Employee Profile: Angela Grimes
Growing and nurturing a robust diversity and inclusion program is very much like successful gardening: it’s a careful process of providing the precise elements and care needed for every diverse part to grow and thrive, according to HHS Office of Inspector General’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer Angela Grimes.
“I remember my mom saying that flowers are Heaven’s gift to us and their different shapes, sizes, colors and fragrances are a peek into Heaven. Gardeners must give every plant in their garden what they individually need -- sunshine, water, and pruning -- so that they grow, blossom, and bless us with their gifts,” Grimes said.
A gardener since she helped her mother tend the family’s plots of flowers, fruit and vegetables as a little child, Grimes said that she takes a similar caring, methodical approach to nurturing diversity and inclusion, both in her personal life and in her job.
“Through a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion lens, we can learn what potential and current employees need – such as recognition-inclusion, value and respect, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for professional development – so that all of our employees grow and blossom, sharing their talents,” she explained. “With patience, our workplace can experience the many gifts that a diverse, equitable, inclusive workforce has to offer.”
Black History Month was established by historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans in 1915 --50 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. He chose February as the month for this commemoration because it is the birthday month of both Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass.
Celebrating Black History Month – as well as other annual celebrations of other racial, ethnic and cultural groups – is important because “it’s celebrating American history” in its fullness, Grimes said, adding “Recognizing and celebrating all of the achievements and contributions of all of the groups that make up our nation should take place all year round.”
Born and raised in Greenville, North Carolina, Grimes grew up in a loving, caring African-American family with a rich support system that insulated her from the cold reality of that racially segregated area.
“You know, it didn’t dawn on me that I was growing up in a segregated society. Our African American community had its own roller skating rink, own baseball field and shops,” she said, adding that she did experience segregation on her family’s annual shopping trip to buy fancy Easter outfits. “The department store we went to, although not segregated, had firm race-based rules. Unlike white customers, black shoppers weren’t allowed to try anything on -- not the easter bonnet and the dresses -- but we were allowed to try on shoes, but only with our own pair of freshly laundered socks.”
Still, when she experienced integration, she learned positive lessons from the opportunity to interact with her classmates. “At my Catholic school, I found so many commonalities between my African American background and other cultures, like the importance of families and food in the Irish and Italian communities,” she said.
Some of her closest friends she met in middle school were Italian-Americans. “The first time I stayed at my friend Lisa’s house, I realized that I had never before stayed at a white person’s house. But I soon understood how much it was like my house! The family dynamic, interactions, and amazing food was very familiar.”
She said both communities stress the importance of family and food: “Food is hospitality, food says I love you to your family and friends.”
After college graduation in the 1990’s, Grimes’s first professional job was as a civil rights investigator for a county in Maryland. The county was transitioning from being a mostly white to more diverse population, with attention from state and federal lawmakers on discrimination and police brutality in the area. Grimes investigated “often heartbreaking cases” of employment and housing discrimination, as well as police misconduct.
Her visionary boss and mentor at that job, Dr. William Welch, stressed to his staff that human relations came before civil rights. “A lot of times, conflict arose from misunderstanding and miscommunication,” she explained, noting that it was important to listen to alleged victims and perpetrators alike “from their own world view, lived experiences.” In one case, conflict arose at a company when an employee, innocently drawing upon his culture's emphasis on interpersonal warmth, wrote to a colleague using her first name -- “Dear Ms. First Name” – instead of more customary “Dear Ms. Surname.” Although in much of the U.S. using a stranger’s first name can be seen as overly familiar, in the letter writer's upbringing, this greeting was seen as an everyday endearment. The employee who received the letter came to understand that the wording was not meant with any disrespect.
“That case showed the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training with respect to the use of language, tone of voice and body language in different cultures and to imbue employees with a sense of belonging and respect,” she said. “Knowing what works in different cultures can foster healthy connections and boost effectiveness in a workplace.”
From a very young age, Grimes used three steps when exploring different cultures:
- Curiosity – what’s the culture like you’re looking at? What are you noticing about it?
- Discovery – find out what’s important with other cultures and link it to your own.
- Connection – find ways to connect and celebrate with others.
Another important point is that diversity and inclusion, like gardening, is best done from the ground up, Grimes said.
“It’s important that diversity and inclusion efforts are tailored and energized at the local, person-to-person level, it empowers people very effectively that way,” she said. “It’s great when organizations and leaders endorse diversity and inclusion,” she said, “but much of the meaningful work is most often done at the ground level.”
Another winning strategy for diversity and inclusion is to promote allyship, the inclusion in diversity and inclusion activities of people who support diversity but aren’t necessarily a person of color or disabled or member of another racial, ethnic, cultural or other such group.
And allies are welcome in a new diversity initiative at HHS OIG called Heritage Committees. These groups would form for every cultural commemoration event, including Black History Month, to host book clubs, guest speakers, and write publications for diversity and inclusion efforts. HHS OIG volunteers – both from the heritage being celebrated and allies – would work shoulder to shoulder on these efforts.
“Breaking down silos to enable people of all backgrounds to work together and learn about each other is very important,” Grimes said. “Like any process, this is a journey that requires time, commitment, effort, and choice.”
--Katherine Harris, HHS-OIG Media Communications