OppNet’s AiLun Ku on the Need to Foster a Culture of Belonging for Young BIPOC

Arriving in the U.S. from Taiwan at age 10, AiLun Ku, president and CEO of non-profit organization The Opportunity Network, knows firsthand how daunting it feels to find and build ‘community’ in an unfamiliar setting. Whether navigating college or an early career, young Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) need educational institutions and employers to help them thrive by providing them with a sense of belonging.

Known as OppNet, AiLun’s organization offers college and career readiness to first-generation students of color and those from excluded or underrepresented communities. OppNet’s goal is to open up support and resources for these students and to close the opportunity gap created by the long history of U.S. structural oppression and educational inequity. 

I spoke to AiLun about how diversity in employment is rooted in education which then paves the way for future success in the workplace. We also touched on OppNet’s support programs and what companies like our own can do to help young people of color thrive in the workplace. What follows is an edited version of our discussion:

How would you describe OppNet’s ‘career fluency’ concept and its specific attributes?

Career fluency is a framework we use to emphasize the personal and professional networks and social capital young people need to navigate to thrive in both the college landscape and professional world. Our curriculum is culturally responsive, taking into account the communities we’re partnering with to ensure that it resonates. The skill-building is scaffolded, allowing us to start with what young people already know and to meet them where they are. It’s a competency-based model that allows room to individualize learning. 

There are four primary pillars:

  • College Access, Transition and Success. A college degree still has tremendous value in the labor market. More employers may eventually shift away from using four-year degrees as the proxy for hiring ready talent, but until that happens, we want our young people to understand the long-term benefit of a degree. We support intellectual curiosity and ensure students have a positive experience socially, financially and academically. 
  • Career Exposure and Awareness. We want our students to know more about as many career options as possible, including all the detours and direct routes, and any required skills and credentials. In this way, they can make informed decisions about their futures.
  • Professional and Workplace Skills. We focus on the hidden rules of work and the hard skills needed to thrive in any career. Through applied experience, like our six-to-eight-year Fellows program, paid summer internships, research and enrichment programs and leadership camps, our students develop a mindset of career navigation. We also examine the meaning and cost of code-switching.
  • Networks and Social Capital. This is what moves the world, and our students have plenty of exposure. We let them know that they already have a network and help them understand how to apply that community within the context of college and careers.

Are there any curriculum elements that students tend to struggle with, particularly as they enter the workforce?

There’s a gray area around survival and thriving as a young person of color in predominantly white spaces. It’s not always clear where and when you assert yourself versus when you assimilate because it’s safer. There are no right answers, but we give space for our students to process that information, develop their own personal voice and decide how they want to behave in those situations.

There’s a wide continuum of perspectives that are all valid and this is where some of the magic happens as we discuss different viewpoints and ways of navigating split-second risk assessments.

As an organization that has witnessed and held space for these conversations, we realized we needed to do something on the employer side as well. It can't always be on young people of color to figure it all out themselves.

<split-lines>"There's a gray area around survival and thriving as a young person of color in predominantly white spaces."<split-lines>

What can employers do to be more inclusive as they seek to welcome and retain young staff of color or those from low-income backgrounds?

Be explicit: Why do you want us there? Then, you have to test some of your assumptions. Are you ready for us? If managers are not supported or trained to create good working conditions, chances are no one is having a good experience. That’s where you get talent of color coming in and saying, “I can see the exit sign, but I just got here.” 

Companies need to develop unique and responsive onboarding experiences for talent of color. They have to create conditions for community-building with readily accessible resources. When onboarding POC, do they know where the Employee Resource Groups are? Do they have a person who can help them navigate any “hidden rules?” What happens if they feel they don’t belong? Organizations have to anticipate and create a safe environment to address issues before they happen.

<split-lines>"Companies need to develop unique and responsive onboarding experiences for talent of color."<split-lines>

Which assumptions or unspoken workplace norms need to be re-examined to help create a culture of belonging for these young people? 

Some of it is generational, and some is tethered to a stubborn, bureaucratic structure built on white-dominant norms. For example, we’ve all heard “being early is being on time.” But no, being on time is being on time. It seems so small and innocent, but it happens all the time. If I just graduated from college and someone tells me to show up at 9 a.m. for a meeting and I show up then, but everyone else was there at 8:50 a.m., I will have missed 10 minutes of networking chitchat. Because no one told me what the expectation was, I showed up ‘on time.’

Another example is how you socialize at work with proper professional boundaries. Opportunities for growth are exchanged at lunch or coffee meetings and in informational interviews outside of your department. Your organization should tell you how you can excel, but someone in a role for 10 years may just assume you already know what to do and where to go. 

These things add up and become a barrier to entry. People of color have had to be the ones to create a sense of hypervigilance in how we move through work, always asking ourselves, “Is it me?” It doesn’t have to be that difficult. We can be more explicit and clear with a fair and equitable process.

<split-lines>"People of color have had to be the ones to create a sense of hypervigilance in how we move through work."<split-lines>

What role can rank-and-file employees play to set these young people up for success?

Everybody can play a role here. No organization’s culture will be created top-down or solely with HR and a DEI committee—that won’t solve for institutional change. Everyone has to have an awareness and understanding so they can look out for their own biases.

In meetings, make notes for yourself on who gets interrupted, mansplained or white-splained. Notice who is dismissed, ignored or who never speaks up. Observe your own setting and then observe yourself and how you contribute to that setting. Then do something about it. Use your voice to amplify others. Build your awareness and understand why things are happening. Think about what you can do differently. 

To learn more and get involved with The Opportunity Network, check out OppNet’s individual and institutional volunteer opportunities.

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