As the evidence of racial injustice— the killing of George Floyd by a police officer and other similar slayings, attacks on Asian-American seniors, and the racial and identity disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths—increasingly gained attention and outcry, many organizations pledged to increase their knowledge and action against bias and inequities.
Argentum was one of these. The organization had the dual mission of collaborating to lead change in the industry as a whole and within the Argentum staff. Leading and supporting action in both of these is Argentum’s human resources director and staff accountant, Olivia Wilson.
To help with continual improvement in the industry itself, Argentum, American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA), and the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) have formed the Senior Living DEIB Coalition—a shared commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) to empower businesses operating in and around senior living.
Action within Argentum among our staff was personal, intensive, and eye-opening. One best practice in DEIB is to learn how to have the “difficult conversations.” In a small staff with a large workload—and while navigating a pandemic having an outsize effect on its mission—the success of the Argentum program was made possible through Wilson’s research, outreach, and leadership.
In this interview, edited for length and clarity, she shares some best practices and lessons learned through the first year of the JEDI program as well as from Argentum’s commitment to the future of the industry through intentional hiring of interns from underrepresented or marginalized groups.
Q. How did the program start? What was the motivation?
A. For those unfamiliar with the term, JEDI stands for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. I was inspired to start JEDI from hearing from fellow colleagues of the frustration of what was happening in our country following the events of the George Floyd murder. Often staff need an outlet to have discussions on topics that are important to them.
In order for us to make this an effective program, we needed leadership support. Initially, we developed a diversity, equity, and inclusion work group comprised of myself and a few colleagues to brainstorm ideas for DEI within our industry, and also internally at our organization. Through these discussions we looked at different ways we could be impactful—having this column in Senior Living Executive came from those discussions. We also looked at how we could get more diverse representation of speakers in our events.
And for our organization, we knew we wanted to have a way for people to talk about this. Once we had the leadership support, I worked on putting together a quarterly schedule of discussion topics. (Because of COVID restrictions, discussions were held through video conferencing.)
Q. As a participant, I found that the schedule and the topics really gave us a good basis for discussions. What were some ideas behind that?
A. The first quarter focused on racial discrimination and the criminal justice system, because the George Floyd killing was in everyone’s hearts. They needed to talk about this.
From that, I tried to coordinate with national events—we had our LGBTQ discussion during Pride month, for instance. Environmental discrimination was coordinated with Earth Day, and the poverty and homelessness topic was around the holiday season…for that quarter, we were also able to work with a charity collecting gifts for children and serving food at a shelter. I thought having that hands-on element was important.
It was really beautiful to hear different people’s perspectives and stories. Just because you’re in a minority or you’re female doesn’t mean you won’t have your own perspective; everyone deals with things differently.
Q. We usually had a resource to discuss—a film, a video, a book— that we watched on our own, then discussed together. What can you share about that practice?
A. Many of the ideas for resources came from discussions. It was not uncommon for staff members to talk to me about events and how they were affected. Because we have a smaller staff, it gave me the ability to have a lot more personal interactions, to listen and understand social issues that mattered to them.
I found documentary films touched people and put things in perspective—to actually see what’s going on. For the first topic, we watched the documentary “13th,” which was eye-opening for me. It was quite disturbing, actually, watching how some policies today go back to slavery. Coming into the discussions, I had to get my emotion under control, because it touched me that much.
But we also used short videos sometimes because people don’t always have a lot of time.
Q. There was support from the CEO, but was there also support from the Board of Directors?
A. Through the initial discussions with our DEI work group, we initially were planning out activities for the organization, but also activities for the industry. The CEO took these discussions to the Board of Directors, and that sparked the industry wide DEIB Coalition.
These things don’t happen overnight. That’s another thing to know when you’re walking into these efforts: It’s okay if it doesn’t all happen immediately. Sometimes slow and steady is what you want because you want to do it right. Getting that buy-in and collaboration is important, and that does take some time.
Q. What goals did you set for the program? Do you feel they are being reached?
A. The goal was to bring change and awareness. I think with any DEI initiative, the education is so important. Often people think, I know what diversity, equity, and inclusion is and I’m good at that. But we may not realize how microaggressions manifest, or how unconscious bias comes into to play, unless you’re making the effort to learn that.
People were excited to have that connection with their coworkers because you often don’t realize that some of your coworkers are dealing with some of these same issues, or they may have loved ones who are impacted. It brought sense of community to our work relationships.
Q. What did you find were some important elements in getting staff participation and engagement?
A. I recognize people have busy schedules. And we wanted this to be voluntary. I didn’t want to force anyone to engage if they weren’t comfortable engaging, but I also wanted opportunities to plan ahead and to watch or read the resources.
Having meetings during the regular workday was really helpful for people as well. This was something that they did not have to take any time off for. We welcomed participation. Staff members knew this is important to the organization. We let them know that if they needed to adjust their schedules to go to meetings, we welcomed that.
There is a lot of information out there, so you don’t need to recreate the wheel when you’re putting together your DEI programs. But I also feel like it can’t be a check-the-box initiative. I’m passionate about this, so that made me want to research and bring forward materials that would be especially impactful for our staff.
Your staff can tell if you’re really committed to this program. When we would meet, we often got emotional, because we truly felt connected and inspired, and we began to understand challenges that other people were facing. To me, JEDI is a heart project. It was about connecting with people on a much deeper level and breaking barriers that people may not even realize that they had.
I’m excited about the continued success of JEDI. Other employees have helped me put together topics of discussion for 2022. We have a nice lineup for this year, and we’re excited to see it continue to thrive in the organization.
Q. At the same time, you led the launch of an internship program at Argentum, both to increase different perspectives here and to introduce more young people to this industry. What are some practices you can share from that?
A. The first thing I would say is that it’s okay not to reach your goals immediately. Going in, my goal was to have five interns working over the summer, but COVID threw a curve ball. Sometimes when we set goals and something gets in the way, we might say: We’ll just put this aside and try again next year to launch it. But I realized I didn’t want to postpone this. We ended up with two interns doing virtual [paid] internships—it was not what I had envisioned, but it was still progress.
The second is making connections with colleges and universities. Often as an HR director for a smaller company, you may think that you might not get an audience, but I found people were happy to hear from me, and I was easily able to make appointments at various universities. Many hadn’t heard of Argentum and were unfamiliar with the senior living industry. There was a lot of education about the various careers available to their students.
Through those initial discussions, I was able to attend events such as the Howard University groundbreaking where impact investor James Rhee was installed as the new John H. Johnson Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, and that helped make more connections. The important thing is to just make that initial step.
We had a plan for how we would engage with our interns and how they and we would evaluate the program. Those tools are very important, because you want to have that structure in place so you can evaluate and enhance the program as needed. It’s also very important to reach out to students on the platforms they use, such as Handshake.
With the virtual model, you do lack some personal connections you would get in the office. We had to create ways for them to engage with other departments. They got to do a lot of hands-on work with the departments they were with, and they also had opportunities to sit in meetings for other departments. One intern discovered that they were very excited about public policy, and they hadn’t seen that as a possibility before.