DIVERSITY WANTED: Community leaders said that more women are needed in the corporate boardrooms and offices of manufacturing companies. | File photo

A group of community leaders gathered for a panel discussion at Freedman Seating Company, 4545 W. Augusta Blvd. in West Humboldt Park on Nov. 28 to discuss ways that manufacturing companies can become more racially and ethnically diverse. 

The panel discussion, themed “Race and Ownership in Manufacturing,” was the monthly meeting of the Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council. Panelists included Colin Cosgrove, president of Laystrom Manufacturing, a Hermosa-based metal fabrication company; Dr. Byron Brazier, pastor at Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God; Dr. Harry Alston, head of Safer Foundation, a North Lawndale nonprofit that helps ex-inmates reintegrate into society; and Dr. Teresa Cordova, Director of University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, a research organization. 

David Robinson, CMRC’s communications director and the panel’s moderator, began the discussion by exploring how diversity improves the profitability of businesses. 

“That’s definitely true [in my experience],” said Cordova, adding that one area where diversity is lacking is among the business executives.

“Whether its leadership of agencies, leadership of businesses, diversity is really important. C-suites, that’s where we’re not seeing diversity — where the decisions occur, where people’s lives [are affected], that’s where we’re not seeing the diversity. That’s where the shift needs to be.”

Cosgrove said that he’s been in manufacturing for the past 24 years. Originally from Ireland, Cosgrove said that about 50 percent of the people he worked with “were born outside this country.”

“That’s a lot of Polish, a lot of Mexican, a lot of Vietnamese, many different countries — very few Irish people,” he said. I’m seeing [the benefits of a diverse workplace] and experienced it. [It results in] different ideas, solving problems for our customers.”

Cosgrove said that one area where he feels manufacturing is lacking is gender. While he has seem some women involved in manufacturing, the industry still has some way to go to bring more balance.

“I would welcome more women coming into manufacturing,” he said. “Any way we can contribute to changing the message, that there is space for women in manufacturing.”

Brazier argued that the diversity “is a decision that people have to make” and that something that has to be done by both sides. Minority-owned companies have to pursue opportunities and so do white-owned businesses.

When asked what policy decisions that Illinois Governor-elect JB Pritzker and Chicago’s mayor — whoever that ends up being — can make to promote inclusion, the panelists agreed that it was a complicated issue.

Cosgrove said that, if anything, the state and city governments should be more supportive of smaller manufacturers, which he feels, hasn’t been the case in recent years. He and Cordova both argued that educating students about opportunities and manufacturing would help as well.

“I think advocating, being front and center, marketing to parents, marketing to students that there is a career [in manufacturing], there’s growth and opportunity [works],” Cosgrove said.

Brazier argued that the city would benefit from more long-term planning that doesn’t depend on any one mayor staying in office for more than one term. 

Alston said that he could think of several concrete policy changes, including doing more to incentivize business owners to hire ex-offenders and making it illegal for landlords to ask tenants about criminal records. He said that while a criminal record can be an obstacle to finding jobs, it can get in the way of renting an apartment, too. 

Dan Swinney, CMRC’s executive director, noted that 99 percent of industrial businesses are white-owned and asked, “What’s the impact of that reality on black communalities and black youth?”

Alston argued that it does affect the industrial businesses’ hiring decisions

“What you find is minority-owned businesses hire more people from communities than white-owned businesses, even though they’re good corporate citizens in the community,” he said.

“Part of what this has meant is we [the people of color] received lower wages, and harder jobs,” Cordova said. “Part of the challenge is not just the challenge related to race and color, but challenge of shared ownership.”

Cosgrove said that, if black youth don’t see people who look like them owning industrial businesses, they’re not going to think that ownership is for them.  

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com   

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...