Welcome to the Construction DEI Talks podcast, where we dive into diversity, equity, and inclusion as they relate to the construction industry. Co-hosts Jorge Quezada, Vice President of Inclusive Diversity at Granite Construction, Te'Osha Baker-Bunch, Stephanie Roldan, Director of Lean Culture at Rosendin, and Aby Combs, Inclusive Diversity Business Partner at Granite Construction, bring new conversations with subject matter experts and discuss how we can make our industry better and stronger. Today, the conversation features guest Thamara Subramanian, an Equity Audit and Strategy Manager at The Winters Group. She is also an author and has a book coming out in February called, “Racial Justice at Work: Practical Solutions for Systemic Change.” Jorge and Aby co-host in today’s episode to discuss real life examples of white supremacy, deficit mindset, power, and internalized depression, and how to bring justice to all.
Thamara tells the story of the first time she felt different when she brought lemon rice and potato curry to school in the first grade. This was a normal lunch for her since her family are South Indian immigrants, but the rest of the kids in her class freaked out about it. When it’s not the dominant culture, it’s considered weird or othered. This began her journey of noticing all the differences in the world and the cultural norms that weren't her cultural norms. Thamara also states that our morals could be the same, but are taught by someone from a different background or environment.
Next, they discuss Thamara’s book, “Racial Justice at Work: Practical Solutions for Systemic Change” and what the book is about. Her entire team at The Winters Group wrote this book and she wrote three chapters of it. This book discusses how to actually make small, medium and large scale changes across the workplace. She states that racial injustice is in everything we do. This book explores how we can repair harm, increase benefit to all people and shift power to create actual equity. Being equitable is a hard thing to define because we don’t see metrics, but Thamara discusses the root cause of injustice like perfectionism. Every chapter in this book has a summary of reflective topics and discussion questions that anyone can read who wants to create action.
To Thamara, justice used to mean the law, or liberty for all. There has been a shift in this definition for her now as an orientation or a consciousness. She thinks of justice as a way of being. In the workplace, there is a trend that the more diverse people you have, the more business you create, but there is still racism and sexism in the workplace. The questions she says we need to ask are: who are we benefiting, who is being harmed, how can we reduce harm and how can we redistribute power? Power is integral so people can actually have equity and people cannot have DEI if power is still hierarchical. Change will not happen without this, so we need to focus on the repair and questioning piece. Sometimes the impact we have is not what our intent is.
She also discusses aligning her experiences with the youth in that she has always been involved in community service. Even at a young age, she started volunteering at the public library and for the Youth Reading Program. Now, she is involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Girls Who Run Program. Her “little” in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is biracial, so she is proactive in how she can be intentional in making sure she’s being heard. They discuss internalized depression and when colored people are teased, they end up teasing themselves as a way to cover. Thamara says it is easy to fall into the jokes so you don't have to put in the effort to tell them they're wrong. For the Girls Who Run Program, she empowers girls to see the best in themselves and be an agent of change. One example is through media literacy and in talking about how the advertisements may not look like them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth it or valued.
Thamara also has a background in psychology, and she discusses why racism and sexism has been an identified problem for so long, but there hasn’t really been a lot of motivation or prevention of this. She said that Mary-Francis Winters has been engaged in this work for 20-30 years, but Thamara has also analyzed the patterns in the root of why change has not occurred. She believes this idea of “anti-blackness” is present and is at the root of many injustices no matter who you are. Colorism is one way that shows up with people of color being seen as less than and an example of that is products to lighten up skin. This gives off the message, “I am different than you and better than you.” We live in a white supremacy culture in that white people or white culture is superior in different ways and holds more value. This root cause creates this resistance to change and also creates a deficit mindset. Even in the medical world, many diseases and body sizes are all based on an anglo saxon body.
Lastly, Thamara shares that she is still having that conversation in her head that it is okay to be her. This idea first sparked when she served as a Health Educator through Americorp in Chicago. Her mentor had a similar background with similar interests. Thamara had a history of anxiety and depression, which was partially due to life experiences but also rooted in culture’s view of her. She had to identify her internalized depression and realize that being herself is valued. Her mentor tragically took her own life and caused Thamara to ask the question: who is caring for other people that are caring for me? This has caused her to stand firm and be proud of herself, and to empower others. She wants people to be approachable in the workforce and to dismantle the root of perfectionism. No matter how you feel, room for error is how you are going to grow. She wants people to know that diversity, equity and inclusion is not a trend, but a way of living and doing. We can all adopt this so that all people are able to thrive. Lastly, she says to share risk to make sure someone else can get what you have and to start thinking about how we can do that in an actionable way.
Learn more about The Winters Group.
Connect with Thamara Subramanian.