Tony Holmes (he/him) is the Director of Talent and Diversity of United Way Houston, which transforms individual lives and brings long-lasting, systemic change to tough issues. This non-profit organization employs 160 people in Houston. In this episode, Holmes explains how a focus on self-awareness has improved the culture at United Way Houston
#IncludingYouPodcast Interview with Tony Holmes
Tony Holmes Interview Transcript
[00:00:48] Amy: Welcome back to including you. I’m your host, Amy C Waninger. My guest today is Tony Holmes. He’s the director of talent and diversity of United way Houston, which transforms individual lives and brings long lasting systemic change to tough issues. This nonprofit organization employs about 160 people in Houston, Texas, Tony, welcome to the show
[00:01:08] Tony: Amy. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:11] Amy: I am so glad to have you here. I love talking to people from all different industries and I don’t know that we’ve had anyone from a nonprofit yet that we, at least not an episode we’ve released from a nonprofit like United way. And so, it’s neat to get different perspectives from different industries.
[00:01:27] Amy: Can you tell us why is diversity and inclusion an important focus for United way Houston.
[00:01:32] Tony: Wow. Yeah, I’m glad to be a barrier breaker here for having nonprofits on, I would say that for United way, diversity is important for our work because a lot of our work is lives in social services.
[00:01:47] Tony: And so, when it comes to social services, a lot of times your end user is a person of color or it could be an individual that may be facing oppression, which is also a big, huge part of diversity, and so for our organization and our city, we are one of the most diverse cities in the country.
[00:02:05] Tony: In a very culturally aware city as well, and so for United, we have Houston, we are positioned to really make change in the social services area specifically when it comes to diversity internally and externally, and so diversity work is super important for us, and we’re so excited to be knee deep in the work and continuing to trade forward.
[00:02:26] Amy: And so, when you’re talking about a community service organization, like United way, you’ve really got your efforts in a lot of places, right? I’ve seen United way campaigns in different cities, and there are just so many services and organization like yours provides, what are you doing internally around diversity and inclusion that’s having an impact on, broadly, with the services that you provide, or specifically internally to your 160 employees?
[00:02:57] Tony: Yeah, such a powerful question because internally is where we started, internally is where we worked first. So, when it comes to where we focused our efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion, we added belonging to the Ladder of acronyms also.
[00:03:12] Tony: So we focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and we started internal, and so what we did was in the fall of 2020, we launched a diversity cross-functional team where we opened the opportunity up for members of the staff that had served for longer than a year and wanted to make change within DEIB.
[00:03:32] Tony: And so, we gathered together and we worked together with our officer’s team to create a framework for change, and that framework was open ended, it did have a charter and that charter allowed us to have a base plan of action, where we wanted to work around, and so what we did was create frameworks, create opportunities to engage our staff.
[00:03:54] Tony: So, we engage our staff around knowledge evaluation, and self-awareness, and these strategies allowed us to teach the organization about diversity, it also allowed us to evaluate where we are as an organization, and then we promoted self-awareness for people to do learning on their own also.
[00:04:11] Tony: And we found that pretty helpful for getting started and we started with knowledge, especially we opened our doors to experts in different diversity fields, we invited them in to our all-staff meetings, and we did 12 months or so worked of all staff trainings, where we had people come in and actually teach.
[00:04:30] Tony: Our 160, 120 participants in those various different all staff meetings, and so that’s where we started internally and we’re working to do more externally, but we know we wanna have a certain level of commitment internally first, and so we’ve been focusing on that at each level of our organization.
[00:04:49] Tony: We break our organization up in three levels, which is core, which is our all staff, and then managers and directors, and we also have a board of directors also that is required by United way worldwide to participate in two hours of racial equity training, and so that’s where we started and that’s where we are and we continue to move forward every day.
[00:05:10] Amy: And how long have you been doing this work? I know you mentioned you did a 12-month long program. How long ago did this all start for you?
