion as drivers of business innovation

May 18, 2023
Tanya Torp

Tanya Torp is the executive director of Step By Step, Inc., a nonprofit that equips, encourages and empowers young single mothers.

Does diversity foster innovation? Tanya Torp, executive director of Step by Step, a nonprofit organization based in Lexington, Kentucky, joined Ag Future to discuss the benefits of diverse teams, the empowerment individuals gain from inclusion, the positive impact of inclusive policies on the bottom line, and the necessity for sustained commitment and clear plans to create lasting change in organizations.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Tanya Torp hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:              Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                        Tanya Torp is the executive director of Step by Step, a nonprofit based in Lexington, Kentucky, that equips, encourages and empowers young single mothers. Torp is an agent for social change and has spent her career engaging in community-based initiatives as a convener, speaker, trainer, facilitator, writer and consultant.


                        I’m Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, and Tanya is here to talk with us about the qualities of diversity, equity and inclusion as drivers of business innovation. Welcome, Tanya.


Tanya:            Thank you. Glad to be here.


Tom:              First of all, just beginning with a little bit about you, how would you describe your consulting style?


Tanya:            I really enjoy working with organizations that are in it for the long haul. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility as well are not anything that you can do a session like a one-day session and then your organization’s got it all together. There’s got to be a lot of strategy on how we’re going to get there, what you’re looking for, what your culture is. I love working with people who we can just take their idea or take them from this inception and to moving into a space of We’ve got this – we have a direction in which we’re going and we know a plan for sustainability.


Tom:              And they’re committed to it.


Tanya:            They’re committed to it. I don’t actually want to work with anyone who’s not committed.


Tom:              There you go. What are the benefits to a team that’s open to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility?


Tanya:            Well, you get this diversity of thought that is really important in not only the business world but in the nonprofit world where I work. Whenever I am able to encounter people who don’t think just like me, it is such a richer experience. The clients get more out of it because of that. Also, there is a lot of data that shows that the business need for diversity actually leads to you making more money. So your business or organization can actually excel because you have that diversity of thought and because people will stay. It creates a space of longevity when people feel like they belong where they’re working.


Tom:              How does being included on such a team give an individual a sense of empowerment and of place?


Tanya:            Well, one of the biggest issues, especially right now during the Great Resignation, is that people are wanting to stay at home because they have experienced microaggressions in the office. You hear from a lot of people of color, the Black indigenous people of color, saying, “I love my job. I love the job that I do. I don’t love the environment in which I work, and so I’m very happy to be staying at home.” You also hear from people from the disability community who have said, “We’ve been asking for these accommodations for years, and here we are.” Because of the global pandemic, we’re able to do this work from home, which means we’re not having to spend all the money and extra time just to be able to make it in to work.


                        So being parts of those teams that actually care about the inclusivity of your organization, actually care about those employees, not having to have those extra barriers just to be able to do their job well means that you are making your organization or company sustainable.


Tom:              It’s really interesting, isn’t it? This seems to be a silver lining of this awful pandemic, what you’re talking about now, this choice that’s been made for us – and for employers, more to the point.


Tanya:            Yes. I think for some, it’s actually reducing overhead. Now, there is still the issue of when you’re in person, when you’re face to face, there are natural things that happen when you’re at the water cooler or when you’re in the kitchen together or when you’re sitting down together breaking bread and having your lunch break. Some of that is missing, and I think that that is important in a lot of cases. But what we’re gaining is the ability to have deeper conversations longer. We’re gaining the ability to be able to just do our work. Right now, there’s a big push in businesses for belonging. There’s a big push with lots of trainings about being welcoming, but also about sharing your personal life and being more empathetic and being more emotionally intelligent.


                        Those are all really important things, especially working with your clients, but it is toxic for some people because they’re being told, Your work family is your family. What it’s leading to is, it’s not diversity. You’re feeling like, Okay, here I am in this work family, but people are not even noticing who I am in my humanity. What it does is actually pull people even more apart. I can see the need for having those water cooler discussions, but I think having these deeper discussions over Zoom or whatever people are using are going a little bit deeper, and they’re able to be sustainable. Everyone can be a part of this.


