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POIC president and CEO Joe McFerrin is working closely with Ame Lambert to develop a POIC and PSU partnership that will support Black students on their professional journeys.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 06 September 2022

A new partnership aims to help Black college students navigate the “hidden curriculum” of the workplace. 

Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) and Portland State University are launching a program that will hire current PSU students of color to work part-time for POIC, with positions open in finance, human resources, development, communications, teaching, counseling, mental health, case management and community safety. They will be paid a livable wage and receive tuition awards – and along the way, be mentored and supported. 

“The goal is a win-win solution,”  Ame Lambert, PSU's vice president of global diversity and inclusion, told The Skanner. “POIC needs talent – needs Black talent – and Black students usually do not have the same kind of exposure to capacity-building opportunities in high school and earlier in college.” 

The partnership will welcome the pilot cohort of up to 10 students of color this fall, kicking off the program with a mini job fair in October. 

“It’s an apprenticeship-plus model,” Lambert said.

“You’re getting the typical work experience, but you’re also really having the opportunity to be mentored by BIPOC leaders and to build capacity around the navigational pieces and the social-emotional pieces.”

Reading the Unwritten

The partnership came out of a two-day event hosted by PSU in July: Convening on the Future of Black Thriving & Joy, which hosted prominent leaders and members of Portland’s Black community. 

“We had about 75 folks representing all parts of the Black community just really sit down,” Lambert said.

“What we know at PSU is that the wisdom is in the room, the wisdom is in the community.

"The community has been surviving and thriving, and PSU has shown up in different ways, sometimes with our faculties and sometimes with partnerships between the university and different Black organizations. But we wanted to be more intentional: what does it look like to be an anchor institution for our BIPOC communities? What does it look like to really live our racial and justice commitment in the community? Because PSU is in and of the community.” 

She added, “It’s really the need and the wisdom of the community connecting with the assets of the institution.” 

The idea is that much of that wisdom can guide first-generation college students who may be entering professional spaces that would be unfamiliar to their families and loved ones, where they will be expected to understand unwritten rules, norms and expectations. 

Lambert said she has experienced this learning curve firsthand. 

“One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve gotten in terms of an unwritten rule is that at some point in your career, at some point between upper-middle management and senior leadership, it’s no longer good enough to have a great presentation,” she said. “When you’re an individual contributor, at some point, you have to have kind of lobbied or negotiated or talked to all the gatekeepers and players beforehand, so that the formal presentation is just a formality. Or the idea of managing up: How do you manage your manager to get where you want to go?

"Those are things that somebody has to tell you.

"If they don’t tell you, you just kind of flounder.” 

Tokenism and Hypervisibility

Students participating in the program will work for POIC, but will also be prepared for working in settings where they will feel underrepresented, even tokenized, for their race.  

“The research on tokenism is a vital body of it,” Lambert explained. “The work started with gender in organizations. I want to give a shout-out to (Harvard business professor and researcher) Rosabeth Moss Kanter, because her research found that until a population is at 35% – so thinking especially about women, but that translates to other communities as well – then they are tokenized. So you’re thought about in stereotypical ways. (For women), will you be the one to take notes at the meeting? Will you buy the cake for the monthly birthday party? You’re super emotional, is everything ok? All those kinds of burdens are on the under-represented person.”

Feeling overly scrutinized, or experiencing what Lambert calls “hypervisibility,” can be extremely corrosive to an individual’s performance, she said.  

“What we know is that when you are triggered like that, when you’re hypervigilant, it’s actually harder to access your best self,” she said. “So all of your critical thinking, your memory, all your self-reflection capacity, all of the executive functioning, is actually harder to access.

“What you end up having is almost this vicious cycle where a person is under-represented, they’re not really understood or supported, they feel excluded or rejected or like an imposter, so their physiological system goes into overdrive and is triggered, and then they start acting in ways that are less than their best because they can’t access their best. But then they’re hyper-scrutinized.”

Often, this can lead to burnout or an early exit for Black employees, and a lack of interrogation among employers about what went wrong. 

“I swear I’ve had somebody say, ‘Oh, maybe what it is is that we just get enamored with BIPOC folks and then we hire people who are not qualified.’ It’s like, let’s talk about that, right?” Lambert said. “Because these systems are not built for the thriving of BIPOC folks, unfortunately, it puts an extra burden on BIPOC people. They need to be aware of this dynamic. They need to be able to manage it. But that means that they need to be fueling this themselves, they need community, they need places to go vent, they need places where they’re understood, they need mentors and sponsors, hopefully allies and co-conspirators who understand this dynamic as well.”

The partnership’s organizers are quick to point out that helping students navigate an unfair system is not an endorsement of it. 

“Ultimately what we want is systemic change,” Lambert said. “Just because systemic change takes so long, you kind of need a critical mass of folks – if not, the cost is going to be individualized. So what you actually want is a critical mass of folks with power, with access to the critical levers, working for change to be able to get to transformation. But in order to be able to get to critical mass, you have to get more folks through. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem, but I never ever want it to sound like we’re saying the system’s fine, let’s fix you. The problem is not with the individual, it’s with the system. These are just steps to get us to deeper transformation.” 

For more information, visit www.pdx.edu/diversity/convening.

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