[00:05:17] Tony: So, this all started for our organization October 1st, 2020, and for me personally, I’ve been in the space for a while now with being boots on the ground working in underserved populations for quite a while, and just doing research because of my nonprofit experience and my nonprofit landscape.
[00:05:34] Tony: And then I’m also a doctoral student as well, and that program that I’m in, has a lot of racial equity training and knowledge base that we utilize on a daily basis for the readings and the requirements for the program.
[00:05:48] Amy: I think that’s fantastic, and so when you are, when you’re engaged in its work internally, where your focus is, what does that allow you to do or be as an organization that you couldn’t do or be other.
[00:06:02] Tony: Wow, that’s a great question. I’d say for us, the internal work really just allows us to take off the imposter syndrome because if we are doing the work internally, then we can now proudly push out more services to communities of color and challenge our corporate partners to do the same.
[00:06:20] Tony: When we’re doing the work, it also allows us to measure to see if we’re actually making change and making successful strides towards this work, then now we’ll talk a little bit about what measurement looks like for us also, but for our organization, we find it important to walk the walk, we walk the walk in our hiring practices.
[00:06:38] Tony: We walk the walk in our equity lens is how we look at various different facets of our organization and all that started with knowledge, because we cannot move forward if we don’t know what we need to know, and so we’re rooted also in training, our organization, our staff as well, including our cross-functional team and any other teams that do diversity work.
[00:07:00] Tony: We want them to be trained in diversity and not necessarily trained to become diversity practitioners, but trained in a way where they can at least feel like an ambassador or be able to have the knowledge base to talk about diversity comfortably so that we can push out the same message for our organization.
[00:07:19] Amy: You mentioned measurement, and I wanna come back to that in just a second, but you also mentioned something about engaging your corporate partners, is that a typical relationship or is this something unique to United way Houston?
[00:07:30] Tony: I think for us, it’s more of a partnership where we co collaborate with our corporate partners, a lot of our corporate partners have been doing the work for quite a while, and so we work with a lot of oil and gas companies here in Houston, and many of them have requirements in the DENI space that we can glean from and learn from.
[00:07:45] Tony: And we can also position ourselves to share that information with our agencies and nonprofit partners in the community as well. We also look at how we can position ourselves to extend our reach so that we can have even more donors of color making a difference in being able to participate in United way programs and United way opportunities to give.
[00:08:07] Tony: And so, we use diversity as a lens to do many different things before our corporate partners, what we do is it’s probably more of a brain share. We’ve opened our doors to our corporate partners to come in and talk about diversity from a philanthropic standpoint, and also from a corporate standpoint and many of our donors that participate with the United way, they also participate in other organizations.
[00:08:31] Tony: They participate in their communities and their churches, and so when we are able to house those offerings and those conversations internally, we’re able to extend our reach, which makes the mission of diversity work everlasting, because now we’re really systemic by being able to be in different communities, different corporate organizations, and also in different nonprofits too.
[00:08:55] Amy: Excellent, thank you for clarifying on that, and you I’ll go back to the measurement question. You said, that you have different measures of success, how are you measuring success in this work? What metrics do you look to? Are there hard metrics, quantitative qualitative metrics?
[00:09:09] Amy: Is it, more storytelling kinds of data? What are you looking at and how are you holding yourself accountable?
[00:09:14] Tony: One thing for sure is that we definitely survey our staff so that we can find out if it’s working, we ask specific questions so that we can get, as you mentioned, story, tell storytelling, we get stories.
[00:09:26] Tony: We get understanding of where staff are in the work of diversity. It’s not a one size fits all or one shoe fits all, it’s really each individual person, and so self-awareness goals is a huge part of our work also, we quantify how much time we spend doing diversity work, we count how many hours we participate in knowledge sessions for our all staff meetings.
[00:09:48] Tony: We also count how much opportunity we share with organization for them to individually participate in diversity work. I’d say another measurement is, like I mentioned earlier, our board is required to do two hours of racial equity training and we have more measurements that we plan a roll out down the road to also allow our staff to have more trainings on an individual level as well.
