Joplin chamber embraces diversity, inclusion

Ashton Chapman

With the country’s workforce expected to become increasingly diverse over the next 30 years, officials with the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce are ramping up efforts to make Joplin more diverse and inclusive.

The chamber has hired Ashton Chapman as its new part-time director of equity, diversity and inclusion. As founder and director of the Joplin-based Social Grove, she works with community and business leaders nationwide on positive social changes.

Locally, she serves as liaison to the chamber’s diversity and inclusion work group, providing insight, strategies and plans for change. The goal is to make Joplin a more desirable location for businesses and industries.

“There are three pieces that I feel like need to be centered in these sort of movements," she said. "Raising awareness is absolutely one of them. But I think awareness without action can be really harmful and really empty. And then action without accountability is also the same. I can’t speak for the whole work group, but the understanding that I bring to the (group) is that real progress is hinged on those three pillars.”

The American economy stands to gain $8 trillion by 2050 simply by “closing the racial equity gap,” according to a study from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Businesses that “recognize and embrace the value of inclusion” consistently perform better across multiple financial metrics, said Thomas J. Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Joplin's population is 84% white, nearly 5% Hispanic or Latino, and more than 3% black, according to census data. Moreover, the city has made headlines in the past with incidents of intolerance, said Toby Teeter, chamber president. The home of a same-sex couple was vandalized last fall, and Joplin's mosque burned to the ground by arsonist in 2012.

Meanwhile, schools like Missouri Southern State University and the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, which has a medical campus in Joplin and is building a dental campus here as well, consistently try to attract, recruit and retain international students, he said. Creating a more open community and business environment without privileged positions or identities is paramount for Joplin’s future, he said.

“We talk all the time about the importance of being a healthy community,” he said. “And as we’re trying to focus more on a military workforce and attracting medical and dental students from around the world, this is even more and more relevant to be more overtly inclusive.”

Chapman acknowledged that her work likely will be "hard and messy," helping people dismantle existing thought processes and relearning how to interact with others. She said she hopes to guide business and community leaders in “thinking about what practices and procedures are in place now, and whose voice is missing from those practices and policies, or considering whose identity is not being represented or respected."

For example, in gender diversity, that could mean changing an employee handbook to eliminate specific pronoun references such as “he” or “she” or gendered phrases such as the word “chairman,” she said.

“Yes, it’s shifting a word or a phrase, but by doing so, we open up a whole new space for lots of people to see themselves represented," she said. “They’re small wins, but they really aren’t small at all.”

Definitions

Diversity refers to the identities people occupy and the experiences they have that shape how they move throughout the world, including all the ways those identities interact with one another in everyday life, said Ashton Chapman, of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. Inclusion is the extent to which people feel a sense of belonging and ability to participate and to feel wanted and respected. Equity exists when everyone has access to power, resources and the opportunities that help them reach their full potential.

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