How United Way is building a more equitable community
For Sherita Haigler, United Way’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, helping people live their best possible lives means looking at the possibilities.
“We don’t just want to meet a need, but how can we help people to thrive and move to the next level?” Haigler said. “It’s all about the possibility – seeing the possibility, being the possibility.”
Through strong partnerships, unique expertise to understand the needs of the community and a long history of helping people across the region, United Way is imagining the possibilities for an equitable St. Louis area – and taking action to make it a reality.
Vision for an equitable community
United Way envisions an equitable community where everyone has access to the resources they need to live, work and thrive. Knowledge of the community is the first step in promoting that vision, Haigler said.
“When you look at equity, it’s not about things being equal, but equitable,” she explained. “It’s about, what does this community or that individual need to thrive and be successful? What are those particular needs in those particular communities, and how can we help give them additional resources so they thrive just as much as another community that has a lot of resources?”
United Way is a leader in gathering and sharing information about the St. Louis community and the challenges people who live here face. In United Way’s recent Community Needs Assessment, researchers were intentional about surveying different racial and ethnic groups, people living with disabilities, people living in poverty and people in different age groups to study how community needs are experienced differently by different groups.
United Way convened and coordinated several regional partners to launch the Regional Equity Indicators Dashboard in 2019. In response to the Ferguson Commission’s Signature Calls to Action, the dashboard measures quality of life indicators to quantify racial disparities and understand how inequity impacts our region.
“You need to understand where there are disparities,” Haigler said “When you have actual data, it makes it more real. You can understand where more resources need to be deployed, and it’s an opportunity to find ways to take action.”
Sometimes, studying disparities can illuminate some uncomfortable realities. But that’s all part of the process.
“By leaning into the uncomfortable, you have the opportunity to say, ‘What’s my role? What can I do to move it in a positive direction?’” Haigler said. “What we don’t want to do is just look at it. How can we as a community have a positive impact together?”
In the community
With a vision for a strong, healthy community in place, United Way works with nonprofits and programs across the region that help people reach their potential.
As a partner in the Regional Consortium of Higher Education Initiatives Supporting Black Male Success, United Way works with colleges and universities committed to educating and graduating male African American students. Due to educational disparities, tuition costs, lack of supports on campus and other factors, male African American students have the lowest college graduation rate of all racial/ethnic groups, with only 34% graduating within six years. United Way brings partners together to help students thrive on campus and offer resources, including the Conference on Black Male Excellence. In addition to consortium partners, more than 170 students attended the conference to network and learn from local experts.
In another effort to build up the region’s workforce, United Way serves as a partner in the Building Union Diversity program. The program provides construction training to women and people of color, who are historically underrepresented in the skilled trades. Participants train with local unions, providing them the opportunity to meet mentors and potential employers. Since it began in 2015, 233 people have graduated from the program, with 86% finding a job after graduation.
Leading from within
To complete its work in the community, United Way starts with its own staff.
United Way offers regular learning opportunities to staff to better understand and interact with diverse groups in the community, including racial and ethnic groups, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities and different age groups.
An internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee develops cultural opportunities for staff, including speakers, book clubs and outings to international restaurants. The committee also continually works to identify and advise leadership on making their work environment more diverse, inclusive and equitable.
“At the end of the day, I want everybody to feel welcome and that they can bring their whole selves to work, that they don’t have to leave any part of themselves out the door, and that they’re going to be respected and valued for what they bring to the table,” Haigler said.
By practicing these skills in the office, staff is better equipped to apply them through their work with the community and in their day-to-day lives.
“We are a reflection of our community and the people we serve,” she continued. “We work to make sure everyone can see themselves in what we do. The world is changing over and over, and there’s always something you can bring to the table.”
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Emily Becherer is a proud native St. Louisan, writer and lover of stories in all their forms. Faced with a captivating question, she will research her way down a rabbit hole and emerge with words that educate and inspire. You can probably find her taking in a musical, bingeing through a new podcast series, exploring the trails at local parks or curating her extensive library of Spotify playlists.