[00:10:10] Tony: When it comes to diversity work. What we ultimately hope to have is an organization that has a pretty strong knowledge base on what diversity means. The walk is different for each individual person, so, we have had staff that are not ready to have certain conversations, and then we have had staff that say we’re not doing enough.
[00:10:28] Tony: So, we have to find a balance and you have to find approach that makes diversity a word or a buzzword that doesn’t have a negative connotation, we don’t wanna offend people, but we also wanna be honest and truthful about the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, that’s how we work to build our measurement practices.
[00:10:46] Tony: And it’s an ever-growing ever-changing process, and we’re excited to continue to walk down the road and continue to find new measurement strategies that really allows us to hold our organization accountable.
[00:10:57] Amy: I love that you include the self-awareness piece as one of the areas to measure, because I think self-awareness is one of those things that if people don’t have it, they obviously don’t know it.
[00:11:08] Amy: And so when we talk about diversity and inclusion at the individual level, a lot of what we can change from a policy perspective is behavior. We can try with training and education to change attitudes. But getting that feedback from individuals about their own behaviors and attitudes is probably very telling in how effective the entire program is overall.
[00:11:31] Amy: Is that, is that fair to say?
[00:11:34] Tony: Yeah, yeah, because with self-awareness, it’s how you individually respond to DENI, and so if you have a poor response individually, then that, that collectively pulls down the results across the organization, and so we believe that if you can individually start to make the tracks and walk down the space of diversity for your own individual self.
[00:11:57] Tony: Then everybody wins. So, from a behavioral standpoint, you have to look deep within yourself and try to figure out how this work resonates for you, what’s coming up for you, what is, what’s blocking you from walking down that road? What support can the organization provide? What kind of trainings do you need to see?
[00:12:17] Tony: And all that information allows us to go back full circle and retrain our staff on what’s missing and what gaps lie, and so that’s super important for us because if we can be an organization that’s behavioral based when it comes to DEIB, then now we can walk the halls together and look each other in the eye and have a eat more, even deeper understanding of our cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity.
[00:12:44] Amy: So as you’re doing this work and you’re seeing this progress, I know that the work is never done. Cause there’s always, there are new people coming in that need to be onboarded and assessed and trained, and educated and managed through these processes. But aside from just continuing to operationalize what you’ve done so far, what do you see as the next initiative or the next level of success for United way Houston in this work?
[00:13:07] Tony: I think what’s next for us is gonna be cross collaboration across the United way network, so we want to be able to partner with our United way partners across the country, even across the world that are doing DEI work. We also have our conversations with the United ways of Texas so that we can work statewide and regionally also.
[00:13:26] Tony: Do we currently have an opportunity to sit on United way worldwide calls within diversity equity inclusion, so we are able to hear what’s happening across the network, which really makes our work even stronger because we can thought partner with other organizations, but we wanna bring them in house so that we can.
[00:13:44] Tony: Pair up and really work together to not only make our United way of Houston stronger, but make our United way, but world worldwide stronger also, so the more that we can brain share, the more that we can thought partner, I think that’s, what’s gonna be key for us going down the road. So not only are we not reinventing the wheel all the time, but we’re also.
[00:14:05] Tony: Using practices that work in real time, and then hopefully we can share that with our community and our nonprofit and corporate partners as well so we can see what’s working across the country and make it happen here in Houston.
[00:14:20] Amy: This is such an important piece that the best practice is sharing and know, sharing what’s working well, so that other people can pick it up and examine it and adapt it to their own environment, and I love that you said that because that’s really what this show is about is, talking about what’s working well so that others can be inspired and also take action because inspiration is not quite enough.
[00:14:42] Amy: You have to actually go do the thing, and take action. Tony, I wanna thank you so much for sharing a little bit about your journey with United way Houston and what you’re doing that’s working. Thank you so much.
[00:14:51] Tony: Thank you, Amy. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:15:45] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of including you join me next week when my guest will be per Jefferson from full stack academy.