Lorri Newson currently serves a dual role as Chief Financial Officer and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Pace. In these capacities, Lorri leads agency efforts to create a more inclusive ecosystem, executing on both internal DEI efforts and external community ventures servicing the broader Chicagoland community. In her role, she also works with entrepreneurs and assists them with receiving their Small Business Enterprise Certification, which in turn allows their businesses to service and lead government contracts.
A passion point for Lorri is mentoring minority women.
Lorri and I sat down in early March to discuss her illustrious career and unique hybrid position at Pace.
David: Tell me a bit about your professional journey and how you found yourself in your current position.
Lorri: My career began with the City of Chicago in the Planning and Housing Department, where I created programs geared towards improving communities’ economic and development opportunities in some of the most distressed neighborhoods on the South and West Side of Chicago. In each of my roles, I was financially structuring large-scale deals. For example, I did a lot of work with the city issuing bonds in order to use the bond proceeds to place with various banks. The banks would in turn make loans to low-income families and provide closing-cost and down-payment assistance. Essentially, my work resulted in increasing affordable housing access for low- and moderate-income families, particularly families of color. In doing so, I was managing large scale federal grants, and became accustomed to working with internal and external stakeholders. Following that, I worked for the Chicago Housing Authority around the time they demolished the Highrise Public Housing Units. I was responsible for working with private developers to find a way to structure public housing units into new developments.
I arrived at Pace after applying to a position with the Regional Transportation Authority, which is the financial governance body for Pace, CTA, and Metra. I was hired as the Director of Planning, overseeing local and capital programs. We oversee the capital budgets for CTA, Pace, and Metra, as well as grant funds to different municipalities for them to increase their access to transportation. I worked in this capacity for four years, then came over to Pace after the former CFO retired. In my current role, I manage an over 500-million-dollar annual budget.
David: Wow! With such a powerful background, I wonder what accomplishment you are most proud of.
Lorri: I am most proud when I am able to come into a role and show other young women, especially women of color, that they can aspire to be leaders of organizations. If I can do it, they can do it. I believe you need to build great people in order for people to build great organizations. I pride myself on mentoring young women into leaders.
David: What is one DEI/leadership issue you wish more attention was given to?
Lorri: I think one DEI issue we miss is that people have their own personal struggles going on in the background. If we do not make the effort to help people manage their personal struggles before they enter the workplace, they will not be able to present their whole selves. And, if they are not bringing their whole selves, organizations will not get as much creativity. Not necessarily productivity, but creativity. We have to create opportunities for people to come to the workplace and manage the personal things they are going through. If we do not, we are not getting the best from them. Just as we talk about creating resource groups for women and LGBTQ communities, we can also create resources for people that are struggling. To put it into context, people might have a loved one that is terminally ill, or have a child that is wayward, and we have to remember that you come to work with that heavy on your heart.
David: What are some of the ways that you have observed the DEI space develop since 2020?
Lorri: I think that people are embracing this space more as we have changed the narrative to one of everyone being included. No matter who you are, your voice matters. I think that the concept of the ERG is brilliant as a founding principle- it allows people to say I am different. But it is because we are different that when we do come together we create and play such beautiful music. Just like in a symphony, each of us plays a uniquely different part. It is these different instruments, when played together, that create beautiful music.
Fundamentally, DEI is about people and the fact that we are all different. I will give you an example. You can have a 6’ white male and a 7’ white male, and if they are both asked to paint a mural on a 7’ wall one will have the ability to do this with no problem, but the other one will not. In order to give the 6’ person the ability to paint that wall, we need to give him a ladder. This is a perfect metaphor for DEI-
David: Where do you see the future of DEI headed?
Lorri: We still have a long way to go, but if we continue to get leaders and the heads of organizations to believe in the importance of DEI, and if they hold themselves and their staff accountable while having zero tolerance for anything less, then we can make more strides with DEI.
David: Do you think we are moving in that direction? Do you think that leaders and CEOs are waking up to its importance?
Lorri: Yes, and let me tell you why. People in my age group have a certain point of reference to the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, etc. Younger people have less exposure to the historical movement, but what they do know is that something is not right. They know they have a right to be heard. When younger generations take the reins, we will make major strides. At my age, I grew up in the wake of Dr. King being assassinated. It is dear to me and my generation, and with that there is this fear, concern, and anxiety. The younger people have a different and bolder perception of DEI. They are going to demand change.
David: That’s a fascinating point. What was the barrier for older generations demanding action?
Lorri: We were trained differently and raised differently. Especially as a women. When I grew up, we were told to be seen but not heard. To be pretty but not to have a voice. The list goes on. Don’t challenge the status quo. Play nice. You need your job. Keep your job! We were trained this way. How we behaved was dictated to us. If you wanted to be successful you needed to follow the rules in order to achieve that in your career. When you experience microagressions and microinvalidations, you remember what your grandmother told you: play nice, just deal with it, grin and bear it. But, as you become more resourceful and more educated, you teach your children those are not things you should deal with. You should grow up to have a voice.
David: What is the hardest part of being a DEI practitioner?
Lorri: Getting people to trust the process. To trust that it is not about invoking fear or division. That it is not about us versus them, or them versus us. It is about getting everyone to the point where everyone deserves to be included, treated nicely, and treated with respect. It is about building a work environment that is safe and welcoming, and not a place where people go home with dread because they were not treated well that day.
About the Authors
David Sanchez-Aguilera, PHR is a Human Resources Program Manager with PuzzleHR and Chair of the Illinois Diversity Council’s Editorial Committee.
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