These Westchester Businesses Support DEI at the Grassroots

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A handful of small- and medium-size organizations across Westchester are striving to make their cultures more equitable and inclusive.

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If you’ve worked in corporate America over the past few years, or simply read headlines, you know a major shift is underway — one as seismic as the transition to working from home. Businesses around the country are launching or doubling down on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. From Google to Walmart, corporations have pledged to build workplace cultures that welcome historically underrepresented and overlooked segments of the population.

But these long-overdue changes aren’t just happening in big cities and at publicly traded companies. Indeed, across Westchester’s landscape of small- and mid-size businesses and nonprofits, organizations are also retooling their cultures to become more equitable. And in some cases, these smaller organizations have been at it far longer than their corporate counterparts — they just haven’t received the ink.

Executive Director of Nonprofit Westchester
Courtesy of Nonprofit Westchester

“You can hire more Black and Brown people — but that’s diversity; that’s not inclusion. Unless you give them a real voice and a seat at the table when they’re in your organization, diversity is meaningless.”
—Jan Fisher
Executive Director of Nonprofit Westchester

First, though: What exactly do DEI initiatives entail? What are the principles behind the acronym?

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“DEI is a broad umbrella for many activities that need to take place,” explains Jan Fisher, executive director of Nonprofit Westchester, a membership organization made up of local not-for-profit organizations. “[DEI] initiatives are part of the solution to changing centuries of racism, ableism, sexism, and LGBTQ fear and discrimination.

“We’ve been a society that has advantaged White people, that has advantaged men,” Fisher continues, noting that DEI programs aim to correct this imbalance. “Who are we leaving out of the conversation? How are we deciding who’s qualified for a job?”

These initiatives can take many forms, depending on the organization, but often have a few elements in common. For example, businesses across Westchester are recruiting candidates who have often been marginalized, like women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. That’s just part of the equation, however.

DEI nonprofit Westchester
Nonprofit Westchester’s Good Governance workshop, where panelists discuss the value of racially, ethically, and culturally diverse nonprofit boards of directors. Leading the workshop, from left are Maria Dautruche of the Westchester Center for Racial Equity, Jeanette Gisbert of Volunteer NY!, and Sheeba Mathai of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. Courtesy of Nonprofit Westchester.

“You can hire more Black and Brown people — but that’s diversity; that’s not inclusion,” Fisher explains. “Unless you give them a real voice and a seat at the table when they’re in your organization, diversity is meaningless.”

That’s the other part of the equation: ensuring a workplace can accommodate and sustain diversity. Inclusion demands that all employees are treated equally, given equal opportunities, and have their distinct voices heard.

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AJ Woodson, editor-in-chief of Black Westchester magazine and co-owner of Urban Soul Media Group, explains that the “EI” in “DEI” manifests when “companies continue to learn, continue to educate their employees, continue to bring more people of color in.”

Participants engage in the first-ever Peer to Peer Affinity Group, created in response to NPW’s racial equity report. Courtesy of Nonprofit Westchester.

Woodson, who has been reporting on Black businesses in Westchester for nearly a decade, said many DEI initiatives gained momentum locally (and nationally) in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Tiffany Hamilton, CEO of the YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester, agrees: “When we sat and watched for nine minutes the murder of George Floyd, it became unbearable to continue to ignore the need for this work.”

But while there has certainly been an increase in DEI programs since May 2020, not all of them have been successful. Sometimes these initiatives “risk becoming a cliche,” Woodson warns, noting they can turn into “symbolism without substance.”

Black Westchester Magazine
Woodson with New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Courtesy of Black Westchester Magazine.

“If you’re in a community and making money in that community, you should understand the community, who the people are.”
—AJ Woodson
Editor-in-chief, Black Westchester magazine

“It’s necessary to walk the walk,” he adds. “I believe some organizations just do it because they feel they have to. But others do it because they mean it.”

“DEI is really hard,” explains Melissa Andrieux, chief diversity officer at the Rye-based law firm Dorf & Nelson LLP. “It takes a high level of commitment, follow-through, and dedication. It’s very easy to lose focus, especially in these rough economic times.”

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And that loss of focus is not only regrettable but ultimately counterproductive, as DEI initiatives don’t just level the playing field; they can also significantly benefit the organizations that undertake them. “It’s good business,” Andrieux explains. “It’s good for the employees, and it fosters retention and recruitment.”

If you don’t seek out diverse candidates, Andrieux adds, you are in real danger of missing talent in your workplace. “If these candidates don’t know about you, they’re not going to apply. The firms that aren’t doing it are doing themselves a great disservice.”

DEI Black Westchester Magazine
AJ Woodson hosting The Black Westchester Power Hour Radio Show. Courtesy of Black Westchester Magazine.

