Enable better policy-making, general awareness, and collaboration in areas related to workforce development, inclusion, equity, and the enablement of minority entrepreneurship.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Gary A. Officer.
Gary A. Officer — President & CEO of the Center for Workforce Inclusion, he is also the Founder & CEO of CWI Labs, an affiliated nonprofit innovation lab. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hon) Political Science from the Manchester Metropolitan University and a Master of Science MSc (Econ) International Relations from the London School of Economics.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Iwas born and raised in London, England, of Jamaican parents. My twin brother, Michael and I, spent our early childhood in Jamaica living with our grandparents before returning to London to pursue my studies and eventually moving to the US.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
American Dream: Lost and Found. by Studs Terkel. This book chronicled the end of the American dream for mid-westerners who lost their jobs due to the demise of the manufacturing sector. The story of the lives and communities impacted were told through subject interviews.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Gary Officer: “We believe that the idea of equality is the only enduring principle by which mankind may be guided in the conduct of national and international affairs.” By Michael Manley, former Jamaican Prime Minister.
This quote has guided and inspired my work across my leadership roles within multiple organizations. For me, the assumption of equality and opportunity must serve as fundamental tenets of a fair and just society. Whether I am leading organizations that are focused on affordable housing, improved access to mainstream financial services, or removing obstacles to workforce opportunities, I keep an absolute commitment to assisting low-income, and disadvantaged groups realize their full potential.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to channel the mission, values, and purpose of an organization into actionable outcomes. For me, it has found expression in all my leadership roles. More recently, at the Center for Workforce Inclusion, we repositioned our brand to reflect better who we are: A trusted voice — and advocate — for the workforce aspirations of older Americans. Our journey began with a thorough analysis of the U.S. workforce ecosystem. We measured activities and priorities against our nation’s long-term economic interests. We found that black and brown communities lag in workforce opportunities. By 2024, the largest single segment of the American workforce will be Older Americans or those that were 50 and over.
We moved quickly to fill this marketplace vacuum through expanded programming and, by positioning our organization as a thought leader through our sister organization, CWI Labs. We established strategic partnerships with like-minded partners like Giving Tech Labs, WorkingNation, Concordia, and the Brookdale Center on Healthy Aging. We also founded a national coalition of 22 workforce intermediaries, to advance the cause of workforce access for older Americans and build a national movement around this critical cause.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am regrettably wholly deficient on the stress relief side of the scale, but do enjoy a measure of calm from reading books of common interest. I also enjoy sports and follow the English sporting scene with keen interest from afar.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As a black leader and an immigrant, I have an informed perspective. I have always felt that this great country’s promise has too often alluded to significant segments of the African American community. When I first arrived in this country, I spent my first six (6) years in Chicago. I taught in the public school system, and I worked in public housing. For almost two centuries, the U.S. has functioned as the planet’s wealthiest — and largest — economy. Why do we experience these extremes?
I noted very early that very few minorities in Chicago had jobs in the private sector beyond office support and security. I noticed that the further up I traveled on an elevator in a downtown office building, the more white and male the suites became. I was also once stopped at the entrance of a well-heeled law firm while visiting a partner — who happened to be a mutual friend. I was asked, “who was I delivering for?”
As we fast forward thirty years, I often ask myself, how much has America changed? In truth, not much at all. Corporate America still finds ways to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion beyond hiring Chief Diversity Officers — often for public consumption. Minority homeownership is at levels comparable to 1968; African American unemployment is currently 16.7%; The graduation rate for incoming freshman’s range from 35–50% in some of our nation’s largest cities. When joined by continuing acts of almost medieval police brutality, these factors have led us regrettably to where we are today.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
My experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion has fallen into the purpose-driven marketing realm and efforts by corporations to improve their visibility within black and brown communities through partnerships with organizations that I have led.
My work provided me with access to the CEOs of large multinationals. In two cases, I assumed the role of career mentor to emerging African American talent within these companies. African American talent would exit these companies for their “failure to fit in “or” “they have hit the ceiling and can grow no further.” It is a problem that runs the spectrum of corporate America. If the CEO and the Board are not fully on-board with this critical issue, the needle will not move.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
A diverse executive team ensures culturally informed input on issues of significant strategic importance to any business. It will undoubtedly matter within a competitive global economy to have a genuinely diverse leadership team. It will also matter from a consumer standpoint that the company’s values are fully reflected in the composition of the leadership team. Diversity matters!
Our partners at Giving Tech Labs often share how their team is diverse in a multidimensional angle, and that has been crucial to their success. To create Technology for the public interest requires data scientists, software engineers, and mathematicians. But it also requires philosophers, communicators, political sciences and public policy experts, educators, artists, behavioral economists, and more — the more voices present in a conversation, the more fruitful the outcome.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Our partnership between CWI Labs and Giving Tech Labs is a magnificent example of diversity. Our diverse points of view, backgrounds, experiences, and team members collided in great collaboration to spark a sensible approach to address the issues related to the economic mobility of minority populations.
Together we envision the creation of an AI-based online platform to help remove the friction points that Black, Hispanic, and Low-Income families face in their pursuit of happiness and economic independence. The initial focus is entrepreneurship or better employment as part of the digital and/or gig economy.
There are 5 concrete steps:
- Enable better policymaking, general awareness, and collaboration in areas related to workforce development, inclusion, equity, and the enablement of minority entrepreneurship.
- Address skill-gap and get a better job, become a freelancer in the digital economy, or pursue entrepreneurship as a solo-freelancer or Small Business owner.
- Influence change in lending practices and fomenting Financial Literacy.
- Educate and inspire our vulnerable communities.
- Address the systemic and root causes behind unemployment, sub-employment, and lack of opportunity
Whether it is becoming a solo participant in the digital economy, a single person LLC or a small store owner, the benefits of increasing entrepreneurship are exponential. If kids in vulnerable areas see a Black, a Hispanic, and fearless Female entrepreneur, they will see hope and a role model to pursue.
In addition to that we must tackle ignorance and racism head-on through the courts and in the schools. We must tackle poverty with thoughtfulness, fix our healthcare system and ensure that we address the alarming health disparities between the African American Community and White America. We must also invest in our nation’s inner cities and restore abandoned communities as places of hope and opportunity.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic because the movement for changing the most extraordinary collection of young people is taking on the role of leadership. BLM is a resilient movement. These young people are not going to accept the status quo. They are determined and will lead the charge to make this country a better and safer place for all.
I think a lot of goodwill comes from capturing this moment and utilizing this momentum. I think now there is a more receptive connection between the people and the power brokers, so it’s exciting to see what can be accomplished through organizing.
Through truth and reconciliation, society will be able to move forward more constructively with an understanding that racism is inherent to our nation’s history.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Probably Bryon Stevenson, Founder, Equal Justice Initiative.
His passion and life’s work inspires me. It can be very lonely and exhausting fighting on the side of justice and equality.