When then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RIFRA) into law in April 2015, the state faced national backlash for creating what some perceived as an exclusive environment, allowing businesses to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation.
As a result, businesses canceled multimillion-dollar expansions in Indiana
. Performers canceled tour stops. And national media coverage drew attention to the state as a place behind the times, where discrimination is allowed.
So when it came time for the My City Summit in January 2017, the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) wanted to turn the conversation around.
They focused on diversity and inclusion, and brainstormed ways they could make a statement about northeast Indiana to the national community.
“That was part of our conversation,” says then-President of YLNI Stephanie Veit. “The state legislative has said, 'This is how we do business.' But that’s not how we do it in northeast Indiana.”
After the Summit, YLNI started working with Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to turn their ideas into actions.
Together, the organizations formed committees, and one of their first undertakings was creating an inclusivity pledge that rallies regional businesses around the common goal of a welcoming, inclusive environment
“We thought having a pledge that says this is how we’re going to do business in this area would make a bold statement to people living here and the talent that we want to attract,” Veit says.
Working with YLNI member Tim Spradling of New Image Printing, Veit and the committees created a non-binding resolution called the Fort Wayne Commitment and Inclusivity Pledge with a simple message:
“We believe diversity of thought, background, experience and people drive innovation. We promote an environment that is welcoming and conducive to the success of all. It is through our inclusive culture that we can attract the best employees, empower our customers and help our communities achieve great things.”
While the RIFRA debate was largely limited to sexual orientation and religion, Veit says YLNI's pledge is purposefully vague to include all types of diversity in age, race, gender, thought, ability, and other distinctions.
YLNI created printable versions of the pledge that business owners can display in their offices or workplaces.
YLNI's Commitment and Inclusivity Pledge.
While Veit says that words and signatures on a pledge are only the first steps toward improving diversity and inclusion in northeast Indiana, she’s encouraged by the outpouring of community support she’s seen for the project so far.
For three months last winter, she traveled around the region, speaking with business groups and organizations about the purpose of the pledge and rallying signatures for it. So far, more than 50 of the region's largest employers have signed it, including Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry.
Some businesses have even consulted YLNI to help them develop their own diversity or inclusion statements specific to their work.
“It’s created a lot of good conversations in the community with business owners and business leaders, as well as talent in our age demographic (at YLNI),” Veit says.
Crawford addresses Fort Wayne City Council with members of YLNI regarding the Inclusivity Pledge.
In late December, Fort Wayne Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, asked City Council to sign the pledge, as well. All members of the council agreed, except Paul Ensley, R-1st, and Jason Arp, R-4th.
Veit hopes the overwhelming support and physical show of signatures reminds people of all backgrounds in northeast Indiana that they are valued members of local culture.
“For anyone who maybe hasn’t felt included at some point in Fort Wayne, I hope that they will read this, and know that we’ve heard you, and we feel like there are many conversations that are trying to change that,” Veit says. “If you want to get involved, there are lots of people willing to help you.”
To receive a printable version of the pledge for your office or workplace, email [email protected]