United Way is Ready to do the Work to get DEI Right, Starting with Their New Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer

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Rubén Vázquez is the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for United Way of Central Iowa. Photo was provided by United Way of Central Iowa, photographer is Mujo Ramic.
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By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

In October, Rubén Vázquez began his new role as the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for United Way of Central Iowa. Vázquez moved his family from the Twin Cities to become the first person hired to focus on equity and inclusion for the agency. For the past twenty years Vázquez devoted his career to social justice, advocacy and community-focused positions. His passion comes from his lived experience. Originally from Mexico, Vázquez knows first-hand how scary and difficult it is to live as an outsider and used that as fuel for his career. Vázquez doesn’t see diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a trend, but a movement for people like him who have faced discrimination for things they cannot help like an accent, brown skin, or an international birthplace. 

His goal for his new position is to foster unity in Des Moines, especially within the Latino community, which is on-track to be the largest ethnic group in Iowa by 2035. “The bigger the community gets, the more difficult it becomes for us to see ourselves as one. If we could be more of a ‘we,’ we could be much more powerful than we are. Think about the social and political power we could have if we were working as a we.” He cites limited resources for vulnerable populations as a key cause of competition among Latino-serving agencies and hopes that his focus on equity within United Way of Central Iowa programs can combat the, “quitate tu para ponerme yo,” mentality he saw in Minneapolis. His plan is to approach the United to Thrive strategic plan with internal and external equity initiatives that create mutually beneficial collaborations that unify agencies to help them meet their fullest potential for impact. 

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The United To Thrive strategic plan focuses on five elements identified from a needs assessment conducted by United Way of Central Iowa that include essential needs, early childhood success, education success, economic opportunities, and health and well-being. Vázquez wants to weave key indicators of success within each element that centers on equity. He sees his job as being the person to challenge the work United Way is doing to ensure they don’t lose track of how inequities within existing systems pose barriers for marginalized communities. In other words, he sees it as his duty to lead the effort to create opportunities and changes that allow historically excluded people access to the resources they need. “We don’t want a piece of the pie, we want to be part of the whole pie.”   

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Vázquez’ approach is one of partnership with his colleagues at United Way. Currently, he is on what he calls a “Listening Tour” to talk to each staff member and get their thoughts about what they think is working and where the agency needs more work around DEI issues that are effective within the agency, as well as to their constituents. “People are excited about me coming on board to do this work, but they are also nervous and scared about doing this work because they may see parts of themselves they may not like.” He knows to tread lightly and strategically as he pushes his peers out of their comfort zone to involve them in the work to create equity, while being careful not to push so hard that they become unwilling to be part of the necessary changes that requires everyone’s talent and perspective. He is prepared for the challenge of leading United Way to take an active role in changing systems in the name of equity and inclusion.

Since joining the agency, Vázquez has been most impressed by their attention to detail, especially when addressing him. It is the first place he has worked that has taken the time to spell his name correctly, using the appropriate accents in his first and last name. “What that told me was that they value me as a person.” He was told it was intentional and to Vázquez it demonstrated that the agency is willing to put in the work to get DEI right because they understand how important it is. He wants people to know that United Way is doing a lot of great work for the community. “It may not look the way the community wants it to look and it may not be moving as fast as the community wants it to move, but we are doing a lot of good work for the broader community.” Vázquez warns that to meet their impact goals, he is not the only one who should be focused on DEI for the agency. In order for United to Thrive to reach the metrics of success within the campaign, everyone has to work together with a focus on making sure all initiatives address gaps in equity and access for all. “I am not an expert in DEI. I am an expert in my own lived experience. I bring my lived experience into my work, but there are so many things I still have to learn.” He is committed to making diversity, equity and inclusion part of how United Way operates and understands that as the first to take on the task, he will be learning alongside his peers. “It’s OK for me to say I don’t know that; let’s figure that out.” He hopes that with his help, DEI-centered business practices will become something bigger and more sustainable. “It is not a trend; it is a big deal.”

When asked what diversity, equity and inclusion means to him, he recalled times he was followed while shopping at Target; when he was asked for a green card when pulled over for a traffic violation instead of being asked for his license; and how his mother was refused services because she didn’t speak English. When he became a citizen, he went as far as ordering a passport card that he carries with his license to show whenever his immigration status is questioned. While those incidents were painful, infuriating, and unfair, they are why he is so dedicated to making sure inclusion, understanding, and equity is at the forefront of his work. “I have been living in this country for forty-three years. I only lived in Mexico for ten. I belong here.”  But he knows he can’t do it alone. “In order for our community to be successful, we have to become engaged in this work because it can only happen if we’re all doing it together. It’s going to take a broader sense of community to get it done.” 

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