DETAC’s Amy Gonzalez talks with Cesilee Coulson and Chisa O’Quinn from Wise, or The Washington Initiative for Supported Employment, about how they face issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within their own organization.
Cesilee Coulson is the Executive Director of the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment; Wise. She brings 25 years of experience in competitive integrated employment training and technical assistance to her position. Cesilee uses her experience to assist with employment systems change and community employment capacity building. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Oregon in Sports Psychology, an Executive Coaching certification from the Hudson Institute and a Somatic Coaching certification from the Strozzi Institute.
In January 2015, Cesilee was appointed by the U. S. Secretary of Labor to the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities, which was created in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. She served as the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Capacity Building. The Final Report and Recommendations of the committee were submitted to the Secretary of Labor and Congress in September 2016.
Cesilee is currently serving as the Past President of the Community Employment Alliance, a Washington State Association of Employment providers and is the co-chair of the National TASH employment committee.
Chisa O’Quinn is the Senior Training and Technical Assistance Manager at Wise and a Social Worker who has traveled with individuals through the worlds of Corrections, Counseling, Disability Services, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse. What sets her apart as a leader and advocate in the field is her ability to creatively seek solutions in difficult situations, as well as her focus on person centered planning strategies. Chisa holds a Masters in Social Work from Portland State University. She has been in the field of Developmental Disabilities since 2003, starting as an Employment Specialist, Supported Employment Program Manager, and Personal Agent in Vancouver and in Oregon’s Brokerage system. Chisa is an avid spectator who enjoys watching sporting events, comedy shows, theater, movies and generally saying “yes” to new opportunities and activities that cross her path. Her primary focuses include Transition, Person Centered Planning, Community Building, and Diversity initiatives.
Amy M. Gonzalez, M.S. is the Project Manager for the Disability Employment TA Center (DETAC), funded by the Administration on Disabilities. In this role, she manages the various components of the DETAC, including training and technical assistance to grantees who are Centers for Independent Living, Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Protection & Advocacy Entities, University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Education & Research, Traumatic Brain Injury Programs and Projects of National Significance. Prior to her role at DETAC, Amy was a Senior Policy Advisor on the Workforce Systems Policy Team at the U.S. DOL, Office of Disability Employment Policy. She formerly served as the State Director of Employment & Day Services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities. Amy started her career in direct service and has a broad range of experience in serving individuals with disabilities through the following systems: Education, Vocational Rehabilitation, Workforce Development, Medicaid, including employer outreach and engagement. She also strives to elevate important systems issues that continue to be overlooked such as marginalized and underserved communities.
- Looking Inward: An Assessment of Your Organization’s Current Culture for Promoting a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Workforce
- Infusing Intersectionality into Disability Employment Systems Change Efforts
- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource System Snapshot Guide
Announcer: You’re listening to the AOD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center Podcast, where we learn from people who are working to improve competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for people with disabilities.
In today’s episode, DETAC’s Amy Gonzalez talks with Cesilee Coulson and Chisa O’Quinn from Wise, or The Washington Initiative for Supported Employment, about how they face issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within their own organization.
Amy Gonzalez: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center’s third podcast of the contract year. My name is Amy Gonzalez, and I am the Project Manager for the DETAC. Today we are joined by a couple of national subject matter experts from the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment. Cesilee Coulson is the Executive Director for what I will be referring to – the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment – as Wise. Now she’s joined by one of her senior program staff, Chisa O’Quinn. And so what I’ll do now is turn it over to Ces and Chisa just to introduce themselves a little bit more. And then what we’re going to do is take a deeper dive into some of the work that we’ve done under the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’re gonna talk a little bit more about how Wise’s journey really led them to invest in some of this work, in building equity, and how the DETAC has worked with Wise to develop some tools and resources that are really much needed in the field for grantees in this specific area. So, Ces and Chisa, please introduce yourselves for us, and then talk a little bit more about your journey to building equity in Wise. Turning it over to you.
Cesilee Coulson: Thanks, Amy. Yeah, so, my name’s Ces Coulson, and I’m the Executive Director of Wise. I think maybe just a little bit more about me. I’ve been working in supported employment since the nineties, from the mid nineties and at Wise specifically for the last 26 years of doing training and development work. And it’s great to be in the conversation with you, especially with the DETAC. I’m looking forward to, kind of, where the conversation goes today, because part of what we’re doing at Wise, hopefully we can share more about that after we get going. But part of what we’re really trying to do is, you know, be in our own conversation and think about our contributions, both individually as well as collectively inside our organization, and how that can then, you know, be partnered and leveraged and opened up to, you know, the greater community. So that for me, after all of these years, working in training and technical assistance shouldn’t feel like something new, but ironically feels brand new in a lot of ways and I’m sure we’ll explore that more while we’re talking. But I’m going to kick over to my colleague Chisa and let her introduce herself a little bit more, too.
