Diversity & Inclusion
Communities / DEI / Workplace culture

Authenticity, not assimilation: How to make conversations about race ‘a learning journey for everybody’

FUEL Milwaukee’s Corry Joe Biddle on the power of community dialogue and "showing up as you are" in an era of reckoning.

Corry Joe Biddle. (Courtesy photo)

This article appears as part of This Week in Milwaukee Rising, a weekly newsletter from Technical.ly highlighting the innovators bringing a more just, equitable and dynamic Milwaukee economy. Subscribe here. The series is underwritten by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.

Corry Joe Biddle remembers watching the outrage pour out online when news of George Floyd’s murder first broke.

While grievances over police brutality weren’t anything new, something about this particular incident felt different. But for once, it wasn’t just Black and brown folks protesting the killing with anger and sadness — the feelings flooded across Biddle’s entire timeline.

“I called a friend, and I started to cry because I was scared,” Biddle told Technical.ly. “You could feel something stirring. Maybe it was because we were in the pandemic and everybody was watching it, maybe it was [the video]. But I just thought, we’ve got to have some kind of outlet to talk about this.”

As the executive director at FUEL Milwaukee, a community engagement organization for young professionals under the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Biddle has embedded diversity and inclusion initiatives into the group’s programming since she first came aboard in 2010. But during the pandemic, as FUEL was forced to move its in-person events to virtual programming, just as before, those efforts were largely focused on professional development. Rarely was race at the forefront.

Still, Biddle said she couldn’t ignore the topic that was on the top of everyone’s mind, or the movement that was swelling beneath the current.

The importance of honest conversations about race

Biddle gathered a diverse group of panelists to talk openly about their reactions to the murder and was shocked by the community’s response. More than 400 business professionals tuned in to the discussion.

“The comment box was just going crazy,” Biddle said. “[The panel] exposed FUEL’s mostly-white audience to the thoughts of their Black and brown friends. It was a surprise to a lot of them and the conversation sparked a lot of questions.”

Corry Joe Biddle. (Courtesy photo)

In the past, a handful of FUEL’s community conversations had touched on racial diversity, but Biddle had always felt a sense that some attendees were put off by the subject. After all, it was her job as part of the Chamber to show the “best side of Milwaukee.”

“There was definitely this [sentiment] of ‘Can we get back to the positive side of Milwaukee?’ There was this fear for some people that there is an agenda to beat white folks over the head about their successes and privilege,” she said. “But we aren’t about that. We come from a very open and honest place for conversation. This time there was a willingness to learn that I had never seen before.”

Biddle named the panel discussion series Race Bridge. Since launching the regular series, FUEL Milwaukee has broadened its conversations to move beyond race to inclusion as a whole, including guests from a wide range of representative groups exploring topics such as social and racial justice, interfaith relations, immigration, cultural biases, and diversity and equity in the workplace. In 2022, Biddle’s work behind-the-scenes has earned her a Unity Award and a recent nomination for Women of Influence.

Authenticity, not assimilation

Biddle’s mission to diversify Milwaukee’s business community stemmed from her own experience as a Black professional. A few years before she joined FUEL, she attended one of its signature networking events. The gathering was held at Mikey’s, a now-shuttered swanky cocktail bar just off Cathedral Square.

As someone who grew up on Milwaukee’s North Side, Biddle said she felt like she’d “made it,” but when she looked around the room she saw there were only two Black people in the crowd.

“There are a bunch of people like me who move to Atlanta because they didn’t think Milwaukee was a place for them,” Biddle said.

Biddle wanted to change that. When she later took the helm at FUEL, she made it her mission to make the organization’s events more welcoming for Milwaukee’s diverse young professionals. She expanded FUEL’s community outreach and marketing efforts, became more intentional about the venues and speakers selected for events — she even switched up the music and food.

Corry Joe Biddle with FUELers. (Courtesy photo)

BIPOC professionals often feel forced to “assimilate” in corporate spaces and hide their true identities or feelings, Biddle said — especially in the shadow of current events. One study found that around 35% of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45% of Asians say they “need to compromise their authenticity” to conform to society’s perception of what it means to be a professional.

That often leads to bicultural stresses and “tiptoeing” around culturally enforced boundaries, the study says. For Black women, that might mean not speaking up for fear as being branded “angry,” dressing down, or straightening their natural hair. For cultural groups across the board, bicultural pressures in the workplace have been linked to a multitude of mental and physical health issues, including anger, anxiety, and depression, further hindering BIPOC professionals from climbing up the corporate ladder.

When it came to launching Race Bridge, Biddle wanted to create space for all Milwaukeeans to come to the table. She encouraged every panelist and participant to shed so-called professional norms, talk openly, and show up as their fully authentic selves in an era of reckoning.

“The panels were really deliberate,” Biddle said. “I’m not putting people up to rehash their trauma for an audience. We truly created a community of people who have different experiences with inclusion and exclusion. So rarely do people get the chance to tell their story and what is important to them now. It has been a learning journey for everybody.”

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