How experiencing prejudice made me fight harder for diversity and inclusion

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 11:04 am EDT

By:

Judy Martinez-Faye, Chief City Executive, Midwest

When I look back on my Chicago childhood, one particular memory stands out more than any birthday or Bears Super Bowl: a trip to a furniture store changed my life.

It began with a simple request to help my mother return some furniture. My mom, who did not speak English, told me what was wrong with the furniture and I translated the details to the furniture salesman.

The man’s response was something I’ll never forget.

He berated me for having to translate for my mother who couldn’t speak English and criticized me for not knowing the furniture-store return policy.

Go back to your country, he said.

I felt helpless. My voice seemed so insignificant. I WAS an American. So was my mom, my dad—my entire family. As the first-born in a primarily Spanish-speaking Hispanic family I was simply doing my daily job as family “interpreter.” 

That moment shaped my sense of purpose in life. I knew then that I was destined for law school. Knowing the law, I reasoned, would help give me as powerful a voice as I could have to be a warrior for diversity and inclusion across society.

Yet education and professional success still didn’t shield me of prejudice. I once had a law school classmate say to me, Wow, I’ve never met a Hispanic person that wasn’t in a gang. And on my first day in the courtroom as a criminal prosecutor, the judge actually said, Hi, are you the interpreter? (No, I’m the Prosecutor, thank you! I replied.)

I’ve faced down similar humiliations in my personal life, too.  My kids are not olive-skinned like I am or share my dark eyes and hair. When I take them to the park, I am often and repeatedly asked if I’m the nanny. My standard reply: “No. I’m their Mom.”

Experiences like these initially led me to shy away from my Hispanic identity. I wanted to reduce the probability of having similar experiences. If you had asked me years ago to describe myself, I would have said I was a passionate, driven and distinguished person – not Hispanic (or a woman).

I’ve since learned to assert myself and to use the experiences I’ve shared with you as my fuel to change society. I also see now that my grit and perseverance were not the only qualities that helped me succeed in life.  My beautiful, loving, immediate and extended Hispanic family gave me my touchstone philosophy: treat people decently no matter the situation; surpass challenges through hard work; and learn from the existing leaders in my Hispanic community. I call my Hispanic community my “green pasture.” They’re my launching pad and my rock, and I’m committed now to providing that support to others. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without my identity. 

That’s why today I’m a proud Hispanic female and determined as ever to advance diversity and inclusion, and I get to do that in my work for Siemens championing large public-infrastructure projects. Siemens is working hard to get minority groups involved in the world of public infrastructure from early on. The company runs a small business program with a focus on minority- and women-owned businesses, and the Siemens Foundation runs a program focused on supporting minority students who are interested in becoming engineers.

Siemens also is committed to building a workforce that mirrors the diversity of society. We recently signed The Hispanic Promise, an effort spearheaded by the We are All Human Foundation launched at the 2019 World Economic Forum. The Promise serves as a call to action for businesses and organizations to hire, retain and promote employees of Hispanic descent and empower them in the workplace.

My favorite part of my job is getting to see Siemens partner with minority companies and deliver solutions to communities that need them. Over the next few decades, I foresee great, positive changes occurring within the world of public infrastructure. I envision future cities that are entirely multicultural, promoting diversity at all levels and without any gaps. And I see Hispanics at the forefront of this change as they live the American Dream.

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