Chisa O’Quinn: I’m Chisa O’Quinn and I am a Senior Technical Assistance and Training Manager. I actually did need to write that down because that’s a new opportunity for me. I thought I would do just a very short visual description. I am an African American female, I’m middle aged. And the reason I bring that to the conversation is that in our field, there are not a lot of people of color who get to have these conversations about change work, technical assistance. And so I think it’s always important that when we have an opportunity to share our voice, that we make sure people know who we are.
So, my experience is I’ve been in the field, I think it’s about 18 years now, and supported employment and essentially helping families navigate our system. And I am a huge fan of people getting to work. And, you know, outside of our system, when people ask me, What do you do? And I say, My job is to figure out how to get people to work. I’ve tried social services in other areas, and I’m always drawn back to the possibility of getting people out of poverty. Inclusion and giving people an opportunity to show up and have their voices heard is really important to me. So when given the opportunity to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s not just about race. It’s not just about disability. To me, I really think about community building and access. And so I’m really excited when Wise takes on new opportunities to grow themselves internally. And then what we do internally really impacts our community. So I’m super excited about this conversation this morning.
Amy Gonzalez: Thank you for the introduction, Cecily and Chisa. You both mentioned a process that Wise undertook within your own respective organization to help you build equity. And so that’s what I wanna start with. How did you start the process? What really spurred that? What was the driving factor in that? I’m interested in also learning more about the findings, you know, after you learned more about, kind of, where you were at and where you could be, you know, how did you decide to work on the next steps? So I’ll turn it over to you both to go into more detail about that process at Wise and then we’ll just continue the conversation. So, so take it away.
Chisa O’Quinn: I think I’m going to jump in first because I’m going to give you the lay person’s perspective of Wise’s maturity in this equity process. I think I came to Wise – I’ve been there five years now – and I came to Wise as a person working in the Northwest, and often only seeing myself or being a small group of people who represented communities of color and often felt underrepresented and was often not feeling acknowledged and like, gosh, we’re so small, we’re a minority, we’re not being heard. And coming to Wise, I felt like, Oh, this is a new platform; Wise, does amazing work nationally. A lot of people know who Wise are as great performers and everyone wants to work for Wise and everyone wants to be influenced by Wise. And so I thought this is a great opportunity for me.
And when I came, it felt like the community wasn’t what I was hoping it was going to be. And so there were a few expectations that I probably had that maybe were unreasonable. And I think Wise gave me an opportunity to start practicing using my voice and thinking about who I am as a person and how I want to show up, and how does that impact other people who might have a similar experience, either providing services or receiving services from our field. And so I think Ces gave me an opportunity to complain to her. I think instead of being defensive and guarded, I think she leaned in to those concerns and then started to create opportunities for Wise to learn more about who Wise is as an organization and how it supported its employees, how it was front-facing to its community, and how it could start to create change around equity. So my perspective, I think, is really different than Ces’s in that I was coming from a lived experience and wanting more and wanted more access, and then using opportunities within Wise to then build from the insight out and creating change. So I think that’s a maybe different than Ces’s leadership opportunity to look at equity.
Cesilee Coulson: Yeah, I think, um, you know, I should backtrack a little bit and take a cue from Chisa in terms of giving you a visual description of me as well. I appear in the middle aged female category with Chisa, but, you know, I’m a white woman. I’m also a lesbian. So when you think about our backgrounds and where, if just the relationship of Chisa and I coming together professionally, you think about that moment in time – it’s been a little over five years ago where we started formally working together – and let’s all think about where the world was at five years ago, six years ago versus where it’s at now. Sometimes I feel like I used to measure things in decades in my career, and then five or six years comes along, It feels like it’s been a 20 year window almost, with all of the social change and the social unrest and just everything we’ve all went through in the last few years.
But when, to go back to what Chisa was just saying, and the why, Amy, about what Wise is doing and how we got into the equity lane more specifically, you know, my background in training was, you know, in the disability employment world and in that world, it was very siloed, professionally, in terms of, let’s try and help this particular group of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities find their place in the workplace. And we trained inside of that domain, and we worked really hard to advocate and we still do, to try and bring employment into a typical lane for people that still are highly underemployed in our country. And to some degree that was its own thing, right? And that’s our equity thing we’re doing, right? That’s, we are being part of the community, of course, we are working on this social cause and then in comes Chisa’s perspective into my world and saying, Well, it’s not a silo that we live in.