Tom:              Have you worked with an employer who has recognized that they have a toxic work environment? They have at least a problem work environment and they want to change. They want to make that commitment we were talking about, and they want to know how to do it. Have you worked with somebody like that? What would you tell them?


Tanya:            Yes. One of the things I shared in my Alltech talk was, there is this theory – and, in fact, practice – about curb cuts. In the ’40s, curb cuts started in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where someone said, “Listen, I can’t get my wheelchair to go on the street, so what I want to do is create this curb cut,” and that happened. Well, fast forward to a few years later at Berkeley, where there were students that were living in the hospital there because they’re students at the university but they can’t make it to their classes without incredible difficulty. Their dorm is a hospital because it’s the only accessible place. So, in the middle of the night, these folks went and poured some concrete and made their own cuts so that they can get onto the sidewalks.


                        This created a revolution all around the country of people noticing that it’s not just the disability community that can use these. It’s people with strollers. It’s people with skateboards. It’s people using their bags, their luggage to get where they’re going, that are using these. Some studies have shown that nine out of ten people are going out of their way to use these cuts in order to get where they’re going. So here’s this incredible theory about this was made for one group of people, but it impacted everyone else. It impacted tons of other people.


                        This is what I share with companies, is we have to get to a point where you are using that theory. What is it that you can do that is going to impact everyone but is specifically geared towards including diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility? Where are those places in your company or your business where you can make some changes that will actually be good for everyone?


Tom:              In business, the bottom line is everything. How does that translate to the bottom line?


Tanya:            The bottom line is about creating policies so that it’s no longer about managers having to pick and choose how they’re going to react to a situation and whether or not it is equitable. It is, Here’s what the policy says. This policy is for everyone, and this is how we’ll move forward. It is managers changing their style and becoming more about one-on-ones where they’re actually listening to what people are sharing. I share a lot with my companies an example of whenever there is a major tragedy – and I’m an African American woman doing this work. Whenever there is a major tragedy, another shooting or something that involves my community, when I go to work, I’m carrying that with me. Same for our Asian American friends, same for our Jewish friends. When you’re coming into that space at work, you’re literally carrying that with you.


                        Having policies that say you can stay home during the day when that kind of thing happens, when you just need to have time to mourn with your community or to grieve or to do what you need to do, that actually affects everyone. That gives everyone the opportunity that when something strikes, that they’re able to work on their mental health or do what they need to do. I think having those opportunities, to have that be a part of or other things be a part of your policy, moves people into that space of real inclusion.


                        Just several years ago, when people, organizations, and companies started offering health benefits to partners, you didn’t have to be married to have those health benefits. That allowed for a whole group of people who’d been ignored to have health benefits. That affected our country. You see that people that were uninsured before, now they’ve got insurance through their partner’s company. That is a real change, and that makes your employee feel seen, but it also affects all of us.


Tom:              These are thoughtful gestures that we don’t often think of when we’re thinking of business policy or company policy. They’re really soft policy, but not really, are they? Especially in today’s world, if that company wants to succeed and sustain that success, it’s going to need to be open to diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility.


Tanya:            Absolutely. I just was speaking, directly after my talk, to someone who’s in HR, and they said, “We get these phone calls every day about what is it like.” If I’m coming to your company as a person who is traditionally excluded or marginalized, my group of people that I come from, and I’m coming into your company, how am I going to be received? So it’s not just about whether we have increased representation. Once I get there, am I going to be received by everyone? Is there a code of ethics that makes sure that I’m not going to experience a lot of microaggressions in order to just do my job? Am I going to be believed when I say, “Hey, this is a problem,” and not have someone say, “Well, Bob really didn’t mean that” or “Erica didn’t really mean that. Let’s just smooth that over”? Am I going to be able to have a space where there are not going to be excuses made when things like that happen? So that becomes safer for everyone.


