Four big ideas on diversity and inclusion from MYPros D&I panelists

Recently, MYPros hosted a panel on diversity and inclusion with discussion from four diverse members of the community on how Midland can both support and attract a more diverse population.

Here are some of their experiences and the big ideas they shared.

Andrea Foster | Director of Programs and Partnerships at The Little Forks Conservancy
Foster created Nature/Nurture, an environmental education program for underserved youth and OUTdoors Together, a hiking group for LGBTQ individuals and allies and serves on multiple local committees including the Midland Young Professionals Steering Committee, and the Midland Area Community Foundation’s Cultural Awareness Coalition.

Andrea Foster, Director of Programs and Partnerships at The Little Forks Conservancy

“There is a term called performative allyship that needs to be assessed versus what I would call authentic allyship. Performative allyship looks like your company having a committee for diversity and inclusion, but then making zero effort to hire people that are outside of the norm.

Or you can put a whole lot of effort into Pride month but then the rest of the year, do nothing to support the LGBTQ community. That makes efforts very tone deaf and you can find examples of that all over the place.

I think Midland is in this space where we're trying, we are actively trying. But even some of the committees that we do have that exist, could be considered more performative than authentic in their allyship. There are a lot of ways we can change this and is Midland ready? That's the question.”

Dr. Joy Yang Jiao | Tri-City Chinese Association and Midland Cultural Awareness Coalition Dr. Joy Yang Jiao, Tri-City Chinese Association and the Midland Cultural Awareness Coalition
Dr. Jiao received her PhD in communication from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked as the international relations specialist at the United Nations, New York headquarter. Her current research focuses on nation branding, critical public diplomacy, and cross-cultural communication.

“Midland is different than a college town, where you will likely have a large number of international students and when I worked at the United Nations, the Americans were the minority, with so many people from all over the world.

After moving to Midland, it's been a totally different dynamic, but actually Midland is more international than it looks. It's just a visibility issue. The international people are not outwardly visible and representative of their numbers. So, there is an international community here and we have a lot of potential to be more visibly International, so that is something we can potentially work on.

As far as diversity, I think having first-hand information really matters and as a society, we have a lack of knowledge and first-hand education. We are all mediated beings, educated in this system. I don’t think we can talk about any ideology without first talking about economics and ownership. Most of the media we're exposed to every day is owned by conglomerates.

So, when we think of ourselves as educated, especially with things like race, we are influenced by a large system. We can think of ourselves as free-thinking individuals, but who is going go to the page 27 of a Google search for something?

When you think about it, we are given a million choices to choose the same thing, because our media is made of up conglomerates, mostly run by upper-class, heterosexual, white men. While there may be diverse voices, often they come from the same root.

That is why it is very important and helpful to have direct communication with someone from a different nation, race or nationality than yourself.”

Chef Tokunbo Kotoye | Chef, head of a culinary media startup and catering company
Chef Kotoye received his culinary training from the French-based Le Cordon Bleu program in Orlando, Florida. Kotoye worked as a specialty chef for such companies as Walt Disney World, Hilton, Marriott and Princess Cruise Line and has held chef positions in several states all across the country.

“I would echo that there is a good amount of diversity in Midland, to a certain extent, while there seems to be a lack of expression of diversity. I remember thinking when I graduated high school that I just wanted to see something different. I wanted to explore the world outside of Midland.

One of my fondest memories growing up was learning different recipes, whether it be from my father's home nation of Nigeria, or from different cultures that my mother had picked up over the years. I think food is the one great bridge to the divide of cultures. I've known people who may be unaware of several cultures, but they sure know foods from everywhere.

And while there are several different cuisines that we celebrate in America, we don't necessarily celebrate the perspective that drew those cuisines here in the first place.

Throughout my career, I saw lack of diversity and leadership in the kitchens, which I don't think really hit me until I worked in a Lebanese restaurant in another city and realized that everybody who cooked was Lebanese, and everybody who managed was not. It was kind of a stopgap moment for me where I stopped and took stock of everything I'd seen. By that time, I'd been cooking for maybe eight or nine years and I realized that, where I was going, was heavily related to the makeup of the people around me. And I found the freedom and awakening in the realization that the culinary field is unique because we all eat.

It’s definitely been rewarding to know that something as simple as cooking a meal for someone can help change perspective, help bring them to light with, whether it be introducing somebody to an authentic version of cuisine or teaching them about different cultures.

Being a chef, I’ve been fortunate to be around an extremely diverse group of people and understanding not only where people come from but how they may view things differently.

I had another chef tell me before that a chef who doesn't know the world is a bland and boring chef. That has really stuck with me and I try to understand the perspectives of others.

I believe one of the hardest things to do is to purposely step outside yourself and say, ‘as much as I feel like I might have the big picture what I think likely doesn't represent what everybody thinks.’ How do we find those voices when they aren't easily represented, whether it be in the media, our professions or our everyday lives?

I think the onus is on us not only to bring our unique voice but to constantly be in search for other voices and other perspectives. Not just for the benefit of the world at large, but for our own personal benefit as well.”

James Kotoye | Freelance journalist, advertising consultant, podcast co-host of #PartyFam TV
James is a Midland High School alum of the class of 2001, and studied journalism, chemistry, and legal studies at Central Michigan University, where he was a member of the school’s NAACP chapter.

“Many of the things that made my brother and I travel and leave Midland to experience the world had to do with many of our experiences growing up in Midland. Being raised as a minority in a place that was that we weren't very visible. Now, being different does give you an added visibility.James Kotoye, freelance journalist and podcast host

But there was not a lot of education around those differences. We got to basically see both sides of this when we would go visit our family in West Virginia or Georgia and comparing that to being raised in a place like Midland. There was not a lot of outwardly physical racism here, it more of the micro aggressive behavior.

While my brother’s expertise is with food, my area is studying media representation. I was passionate very early on about learning how I'm represented, how I'm represented in the media, how that has impacted how people have treated us to where we were raised.

And then subsequently learning our blind spots with these issues – intersectionality of race, class, gender, etc. The biggest thing that we should take away is that our differences are things that we should lean into, not the things that will cause us to separate from one another.

One of the best experiences I've had around that was being a multicultural advisor at Central Michigan University where I got to learn more about not only racial structures, but I also got to learn more about the LGBTQ community and more.

And if you look at the media industry, over the course of 1999 to 2010, we went from having over 42 different media conglomerates, down to six. That means we have a handful of people who set an agenda for a number of mediums, which is why people play high paid play highly for Google placement.

If the first page results are all negative perceptions of a group – let’s say a group of African American men – your perception when you look these things up and you do your research will tend to trend towards negative because that is what you will see.

So, it is something that we as people who consume media have to be aware of. It is the responsibility of the person who takes in the message, because that does set the agenda in all of our heads, whether we know it or not.

Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. As the Managing Editor of Catalyst Midland, her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner. 
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