DEI in the for-profit world

One DEI bright spot in Westchester’s for-profit landscape is Andrieux’s law firm. Dorf & Nelson’s commitment is displayed prominently on its website: “We are dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion in all areas of the firm, from recruitment and professional development to promotion and leadership,” reads the company’s DEI statement.

Andrieux — who also serves as a lawyer and chief client relations officer at the firm — leads much of this work, but “DEI was in the DNA of this firm long before I got here,” she says. Andrieux helms the firm’s DEI Council, which meets regularly to discuss DEI issues and generate recommendations to improve the workplace. Among those improvements is a new recruiting strategy.

“One of the challenges we’ve had is diversifying our candidate pool,” Andrieux says, referring to the many law firms that get into the habit of hiring from the same small cadre of schools while overlooking others. “We have to look beyond our front doors.”

To do this, Dorf & Nelson casts a wide net when recruiting. Andrieux works closely with a range of communities — the Black Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, the Westchester Business Council, and others — to identify potential hires who might have not otherwise applied.

“We’re not just focused on and the traditional places people post jobs,” Andrieux explains.

Another important pillar of Dorf & Nelson’s DEI work is tackling gender disparity. “We’re a Gender Fair Certified law firm,” Andrieux says, referencing a difficult-to-obtain credential awarded to organizations that empower women. “It lets the outside world — potential candidates and clients — know that we value gender diversity, women, and that we have gender-friendly employment policies.” Organizations that earn the accolade must meet strict criteria, like a certain number of women in management, paid family leave, and transparent diversity reporting.

The firm’s DEI efforts may best be represented by a new scholarship it has endowed at Pace University. “It’s for women who are embarking on a second career in law,” Andrieux explains. So far, the scholarship has had two recipients — one of whom will soon begin working at Dorf & Nelson.

“The scholarship not only promotes gender diversity but is also a recruiting tool,” Andrieux notes. “This person maybe wouldn’t have heard about Dorf & Nelson. It’s a success we’re proud of.”

Another integral part of the firm’s DEI work is promoting initiatives outside of Dorf & Nelson. Andrieux regularly participates in panels and summits across Westchester and beyond, encouraging other organizations to adopt DEI programs. After speaking onstage, Andrieux is usually approached by attendees of all demographics. “They say, ‘What you’re doing is important work. Keep doing it.’”

Not all DEI work is proactive, however. Sometimes it can be reactive — and difficult. Andrieux and her team make themselves available for conversations if employees at the firm might be experiencing difficulty. “If anyone has problems or issues, they know to [reach out] and voice their concerns,” she explains. “We’re all about open conversation, open discussion.”

Chief Diversity Officer, Dorf & Nelson, LLP
By Toshi Tasaki

“We’re a Gender Fair Certified law firm. It lets the outside world — potential candidates and clients — know that we value gender diversity, women, and that we have gender-friendly employment policies.”
—Melissa Andrieux
Chief Diversity Officer, Dorf & Nelson, LLP

Dorf & Nelson’s DEI work has expanded in recent years, allowing Andrieux to build a team of like-minded professionals. “It was a one-woman show,” she recalls. “It got to the point that we were doing so much internally and externally that we expanded the department.” Now, Andrieux works alongside colleagues like Petronella Ouku, Dorf & Nelson’s client relations coordinator and co-chair of the DEI council.

Together, Andrieux and Ouku have an out-sized impact. And Andrieux urges other medium-size law firms and businesses to take note. “You don’t have to have the budget of [a huge corporation, like] Intel, to implement DEI programs,” she explains.

For those looking to follow in Dorf & Nelson’s footsteps, Andrieux says a simple copy-and-paste won’t fly. Rather, DEI programs need to be custom-tailored. “What Dorf & Nelson is doing works for us but might not necessarily work for another organization,” Andrieux says.

Woodson, of Black Westchester, has some general guidance for business owners pursuing DEI work. “If you’re in a community and making money in that community, you should understand the community, who the people are,” he says. “Some businesses that may have a lot of African American or minority customers don’t understand their customers.”

Woodson references headlines and videos that often go viral, showing business owners profiling customers. The New York Times investigation headlined “Banking While Black,” which revealed that Black customers risk being racially profiled on everyday visits to bank branches, was perhaps the most noteworthy of these exposés.

Westchester’s nonprofit sector embraces DEI

DEI programs are not just limited to the county’s for-profit sector. In fact, many local nonprofits are well-equipped to implement these initiatives, given their inherent focus on social justice.

“There are various and sincere efforts among Westchester nonprofits to address DEI,” explains Nonprofit Westchester’s Fisher. “But we have a long way to go, as well. We haven’t made advances in supporting people of color to rise to leadership positions in the past 20 years, and data shows that. We have the same challenges as many other sectors.”