You know, it’s all of these things. And she’s talking to a middle aged lesbian woman, okay? And so what do I hear based on my lived experience? My lived experience is very different than hers, but equally in a kind of an oppressive sort of lane, right? Where I’m trying to not be myself most of the time when I’m growing up. I’m trying, as a matter of fact, if I come out, when I came out, when I did, went through all of those iterations of becoming who I am today and representing myself holistically and authentically and honestly. I came from a place of trying to be typical in everybody else’s world because my sexuality was something that people viewed as a threat, that they viewed as something that needed to be cured,
And so that’s how I see the world, right? And so what I’m doing is trying to not overlay my experience and my uniqueness into a lane where people already are feeling marginalized because they were born with a disability. And that’s how I was trained, right? That’s how I was trained. Don’t bring your stuff. You’re trying to help other people, for lack of a better term, be normalized into society. They don’t need your stuff too. And I literally was told that, and I was literally trained that way, right? And now I have all of these intergenerational differences also at Wise, where I’m not the oldest member of our organization. And I’m clearly not the youngest. But when you look at, we have three generations at our work too, who also see through their lived experience different ways of integrating people with disabilities into the workplace.
My experience is kind of the, I’m a, you know, I’m a Gen-Xer, I’m not a Baby Boomer, so, you know, I can even talk that way where I go Baby Boomers, or you’re thinking about this, where it was family members getting a chance to go to school and getting an education. I grew up with people with disabilities. Right? Now I’ve got people on staff who grew up and actually got to say that they had a particular sexual orientation while they were growing up, and that that wasn’t something that wasn’t encouraged, you know, or even honored.
So it’s like, how does that go back to Wise? Well, you know, everything goes back to your own lived experience and the way that I see things because of my formal role at Wise, right? So, you know, where Chisa and I came together back to that was we had some experience professionally together before she came on board here. And I think she’s felt a little more grounded in coming to me and saying, Hey, you know, we need to step up and step out here. And so we started the journey, doing that because, quite frankly, that’s what inclusion work is today. And that, like I said, it might not have been looked at that way in the nineties, but we’re not in the nineties anymore. We’re in 2022. So we’re trying to figure it out and trying to be in as many conversations like this as we can. And I know that was a very long answer, but this, kind of, for me, how everything kind of came together.
Chisa O’Quinn: You know, though, I’m moved by what you had to say because I think about five years ago how we would be moving forward in this conversation would look so different. And it’s telling of the work that you and I have done, about the relationship that you and I have done, about our titles don’t impact how we build relationship and build community, about our ability to take risks, so we both tell our stories, which I think is really important when you’re doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work, right? Because at every level it’s about hearing people’s stories, creating access, helping people to belong. And the risk-taking of like saying, “I don’t know”, which we both have done, “I’m sorry”, which we both have done, the “sit with me”, which we have both have done, I think is what’s really important as organizations think about diversity, equity, and inclusion work, right?
I think we get really lost in the language, in the process, the policy, the “I have to”, the governance, the funding requirements. Like, I think a lot of that has been driving diversity, equity, and inclusion work. But one of the things that I’ve been saying a lot, and learning a lot in the past year and a half is, this is all you work. And like, how we grow and how we understand ourselves and how we move about in our spaces is what drives everything else. Like the curiosity to understand other people, the vulnerability to move past mistakes is so powerful.
And it’s like, the one thing that I would hope listeners take away from our conversation is that Wise is not doing anything extraordinary. Wise is being curious, they’re investing money, they’re investing time, they’re being planful. And it’s funny when I say they, because I’m the they, I am the we. So I wanna correct that it’s not Wise, this someone outside of me. Wise is me. So we are building community around understanding language access and how can everyone have a voice, be able to read documents. How do we put language into plain speak so that it isn’t so high level people can’t understand it? How do we think about the cultural impact of people who might be moving here and they’re trying to figure out how they belong? How do we think about people who have traditionally been underrepresented? So they may speak English, they may know the rules, but they don’t have access. And so how do we still keep thinking about people who are seeing themselves in their gender differently than before? Like, it’s so broad, but it all narrows down to our place of understanding yourself so you can make room to understand other people.
That’s where I’m landing now with diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I’ve even challenged myself to move away from using those labels because they’re so loaded that sometimes people hear you say DEI, and whatever they attach to it causes them to step away from the conversation. And I’ve been really thinking about how do I speak in a way that includes people into a conversation that’s about equity, which is another place that Wise has really been doing a lot of work around equity conversations, capacity building, and it also invited us into a world with DETAC around creating some new tools.