Tom:              How do you sustain that, making sure that as people come and go, as people do these days, that the same balance of these principles is maintained beyond?


Tanya:            It takes a clear plan, and it takes incredible dedication. I often tell people that bias trainings and workshops alone will never work. They will literally never work. Oftentimes people say, well, my company did that bias training, so we should be good to go. But the data actually shows that if you’re forcing people to go to those classes, they end up resenting it. It also shows that the ones who show up at the class most eager to learn are people who are already on that journey anyway.


                        Who are those people in your company already on that journey who you can build some longevity and sustainability with, who will be great assets in helping the company move along? In some ways, what people do is, they create these equity groups in their company. It’s employees that are on these equity teams and they’re bringing in speakers, and anybody who wants to join joins. Nobody’s forced to join. What happens is, it actually creates an incredible atmosphere.


But I caution people as well: Those people are already doing their whole entire day job, then they’re also on this team. They need to be compensated for their time. That is a policy that the company can make. If you’re joining this equity team, you will be compensated for your work outside of the work that you already do. You’re already doing your day job, but we’re asking you to do this, which is actually emotional labor as well. That’s a policy that would affect everyone. That could make sure that there’s some longevity so that as people are leaving, there’s already that policy in place. There’s already a group of people that are trained and ready to go, and they’re going to train the next group of people, and so it continues to be sustainable in that way.


Tom:              It’s actually an investment, isn’t it?


Tanya:            It is a huge investment.


Tom:              Over the past decade, Tanya, you’ve served as a consultant for companies and organizations that want to make deep-game, life-changing shifts in their cultures and their policies. Change is challenging for a lot of people. Have you encountered cultures that were not quite there yet, not fully on board with opening up to diversity, inclusion, equity, accessibility?


Tanya:            Absolutely. There have been organizations, in fact, that have said, We really want to move in this way of equity. We really want to make sure people feel as if they belong here, yet their policies and procedures, they’re unwilling to make changes. When I come in, they’ll say, We really want to make changes, but we don’t. So it is really difficult to work with people like that who really see the need – I call it optics, that looks really great on paper. You’ve got maybe a diversity statement on your website, but I go to look at who’s on your board. I look at who is a C-suite person in your company. I look at your employees and I don’t see that diversity that you’re saying that you’re striving for or that your statement claims that you’re striving for. We have a holiday coming up like Juneteenth or Pride or that kind of thing, and I see you suddenly posting all kinds of things on social media about caring about these groups of people, yet your policies are not reflecting that. So what I tell people is, if you’re in that space, nothing will change. It’s all optics. We need to get past optics and get to a place where we’re actually making sustainable change.


Tom:              Do you, as a person of color offering consulting services in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, encounter the very issues and the challenges that you’re trying to combat in the world?


Tanya:            Absolutely, and especially in that world of consulting, but also in the world as an executive director. There are rooms that I can’t get into. Sometimes I will send one of my board members to talk to, say, a donor who I know does not want to talk to me because I’m a Black woman. That’s happened in my life before. So when I’m in these rooms as well, I have to have my own boldness, know who I am, and know my stuff when I’m coming into the room, to be able to show data and what works and to be able to challenge, Do you really want your organization to change, or is this just lip service? Because at that point then we can part ways because I will not waste my time.


Tom:              Again, commitment, right?


Tanya:            Commitment, absolutely.


Tom:              You founded Step by Step in 1995, I believe.


Tanya:            We had three founders that founded it in 1995. I’ve been there for nine years.


Tom:              And you founded it as an organization that is mom-led and empowerment-focused. In describing the mission on your website, you say that is a trauma-informed organization. Tell us about that.


Tanya:            Absolutely. Trauma-informed is a category that was created, and it is measurable. You can look at the government websites and find that it’s a measurable thing. In order to be trauma-informed, your organization or company needs to acknowledge the trauma of the past. Being able to acknowledge that there are systemic issues at work that are really harming people, that have lasted many – you and I might not have been a part of them, but there are sometimes governmental policies that have affected people, and so we acknowledge that.


