One City’s Effort to Advance Racial Equity and a More Inclusive Business Culture

Business Equity for Indy has mobilized Indianapolis-area business leaders to create economic opportunity and improve health equity for the region’s Black people and historically marginalized communities.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide focus on racial equity in the past several years, communities all over the United States are taking steps to advance equity. In 2020, Indianapolis business leaders — led by the Indy Chamber and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership — realized that the status quo was not an option, so they formed the basis of what is now Business Equity for Indy (BEI).

What is the state of racial equity in Indianapolis? There is work to be done, considering that:

  • The unemployment rate for Black workers in Indiana is more than double the rate for White workers.
  • While Black people comprise about 17% of the Indianapolis metro population, only 2.4% of the metro’s 34,000 employer businesses are Black-owned.
  • In 2020-21, 8% of Black students passed both English and math on ILEARN, compared to 35% of White students — a significant drop compared to 2018-19, when those stats were 15% and 43%, respectively. 
  • In Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, 32% of Black residents, 21% of Hispanic/Latino residents, and 17% of White residents live in a food desert.

These realities and others have galvanized the business community in Indianapolis to action. BEI now has five areas of action: Hiring and Promotion, Procurement and Participation, Learning and Talent, Impediments to Health, and Public Policy. Each priority area is led by a taskforce made up of a diverse group of business and civic leaders in the city.

Indianapolis-based Elevance Health, which employs 5,000 people locally, has been a partner in BEI’s efforts focusing on health equity, said Bryony Winn, BEI supporter and president of health solutions for Elevance Health. CEO Gail Boudreaux is on the BEI board and is co-chair of the Impediments to Health taskforce.

“To improve whole health, we must address health equity meaningfully. We explore many factors that may impact health equity, including race and ethnicity, access to care, gender identity, disabilities, and sexual orientation,” Winn said. “BEI provides a place for us to partner with leaders from across the region to advance a fairer and more inclusive future for the region’s Black population and historically marginalized communities.”

Elevance Health also signed a pledge, along with a local coalition of 22 corporate and civic organizations, to hold their organizations accountable for driving measurable progress in advancing racial equity for Black residents of Central Indiana.

A Collaborative Effort

The work of Business Equity for Indy has built upon the experiences, research, insights, recommendations, and programs of organizations that have been operating in the area for years, said Taylor Hughes, vice president of policy and strategy for the Indy Chamber of Commerce. 

“We spent about a year convening with over 130 different organizational partners from around Central Indiana,” Hughes said. “There are efforts that are, in some cases, decades old and have a lot of really important learnings for how to impact the health of the Black community.” The next step was applying those learnings, he said, coordinating the efforts of all the business leaders who had pledged resources and expertise to advance racial equity — not only for the community in general but for their own employees.

Addressing Health Equity and Social Drivers of Health

When it comes to impediments to health, BEI’s efforts have been concentrated in four areas: infant and maternal health, nutritious food, mental health, and vaccinations. The vaccination effort has been centered on COVID-19 vaccinations as well as vaccinations for other diseases, including those that have had low adoption rates among people of color, Hughes said.

One of BEI’s first initiatives addressing impediments to health was a playbook that employers could use to support vaccination efforts in their companies. Next up: A new, more robust health playbook that offers roadmaps for focused interventions to support equitable outcomes, improve employee health, and benefit business operations. It includes valuable strategies across all the taskforce’s focus areas. For example, some recommended actions include: 

  • Vaccinations: Provide time off for workers to get vaccinated and to recover from potential side effects, if needed.
  • Mental Health: Create a supportive organizational culture that reduces mental health stigma.
  • Maternal & Infant Health: Provide a comprehensive prenatal program with incentives for initiating and maintaining prenatal and post-partum care.
  • Nutritious Food: Provide free nutritious food paired with education about healthy eating and its benefits.

The playbook will be available not only to Indiana employers but to all companies invested in the health and equity of their workers and in community health. “I love that we can build something that works with our local community, and then through the scale of our collective organizations, we can take our key learnings and expand them for the benefit of communities across the country,” Winn said. “Each of the organizations involved with BEI and the pledge is working on equity from different angles, and if we all bring our learnings to the table, we can build a more equitable and just future, starting at the heart of our community.”

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