Amy Gonzalez: Thank you, Ces and Chisa, for highlighting some of those elements, kind of helping us connect to how Wise began this journey. I think it’s important that grantees – and when I talk about grantees, I’m mentioning Centers for Independent Living, State Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Protection and Advocacy agencies, UCEDDs, Traumatic Brain Injury programs and Community Collaborations for Employment – are really struggling to develop concepts to help the folks that they serve who identifies maybe an underserved or a marginalized or an underrepresented population. And I think it’s important to help flesh out some of these tools to help build equity. And so what I’d like to move onto is to talk about, we covered a little bit about how you folks got started, but maybe take a deeper dive into the process that Wise, kind of undertook to help grantees get a better understanding of maybe some of the work that they can do, and then maybe a transition over into the tools that would support this endeavor.
And one more thing, before I turn it over to you folks: I also wanna make it clear that this type of responsibility is for everyone in the organization. So you’ll see in this, uh, podcast that we have, you know, we have Ces at the top of leadership, and then someone else who’s more boots on the ground, although at a senior level, but still really ingrained in, in direct service and, you know, directly working with folks with disabilities from these types of communities. And so, Wise, I’ll turn it over to you to highlight what that process looked like at Wise, and then we can dive into some of the tools that you developed for the DETAC.
Cesilee Coulson: Chisa, how about I take the lane of the organizational piece for us, and then we’d grab the tools piece, maybe a little bit more and can volley it back and forth on that. So from an organizational perspective, one of the things in my role – that I felt at least; I know it’s not universal, but from my perspective is – what’s the doing part of this, right? That’s immediately where you go, is that you go to, what am I supposed to be doing to change my organization? And really, I’m going to say something that will probably make everybody who’s running an organization, you know, not as perfectly tidy and happy with me right now. But number one thing about this is this being, it’s the being side of this and being in the space number one where you’re not gonna know what to do.
So it’s kind of like there’s a precursor there that says, I’m just going to get started and I’m gonna convene some people around me that are interested in helping me think about this. And that’s really on the doing side where I was at. And from there, the journey begins. Which means this is what I do as part of my job, is that I’m curious, that I am open, and that I invest, right? So on the investment side, this is part of our being, this is part of how we roll now at Wise. So I have a team of people that convene that I set aside time, paid time, for them to think about this for our business, right? And what we are doing, and both from a learning perspective for our company, from a policy perspective for our company, and a relationship perspective.
So you’re thinking about this: How am I dedicating resources? What are my policies now? And what could they be, to welcome in a more diverse group of people working for us? How do those policies support the people that are working for us so that they have time to learn, time to grow, time to network. And then from a management perspective, how do we start to say these are expectations, in terms of trying to get out in community and try and broaden our network of relationships and partnerships that we have. So at the very fundamental level, if you kind of go through that process, and rinse and repeat, keep doing that; that it’s not a destination; that’s just part of your business operations and the way that you’re looking at things.
I just came out of a meeting this morning, right before this podcast, with our policy team, and there were a few things we talked about this morning. What did we accomplish last year? Got those passed by our board of directors. What are we gonna focus on in the short term? Who else can we include in the organization that hasn’t had an opportunity to look at policies from their own lived experience? How are we gonna do that? We decided this morning, functionally, that we wouldn’t just have a policy team. Last year, it was a policy team that were only people that directly reported to me, as the executive. This year that’s gonna expand to more people that are at different levels of the organization in terms of their work products. And thirdly, we decided that when we have a topic, a policy topic, we’ll take one of us to lead it, we’ll offer it up to all staff to say, who has an interest in this particular policy, or who has some experience in this area, come to a series of meetings and inform us on how we could make this better.
So that right now is a functional thing we’re doing, where that way I can get more experiences weighing in on any policy changes that we might have. And they might also say, Hey, none of us have any of this. We might need to go outside the organization and have some consultative expertise come in. But that’s just in the policy lane only. That’s a really practical thing that I think if we all started with at least looking at our policies and how they narrow our playing field of people that come to work for us, that’s a really great way to start to see inside your organization, from my role at the executive level.
Chisa O’Quinn: What it made me think about as Ces was speaking was what she also did, was that she gave opportunities for us to start work outside of Wise. So she said yes to opportunities for us to work with other organizations who were interested in creating change around equity work in their companies. And even though we didn’t have the structure, we didn’t have the training, we didn’t have the credentials, she allowed us to be creative with our ability to create change within organizations and to frame conversations around equity that would help people kind of start where they’re at, think about who they were, and then create action steps to help them move forward. And that was, innocently, called Equity Conversations, and it started in one area of our state and extended itself to the south end of our state. And we were able to support probably about 16 different agencies through that process.