For their part, Nonprofit Westchester “looks at everything through an equity lens,” Fisher says. “We confront every ‘ism’ possible and empower people to do better.” Fisher is also quick to point out a local exemplary organization. “The Westchester Center for Racial Equity of the YWCA of White Plains & Central Westchester is positioned and has the expertise to lead the way and be the resource for businesses and other nonprofits,” she says.

Courtesy of WJCS

“One of the things you learn with DEI work is that it’s not something you start and then stop. It doesn’t end; it’s a continual effort.”
—Seth Diamond CEO, WJCS

The Center, which is just over a year old, is a place for Westchester organizations “that are either currently doing the work or desire to do the work of equity, inclusion, and belonging, to get the resources they need,” explains Hamilton, the YWCA CEO.

Those resources often entail workshops and development courses tackling such topics as systemic racism, microaggressions, and antiracist best practices.

The YWCA provides these curricula to everyone from governments to school districts, Hamilton explains — anyone who wants to take a more intentional look at themselves. Hamilton adds that many organizations, especially nonprofits, are increasingly applying an equity lens not just in their external work, but to their internal structure too.

“How are salaries equitably distributed across roles? Who’s being advantaged? How do we communicate our mission?” Hamilton says, listing the important questions that local nonprofits are beginning to ask themselves.

New York State Senator Shelley B. Mayer (right) attending WJCS’ Sukkot luncheon for Holocaust survivors. Courtesy of WJCS.

Hamilton notes that a lot of DEI work is long-term, something that can take years to bear fruit. But there’s still a way to measure success in the shorter term. “When we think about the workforce that’s here in Westchester County, are we representative of our community?” she asks, rhetorically. “Not only in our entry-level positions but also our managerial, our director, and our senior leadership positions? And how do we memorialize and institutionalize that as a practice and in our policies?”

One nonprofit that has tapped into the YWCA’s expertise is Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), the White Plains-based organization focusing on mental health, developmental needs, and family and children services.

“People think we serve only the Jewish community, but we [operate] throughout the county,” explains Seth Diamond, CEO of WJCS. “Our primary investments are in Mount Vernon, Yonkers, and Peekskill.”

For 20 years, WJCS has run an “Undoing Racism” program, which focuses on education efforts around the challenges of racism in our society, Diamond explains. The initiative unpacks topics like voting rights, the school-to-prison pipeline, and encounters with the criminal justice system.

In May 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, “we started thinking more about not only what we were doing externally but also internally,” Diamond says. “Were we living our values to the extent we wanted to?”

WJCS began an introspective process, working with the YWCA to survey staff and gauge organizational strengths and weaknesses. “Did people feel comfortable, fulfilled at their jobs?” Diamond recalls, “or did they feel held back by issues that were unintentional but present?”

Since then, WJCS has dug into those results and is working to address key findings, like increasing diversity at the leadership level. “We are committed to being an antiracist agency,” Diamond says.

CEO, YWCA of White Plains & Central Westchester
Courtesy of YWCA

“When we think about the workforce that’s here in Westchester County, are we representative of our community?”
—Tiffany Hamilton
CEO, YWCA of White Plains & Central Westchester

It’s a process that will continue. “One of the things you learn with DEI work is that it’s not something you start and then stop,” Diamond notes. “It doesn’t end; it’s a continual effort.”

Cautiously optimistic

While some small and medium-size businesses across Westchester are getting DEI work right, there’s still a long road ahead. “All of this is a good start,” says AJ Woodson. “I would like to see this continued and built upon, and not just in the aftermath of George Floyd. That’s going to be the real test. Is this something permanent — or is this just something for now?”

Fisher, of Nonprofit Westchester, agrees. “We’ve had superficial conversations in our so ciety about DEI, but we need to dig deeper,” she says. “We need legislation; we need training; we need systems in our businesses and organizations that are really going to confront centuries of this work.”

Founding members of the TWCA 1000 Leadership Circle who helped to fund YWCA of White Plains and Central Westchester programs, including the Westchester Center for Racial Equity. Courtesy of YWCA.

And even when organizations have the will, the way isn’t immediately clear. “Everybody wants to do something, but not everybody is clear on what that something is,” Diamond says. Dorf & Nelson’s Andrieux concurs, noting that some businesses may mean well, but some of them don’t even have a DEI statement on their websites.

Still, Andrieux says there’s a growing momentum within the county’s borders. “Every organization’s reaction is like throwing a rock in the water… there’s a ripple effect. Everyone who is trying and succeeding at DEI in this county, they are impacting the next organization, the next person.”

Related: Working Toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Westchester

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