While the United States as a whole seems increasingly divided along issues of race, religion and gender, leaders in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have made it a priority to embrace diversity and inclusion.

The city’s top companies have made it a core value that their employment reflects shifting demographic trends and the potential for better performance.

“Diverse by Design” is a five-year-old effort by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and Northern Kentucky’s Skyward (formerly Vision 2015) to attract and retain talent to spur regional growth.

As part of an effort to make Cincinnati more immigrant friendly, Mayor John Cranley and other community leaders have launched plans for a Center for New Cincinnatians to better integrate newcomers to the city.

But at the same time, passions unleashed during the presidential election have revealed a darker side.

The home of an interracial couple in Price Hill was vandalized in November in what was called a hate crime.

Last month community leaders quickly condemned the spraying of a swastika on a sign at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Clifton.

The region isn’t immune from what’s going on around it.

“It feels like the gloves are off,” says Mary Stagaman, senior inclusion advisor at the chamber. “People who may have negative views about certain populations now feel empowered to express those views.”

The region’s progress and potential for diversity and inclusion is the focus this year of Cincy Magazine’s

 annual Power 100 Leadership Forum. The Feb. 16 breakfast event at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza will feature a panel discussion including Stagaman; City Council member Chris Seelbach; Reuben Shaffer, vice president and chief diversity officer at the Kroger Co.; and Dan Knowles, president and CEO of the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance.

Diversity, says Shaffer, is about a community’s mix of people and inclusion is making that mix work.

“What societies and governments have failed to do is embrace the differences among us and figure out how to make them work in a way that benefits us and our environment,” he says.

Echoing that view, Shakila Ahmad, board chair and first female president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, says diversity and inclusion are critical to the region’s success.

“It’s not just a feel-good thing to do. It’s essential to being a successful, strong region,” she says. “We have to leverage all the talent and resources in our region. If we don’t we’re doing nothing but hurting ourselves.”

She’s a part of a model conversation among Cincinnati leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths called the Bridges of Faith Trialogue to foster understanding, collaboration and community education.

The Trialogue, initiated by Rev. Chip Harrod after 9/11 and revitalized recently, has created pamphlets and other resources to explain the Muslim faith and attack bigotry and anti-Semitism.

Council member Seelbach says the city has made progress on a number of fronts.

“When you look at where we were especially in terms of race and sexual orientation 20 years ago, there’s no doubt that there’s been progress, but there’s more work to do” he says.

“Since the 2001 riots, the African-American community and the police have had a real open conversation,” he says. And the 2004 voter referendum overturning the city’s Article XII, “perhaps the most anti-gay law in the country,” is another indicator.

Stagaman points to Cincinnati voters’ overwhelming approval of the Preschool Promise tax levy last fall as another positive development.

“That is a fundamental inclusion strategy,” she says. “That is the people in Cincinnati saying the development of young minds, especially those most at risk, is important to our future. That’s inclusion.”

Another example: The Ohio Hispanic and Latino Affairs Commission this year hopes to expand statewide a Latino Leadership Collaborative created in Cincinnati last year.

Dan Molina, a commission member from Loveland who conceived of the quarterly collaborative meetings, says, “They give legislators and Latino leaders a chance to come together to discuss opportunities, concerns and questions they need to know about and respond to. We felt we needed a mechanism to directly tap into the citizens of Ohio.”

The focus on diversity and inclusion has gone beyond talking about immigrants and millennials to include other groups as well, such as military veterans and those with disabilities.

A pilot program through the Department of Labor last year looked at how to integrate more people with disabilities into the region’s small businesses, Stagaman says.

One of its objectives was to raise awareness about the number of people with disabilities who are unemployed but not unemployable.

“One insight was when you talk about people with disabilities, people immediately think of developmental and cognitive disability,” she says. “But 85 percent of the blind are unemployed. So we have to start to re-understand our concept of disability.”

Another challenge is economic self-sufficiency among women, says Meghan Cummings, executive director of the Women’s Fund at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which is doing extensive research in that area.

“There are huge disparities in Cincinnati because women tend to have lower-wage jobs and they tend to have a higher responsibility for child care and elder care in their families,” she says. “So it becomes a perfect storm of different characteristics that put them at a disadvantage as far as the equity piece.’’

The Women’s Fund has looked at local job growth and the fact that the jobs growing the most are low-wage jobs typically held by women in areas such as retail and home health services.

“This matters because the community is now in the midst of a big discussion about dealing with childhood poverty. But when you look at it we’re not talking about just a child in poverty but a family in poverty,” she says. “Two-thirds of the kids living in poverty are in single, female-headed households. When you look at the types of jobs those mothers hold it’s clear where the issue is. We need to look at women’s role in this economy to solve some of the issues such as childhood poverty.”

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