And that put us under the eye of the DETAC that said we’d like to partner with you, and how can we be in community and think about tools and strategies that we can give to our grantees to help them start these conversations as well. So we initially were in a community of practice opportunity called RISE [Results and Innovation in Systems Excellence], where I got to partner with other amazing people doing equity work and helping thought leaders think differently for their organizations. And then out of those conversations, we kind of used that information to think about what’s next. And we came up with three different tools that my partners at Wise helped me to create. And so I’m gonna do my best to name them, but we can also have them listed, so if I do goof somewhere that you will actually be able to click on a link and get to the actual document.
So the first one was a blog, and it was called “Looking Inward: An Assessment of Your Organization’s Current Culture for Promoting a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Workforce“. So, how are you today? What does your organization look like today? So it’s not good, bad, and different; it’s just who are we? And to help you kind of think about what you need next. The next is “Infusing Intersectionality into Disability Employment Systems Change Efforts“. So this was a primer that was to address how you could strengthen your organization’s internal focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. So kinda like, here’s some phases that you can consider as you’re trying to move your organization forward. And then that kind of – we wrapped ourselves into this space of like, what’s next? How do we just get started? I’ve tried these other two things, this still feels really overwhelming, so how do you just get me out the door? So we created a roadmap that was called the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource System Snapshot Guide“. And it really is a like five to six page quick snapshot of organizations that may be similar to you and some of their language that they’ve used to get started, some strategies that they use to help them form policy and procedure. And then there’s also some guidance from the federal level on how are they guiding us as a nation around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So I think as you listen to Ces and I, we are novices in this. We are about inclusion, we’re about access, we’re about really getting people to a place of feeling like they belong. And that is the place that we started with these tools. They’re not high-level academic documents. They are boots-on-the-ground. How does the everyday person get started in thinking about change for themselves and for their organization and for their teams? And so I really encourage you to take a look at them and see how maybe you can get started.
Amy Gonzalez: Excellent. And just one thing to add about the wonderful tools and just kind of recapping as we wrap up. Every organization, as we’re seeing in Wise’s experience, is unique in this journey. And these tools really were created as resources for grantees in their own respective journey to build equity for persons with disabilities from marginalized and underserved communities. We encourage you to take a deeper dive into those resources and to really utilize them in your own respective journeys as grantees, in this just very important topic. As we wrap up, what I’d like to do is just take a moment to thank Ces and thank Chisa and Wise for your leadership in this area, and to remind our audience today that should you need technical assistance in this area, should you really need maybe initial planning session or some guidance from our subject matter experts, to please reach out to the Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center at email@example.com, so that we can set up an initial planning session with our subject matter experts, specifically relative to this topic.
So with that, I’d like to thank Ces and Chisa for being here today, and we’d like to thank our audience for tuning in to this podcast. And the last thing that I have to say is: stay tuned. We’re hoping to continue this work with our partners at Wise. We’re not sure what that looks like, but we’re really excited to have the discussion to really consider and to develop more tools to help you folks build equity and policy and in programing. So, I’d like to thank you both and just open up the mic, Ces, Chisa, if you have any last thoughts to share.
Cesilee Coulson: [laugh], I just keep saying about everything that we’re doing every day is, you know: don’t be perfect, just be huge.
Chisa O’Quinn: And I say, breathe and say yes.
Cesilee Coulson: Yeah.
Amy Gonzalez: [laugh]. Well, thank you again. It was a pleasure, Cecily and Chisa, and we’re looking forward to continuing that conversation. So thanks for joining us.
Cesilee Coulson: Thanks for having us.
Chisa O’Quinn: Thank you.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to the AOD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center podcast.
Today we spoke with Cecily Colson and Chisa O’Quinn from Wise or the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment. To learn more about Wise, including their efforts towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, visit www.gowise.org.
The AOD Disability, Employment Technical Assistance Center, or DETAC, is a project of the Lewin Group and TASH, created by a grant from the Administration for Community Living to provide evidence based training and technical assistance to Administration on Disabilities grantees aimed at improving competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the nation. To learn more about DETAC, visit AoDDisabilityEmploymentTACenter.com for news and alerts about upcoming webinars and podcasts. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Music for the DETAC Podcast is an original composition and performance by Sunny Cefaratti, the co-director and autistic self-advocacy mentor at the Musical Autist. You can learn more about the Musical Autist at www.themusicalautist.org.
We’ll have another episode on competitive integrated employment for you in the near future.
This discussion was originally recorded on August 11, 2022.
This audio recording and transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.