Between September 15 and October 15 of each year, our nation pays tribute to the Hispanic and Latino community during Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrating the impact individuals with this shared identity have made in the U.S. At United Way, the Latino Employee Resource Group (ERG) has played an important role in shaping our workplace. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Mayra, Lizzie, Alejandro and Jessica, members of the Latino Employee Resource Group at United Way, as well as Keith, our CEO, and Rekah, our Chief Operations and Equity Officer, to discuss the Latino ERG’s contributions and their experiences.
As a founding and current member of the Latino ERG, please give us a brief history and overview of the Latino ERG at United Way.
Mayra: The Latino ERG started a year ago as an opportunity for staff with shared heritage and similar experiences in the workplace to have a dedicated space to connect and be a resource for the organization. A lot of times when you hire staff of color or diverse staff, ideally the ways of working will be shaped by those staff. Given our shared heritage, our group helps with strategy on connecting with Latino communities, implementing policies important to those communities, and internally, creating a support system.
Why did you join the Latino ERG and why do you keep coming back?
Lizzie: I joined because it felt important to honor our shared backgrounds and that United Way was creating this space for us to meet. With this being part of our work time, the organization wants to demonstrate that they value this space and our input. When we first started, there were a lot of ideas about how we could use an equity lens that’s more personal to our backgrounds within the organization. It felt pretty unique sitting in a conference room together speaking Spanglish. Looking around the table, it’s not something I typically experience at work. I keep coming back because this is a unique opportunity to come together and make change as an open forum and project-based group.
Alejandro: I thought there was something as a group of individuals with similar cultural background that we could do to help inform United Way on its practices. For example, the internal culture in terms of how we talk about people we’re serving – particularly the Latino Community. There are also multiple layers to do this - as Latinos we share something outward so there’s not one Latino culture. So part of this group is also thinking about how we think about ourselves as a resource to whom and what.
Jessica: I felt that the creation of the Latino ERG came out of a place of need for staff within the organization and I joined because I felt as a person who is Latina some responsibility in helping to shape our presence as Latinos at United Way. I keep coming back because I see it as an opportunity to help shape positive experiences for other Latinos in a traditionally dominant culture organization. I also think it’s an important opportunity for people in executive leadership to really look at Latino engagement from a different perspective now having a core group that can help shape what engagement of that community could look like.
What are some ways the Latino ERG has promoted positive change internally and/or externally?
Lizzie: We’ve made recommendations advocating for Spanish translation of particular documents used externally by our fundraising and community teams and increased United Way’s presence at community events important to Latino communities.
Alejandro: We’ve helped the organization become more aware of how the Latino community is talked about and received. So far we have created a mindset at the leadership level that the ERG can help strategize on how to tap into the Latino community’s potential.
Employee Resource Groups are often seen as one tool to help build an inclusive culture in the workplace. What has your experience been in regards to the Latino ERG? What is needed for ERGs or the Latino ERG specifically to be successful?
Lizzie: I think the Latino ERG contributes to an inclusive workplace because it creates intentional visibility for staff members who identify as part of minority groups. There’s a desire from the Chiefs, ERGs and larger staff to want to integrate ERG recommendations and honor that we’re not all the same. Although that coming together is something we’re still working on, it will be a process that unfolds as different issues or opportunities arise.
Mayra: Sometimes when you experience microaggressions in the workplace, having a group of people to share in that feeling and understanding can release the burden on the shoulders for those carrying those experiences. So instead of staff feeling isolated, coming together in the ERG can help with processing and dealing with it. It’s one of the reasons I helped to start the Latino ERG – to not make my experiences feel isolating and instead work and organize with others to improve organizational culture. So it’s not just about the “doing” but also about being— allowing ourselves to be who we are in our workplace is important.
United Way has been very responsive and open to these type of groups if staff choose to organize, but the tricky part about ERGs is their amorphous quality and the tension between being both a resource – calling the group together when needed - and being project-based. Ideally these types of groups help staff feel more supported and change organizational culture for the better, but it’s got to be 50/50 on the organization and ERG to make it successful.
Jessica: I think it is helping to build a culture of inclusion and I see inclusiveness in this organization especially when I’m among staff of color and the Latino ERG. There’s still a lot of opportunity to help expand that culture in the workplace and we’re moving in that direction.
Speaking from the side of executive leadership, Keith and Rekah – how do you think the Latino ERG and ERGs in general impact organizational culture? And how does United Way support ERGs?
Keith: One of the things we committed ourselves to is to build a great culture for the people who work at United Way. We know that employees and staff want spaces where they can explore personal, professional and community interests and the ERGs create a great space for like-minded teammates to do just that. The Latino ERG, first and foremost, contribute to United Way by creating a space for Latino employees to feel like they have voice and choice. They also create a team of allies to think with as we encounter issues or opportunities that are either directly relevant to the Latino community or more broadly help inform important organizational decisions. For me, the number one indicator of an ERG succeeding are members having a feeling of inclusion, voice, choice and empowerment.
Rekah: ERGs are meant to be another avenue for employees to feel like they have some power for decisions that impact communities they share identities with. I can’t emphasize enough the importance the intent behind them is to offer safe space for affinity in the workplace. United Way supports ERGs through financial support, quarterly meetings with department leads to serve as a resource to inform decisionmaking and community sponsorships. The Latino group has informed the way we reach broader audiences including our donor populations and I’m really happy with the connectivity they’ve built within our organization this past year.
From mid-September through mid-October, the nation celebrates and recognizes the contributions, culture and heritage of Hispanic and Latinos in the U.S. Why is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month significant? How do we move beyond celebrating these contributions for just one month to all year round?
Lizzie: Starting with the premise that the history we’re taught growing up in this country is not reflective of everyone’s history, it is important to have these months of recognition. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because while the celebration is generally positive, it’s alienating to think that we only recognize Hispanic and Latino contributions one month out of the year. Overall though, the visibility is important and it can serve as a kind of pulse-meter on where we are and what has happened in the last year, decade, etc.
Where can others find the Latino ERG’s presence out and about in the community?
Jessica: We do community sponsorships for example, Portland Mercado’s Taste of Latin America in September. You can also find us attending events around the city supporting events like the Portland Latin American Film Festival that happens in Hollywood Theater or supporting Hispanic and Latino entrepreneurs. Members of the Latino ERG have also participated in the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s leadership classes. More importantly, you’ll definitely find me out and about with my family.
Thank you to everyone on the Latino ERG (Mayra, Lizzie, Alejandro, Jessica, Begona, Janet, Blanca and Elizabeth) for all you do at United Way and in the community! For more information about United Way's Employee Resource Groups, contact our Chief Operations and Equity Officer, Rekah Strong, at RekahS@unitedway-pdx.org