                        But we also acknowledge that there are ACEs – as we call them, particularly in the therapy world – adverse childhood experiences that affect many of us. Many of us have had divorced parents, or we’ve had to move, or we’ve seen violence, but the more of those ACEs that start to add up, that means more trauma that you’ve experienced in your life. We are trauma-informed by saying we know that those things affect people’s lives. There’s data to show that they [people who have had ACEs] don’t live as long, that there’s more risky behavior, that they might drop out of high school more frequently, because they have experienced those adverse childhood experiences.


                        For us, to be able to put that in the forefront as we are working with these young women, they are leading us. They are literally putting their lives in our hands when they don’t have to. They’re making a choice to say, I want you to be invited into my life as I try to become a great mom and a great citizen in this world. And we’re able to walk alongside them, knowing that they might take ten steps forward and ten steps back, but we’re still committed to them as long as they’re committed to us. We don’t chase them down, but if they’re committed to working to improve their lives, we’re committed to walking alongside them.


Tom:              Do you find that, when you’re working with somebody who’s working their way through that, that once they do and once they recognize traumas that maybe they had shoved down into their subconsciousness and really not confronted, that there is kind of a sense of liberation?


Tanya:            Absolutely. There’s liberation and freedom. There’s change and there’s a recognition in how I contribute or can contribute to my health and the health of my child, how society has contributed to ills and also helps in my life, and how I can navigate both of those areas. It really is about wholeness and holistic, being complete, that these young women begin to shine. They go after their goals. They’re able to set and reach those goals because there’s a recognition: I experienced this thing, and it is monumental in my life, but it doesn’t define who I am.


Tom:              Have you seen it instill maybe a new level of confidence?


Tanya:            Absolutely. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had one of the moms that I met nine years ago come back and share her story with not only our board and donors but some of our moms as well. She was somebody who was living in a domestic violence situation when I met her, was living in poverty, and just had so much going on in her life that was heavy. She was able to share, “Just having people that believed in me and stuck with me even when I didn’t stick with myself really made a difference for me to know that I am worthy of this.” Then, from there, she was able to do her own work.


                        It’s not about Step by Step coming alongside and telling someone what they should do. It’s about us saying, What is it that you want, and how can we remove barriers? Watching these young women reach those goals, watching this young woman who now owns a home, is a boss at her job and has a healthy child who’s doing really well, that’s all we want for them, to be able to have that kind of life that they envision for themselves.


Tom:              A few years ago, Tanya, you opened something called Mama’s Hideout. Tell us about that.


Tanya:            Yeah, our office is Mama’s Hideout. Thanks to the Murry Foundation and others who really care about having space for these young women to come into our office, they can use computers. We have childcare if they are coming to our office and they’ve got their children with them. They might just need a break to look for a job online. They might need to take their GED test or what have you. They can do that in our office. It’s also a place for them just to come and hang out. Maybe their child’s in childcare for the day. They’re still looking for a job or they’re working the late shift, but they just feel like, I just want to be around positive people. They can just come to our office and literally hang out in Mama’s Hideout. We love that too.


Tom:              Now you’re offering a financial literacy course, and I understand that it’s described as trauma-informed. Can you elaborate on that?


Tanya:            Yes. It is one of my favorite programs that we have ever done at Step by Step. What we have found is that there are all kinds of financial literacy courses out there that offer a lot of different things. You can throw a stick and you’ll hit a financial literacy course. But we have not found financial literacy courses that really speak to trauma. For instance, we have a mom who moved 13 times before she was in third grade. What do you think that does to a person to not have that permanency, to not have a place to call their own? But also to see why we’re moving. We might be leaving because the landlord’s increased the rent or because of the affordable housing crisis that we have. That affects you psychologically as well as physically.


