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The Tale of Two Americas

By Kimbery Townsend

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When I first became CEO at Loretto five years ago, I began a practice of sitting down with all of my employees — from fellow executives to those who staffed our day-to-day operations. Why? To listen to them. 

As you can imagine, it is time-consuming to build this into my schedule and in the beginning, many suggested I was naïve and/or wasting my time. To the contrary, this has become one of the foundations of my leadership because I have allowed myself not only to learn, but also to make leadership decisions based on these conversations.

You see, there is a diverse and broad spectrum of life experiences out there — we know our own, and those of our family and friends. However, there are life experiences outside of our bubble that we aren’t familiar with and may not understand at all. Diversity and inclusion are about far more than ethnicity or gender. I have discovered that in the 21st Century, we live in two Americas. 

The two Americas are one for those who are financially comfortable, and another for those who are not. Acknowledging that is not endorsing the political left or right, it’s not asserting this duality is right or wrong. We can agree on the fact that these two groups exist, can’t we? 

There are plenty of articles suggesting that we’re losing empathy, that we lack compassion — making it sound like we live in a world where even though people may agree these two Americas exist, they don’t care about the “other America.” And I don’t believe it for a minute.

It doesn’t matter to me which side of the divide you currently stand on — I believe what both sides are missing is understanding. We aren’t indifferent; we just don’t understand the opposite side. How do we get understanding? We open dialogue, and we listen — truly listen, with ears that are open for learning. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. Trust me.

When I opened a dialogue with the people who put in the shifts day-to-day at Loretto, I discovered one of the most important things to them was diapers. Yes, paper underpants for babies.

This is an example of a problem in the “Tale of Two Americas” — something that is significant to one America, but non-existent in the other. The overwhelming majority of the executives and professionals I work with every day either haven’t bought diapers or haven’t thought about the cost if they did. However, it’s different for many of our other employees. 

Based on my estimated calculations (I have six kids and three grandchildren, so I’m all too familiar with diapers), one of our employees who is a mother of two young children needs about six boxes of diapers per month — or $180 worth. What does this have to do with her work at Loretto? A lot. You see, these young children are in daycare, and most daycare facilities require that parents provide diapers for their children. If they don’t, the daycare will not accept the children into their care. No diapers, no daycare — and no daycare means a missed shift for Loretto (and day’s pay for that employee).

As I heard more of these stories, I decided to introduce a new program establishing a diaper bank, a repository of the items that could be distributed to those who expressed a need to receive them. Once enrolled, employees in this situation could receive diapers they can provide to their daycare center to ensure the continued care of their children and enable them to meet all of their assigned shifts. In addition to meeting their shifts, without the concerns surrounding diaper finances and daycare, the employee’s job performance is improved. The program is limited and requires minor accommodations, but makes a significant difference in the lives of many Loretto employees and their children.

So, when you think about diversity and inclusion for your own organization, don’t make assumptions about which groups of people might need help, or about what help your employees need. Start a dialogue with all your employees and really listen. What do they need? What would the cost be to provide it? What benefits would be returned in exchange? A simple conversation can lead to a great reward for your employees and for your business. 

Kimberly Townsend is CEO and president of Loretto, a nonprofit network of elder-care providers. It serves nearly 10,000 individuals annually in Central New York. Loretto employs 2,500 people and says it is the sixth largest employer in Central New York. It is the fourth largest health-care provider in the region.

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