Work to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in Baltimore-area businesses must be more than a “side project,” the head of a regional business advocacy group told members Tuesday.
“That is why DEI efforts of the past have failed,” said Calvin Butler, chair of the Greater Baltimore Committee, during the group’s annual meeting. “It has been seen as only part of the work. I’m here to tell you, it is the work.”
Butler, CEO of Exelon Utilities, which includes BGE, and a senior executive vice president of the energy firm, had vowed when elected GBC chair last year to work to improve racial equity and inclusion at businesses in the region. Businesses have reexamined everything from diversity on their boards to hiring practices amid a reckoning on racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The GBC and many of its business members have taken steps in the past year to begin to close inequity gaps and engage more segments of the city and region, Butler said during the group’s second annual meeting to be held virtually since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.
The group has reshaped its mission to include a commitment to advocating and advancing racial equity and social justice, and incorporated those values into its programs, activities and policies, Butler said.
“We are making good on that goal” of closing inequity gaps, he said. “We are not just thinking about it. We are not just talking the talk.”
Members have taken steps on their own, Butler said, such as an initiative by health provider CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to encourage businesses and organizations to push to increase the number of people getting the COVID-19 vaccine. CareFirst provided $1.7 million to regional organizations to ensure groups most disproportionately affected by the coronavirus could be first in line to get the vaccine.
Construction firm Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., recognizing the financial challenges caused by the pandemic, committed $100,000 per year for the next three years to Morgan State University to support students pursuing degrees in construction management and engineering. And BGE established a $15 million grant to support minority-owned businesses over three years.
Efforts by community and business leaders to embrace inclusiveness can be key to cities’ and towns’ competitiveness and survival, said Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and keynote speaker.
Friedman, who is from Minnesota, said he returned a couple of years ago to the small town of Willmar, Minnesota, where he visited relatives while growing up, to find it had shifted from largely white and Lutheran to about half Latino, Somali and Asian immigrants. Many had moved there to fill open jobs.
“Willmar is doing amazingly well,” Friedman told GBC members. “Small towns in Minnesota that have managed inclusion are actually thriving. The ones that haven’t been able to manage inclusion are all dying because their kids are moving away and they’re getting no new fresh blood, immigrants, families and homeowners and business starter uppers.”
Successful towns have built a “complex adaptive coalition,” involving partnerships between business, government, community and philanthropy groups, and others. And they have a high density of “leaders without authority,” who refuse to let their hometown fail. And they have companies willing to invest in change.
In recent months, GBC has been examining its governance structure to ensure broader diversity on its board, conducted an audit of its procurement and purchasing processes, hosted a program on the history of structural racism in America and held programs on how businesses can embrace inclusion, said Donald C. Fry, the GBC’s president and CEO.
The group is planning programs that will help solve systemic societal inequities, and “build more equitable and inclusive workplaces,” Fry said.