                        We talk about those things in our program. In fact, the first two weeks of our ten-week program is to talk about what is our relationship with finances. Sometimes, we maybe get money and just spend it right away. Why do we do that? That’s not something that we automatically want to do, but why does it seem like a knee-jerk reaction to spend that money right away? That comes from a trauma response of not having what you need and trying to make sure that your child has what they need. We talk about that. The moms share with one another about how they deal with money. Before we get to this, is how you join a bank, or this is what savings looks like, or this is how you budget. We have to talk about our relationship with money. So that’s been incredible.


                        The best part of this program is that we match their dollars that they save. These young women will get a bank account. They’re required to put at least $25 a month in that account, and Step by Step will match it three to one. She comes to our program, and she raises $2,000. She will leave that program with $6,000 to buy a car, to go back to school, to put a down payment on a house, to reduce her own debt. There are several reasons why they could do that, why they become a part of this program. They pick their goal and then we help them reach that goal and remove barriers.


Tom:              Is that in partnership with somebody? How is that done?


Tanya:            That’s a lot of me doing what I’m doing right now, talking to donors. I just share the stories of these young women overcoming. For some, that makes a huge difference. If you can imagine needing transportation to get to all the places that you go and having to take our bus system – We love Lextran. They’re so supportive. But our moms have to go to the hub and then they have to go somewhere else. It takes sometimes a really long time just to get to one place. What if you’ve got more than one child and you’ve got to go to several appointments? Your whole day is then lost, and you’re having to take off work. What if she was able to save up $6,000 for a down payment for a car? It would change her life. These things seem simple, but they really are life changing.


Tom:              If you had a list of concerns for young single moms who hope to balance being moms with professional growth, what concerns do you consider when you’re working with them that they need to deal with?


Tanya:            A lot of [the concerns] are beyond their control. I mentioned already our affordable housing crisis here in Lexington. We have moms that are literally moving out of the county because they cannot find a place to live even with all our partners. The Office of Homelessness [Prevention and Intervention] does an amazing job. Polly Ruddick and her crew are just wonderful, but the housing stock isn’t there, and so that is a huge barrier. If [the young mom] is going to stay couch-hopping or she’s staying with an abuser because she can’t even find a place to live, that affects everything in her life. There’s a systemic issue there.


                        About 25% of our moms come from DCBS [Department for Community Based Services]. We’ll get a call from the state that says, “I think this young woman would be great for your program.” Working on getting her child back or working on keeping custody of her child or working on, I am a mom in foster care with my baby, that is a big deal. So those instances of child welfare are huge for us, where we want to make sure that the children are safe but our moms are safe as well.


Tom:              Is there a particular success story that stands out in your memory?


Tanya:            Absolutely. She wouldn’t mind me telling you at all. She loves to come and speak this a lot. We have a leadership development program where our moms become leaders. It’s a pretty intense two-year program, and Brittany is one of our leaders. Brittany came to us a few years ago. She said, “Miss Tanya, I’m dropping out of high school. I have a great job. I’m making great money. I don’t really need high school.” Of course, I talked to her about why she would need a diploma, why it would be great, and how, later on in life, she might regret not having one. She just said, “I’m just going to make this decision.” Well, it’s her life. It’s not mine. I gave her great advice, but she decided not to take it, and that’s okay. We just continued to love on her.


                        A few months later, she said, “Actually, I think I need that diploma. I think I need to go back to school.” We cheered for her like we were at the winning UK game. We just praised her and cheered for her, and we got to watch her walk across that stage. She graduated, and now she’s in college, and she is one of our most outspoken cheerleaders for our program. She is speaking into the lives of other moms, telling them, “You can do it. I dropped out of high school. I went back. If you need the support, we’re here for you. But also, you’re not stupid. You can do this.” And just speaking into her life and sharing, like, “This is what happened with me. If I can do it, you can do it.” So Brittany is just absolutely amazing, and we love her.


Tom:              What a wonderful story.


Tanya Torp is the executive director of Step by Step, a nonprofit based in Lexington that equips, encourages and empowers young single mothers. Thank you very much, Tanya.


Tanya:            Thank you for having me.


Tom:              I’m Tom Martin with the Alltech Ag Future podcast series. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.