In our ongoing exploration of health and wellness in the workplace, we have been fortunate to learn from an expert in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr. Carmen Phelps of Project 986. Dr. Phelps founded Project 986 to educate communities on the importance of creating spaces that are safe, fair and inclusive. We talked with Dr. Phelps to hear about what motivated her to follow this path and to gain further insight on this important topic.
Food + Mood NYC: What inspired you to start Project 986 and how did you come up with the name?
Carmen Phelps: I’ve always been social justice-oriented and feel a deep sense of commitment to addressing any form of suffering, hardship or pain. Serving as an advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice – both as a consultant but first as a human being – I have a strong desire to realize a society where all people have fair opportunities to achieve their goals and where our systems, structures and institutions are no longer functioning in ways that are perpetuating traumatizing inequities for some and advantaging others. These are the things that drive me to do this complicated, sometimes overwhelming but urgent and inspired work. I grew up in a single-parent household outside of St. Louis in the Ferguson area, where so many families of color like mine struggled to pay bills and where it often seemed impossible to break free of what felt like a life of constant struggle no matter how long or hard you worked. I credit the BIPOC writers, artists, activists, educators, disruptors, change agents and healers with whose work I became familiar as a student of Black Literature, Postcolonial & Cultural Studies for exposing me to the reality of what I had always wondered and experienced but could not name in my youth, which is that the experiences of communities like mine weren’t the result of our own failures but instead reflective of the reality of structural and systemic barriers which we, ourselves, had no role in creating and which make us susceptible to the trauma of poverty and oppression. Tragically, these experiences leave many of us questioning ourselves. It’s through my work as a DEI/racial equity consultant where I can inspire and support others in their efforts to challenge the status quo in favor of the well-being of individuals most undermined and diminished as the result of these realities.
When considering what to name my consultancy, I was inspired to think of human connection, the uniqueness and intersection of experiences and how important it is to understand what informs our everyday lives. It occurred to me to think about this on a deep but also fundamental level, which is how I came to think of the average body temperature for human beings – 98.6 degrees – and this is how the name for the consultancy came to be what it is.
F+M NYC: When you begin working with a group or organization, what are the steps you take to create a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program?
CP: In the initial stages of our partnership, I dedicate time to becoming acquainted with a new client, which means having authentic conversations about their vision for DEI; learning what their current questions and concerns about this work might be; taking in as much information as possible about leaders’ and employees’ experiences within the organization and learning about what, if any DEI initiatives have been offered and/or supported in the past, including outcomes resulting from such initiatives. Ultimately, as a DEI consultant, it’s important for me to gain as much insight as possible into the current status or reality of a client’s organization so that I can recommend programs, frameworks, goals and strategies which are tailored to their needs and aspirations. One of the most common questions I receive about this work is “What are other organizations doing?” “What is working for them?” The answer to this question is quite simple: I tell them that organizations which are realizing DEI progress are those which are most open to setting intentional, progressive goals and which are open to making adjustments where necessary when desired goals aren’t met. I also stress the urgent nature of this work and often have to remind clients that they must be willing to commit to promoting DEI on an ongoing basis and not simply in the short-term, since change can only occur through sustained, perpetual effort.
F+M NYC: What are you hoping to achieve through your DEI offerings?
CP: Positive, inspired impact, learning and growth for the individuals and clients I serve in favor of justice and well-being for all people.
F+M NYC: We believe in a holistic wheel of wellness. How do you see DEI as an integral part of that wheel?
CP: I love this question. I would say that experiencing a society that values and prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion and where we are dismantling systemic barriers inhibiting access to vital resources would ultimately manifest in the increased well-being and resiliency of all people; encourage greater human connection and increase our capacity for community-building across cultural and racial difference.
F+M NYC: How do you support yourself around food + mood?
CP: I think about this often. The nature of what I do can be emotionally, intellectually and physically challenging, so it’s important that I model DEI and justice-centered values by prioritizing self-care and internal/emotional resiliency. How can I do this work if I’m not healthy, worn out or depleted? I grant myself time for meditation; connecting with my mentor; journaling and restorative healing exercises in order to mitigate stress. These experiences are incredibly rejuvenating and offer me the space I need to be creative, expansive and productive, leaving me open to learning and growth in the way that I most want to encourage my clients to experience learning and growth in their DEI work and in their individual and collective journeys.
To learn more about Project 986 and Dr. Carmen Phelps visit https://www.project986consulting.com/