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blind culture

Mario Burton on Diversity, Black History and LightHouse’s People and Culture Team

Mario Burton on Diversity, Black History and LightHouse’s People and Culture Team

Late last year LightHouse hired its first Director of People and Culture. The position is the outgrowth of our 2017 Strategic Plan, which recognized the need for our growing organization to have a strong internal voice for diversity, equity and inclusion, and to serve as a voice for creating a remarkable work culture across our organization.

Meet Mario Burton, the man totally up to this task.

What is your background?

I grew up in Alabama in a family where I once counted 13 aunts and 22 uncles. Most of us grew up on the Northside of town that was predominantly working class and working poor Black folks. Friday nights were spent at The Big House (a 5-bedroom, canary-yellow tri-level with a downward sloping driveway) where singing, listening to the Blues, gambling, drinking and cussing was as normal as rain. Teachers, government workers, administrators, janitors, and construction workers created families, saw struggles and celebrated life alongside sex workers, drug users and con artists.  This was my Village growing up and I was privileged to be raised by them. I learned how to write poetry from ex-cons, to never lose my inquisitive mind from elders and to actively listen to church ladies who came over to spread the neighborhood news.

Where did your interest in working towards diversifying organizations come from?

I took a course as an undergrad on Employment Law and became fascinated with the human side of advocating for people. I was especially interested in how groups of like-minded people could gather together in the spirit of mutual purpose to change legislation. In practice, this interest grew as I found that when leadership lacks diversity, there is a lack of intentionality, financial backing, and consistent response to address institutional biases that manifest into discrimination. Lots of organizations talk the talk but fewer have active plans, cultures and strategic investment in change. I wanted to change that.

In your experience, what are the top three differences when you compare an organization that has a diverse workforce, to that where people are mainly from the same race, socioeconomic background and/or general age group?

Hmm. I think a main concern that I notice in organizations that lack diversity is the perpetuation of glass ceilings for women and people of color that are justified with language of “not being the best fit” or decisions to place their upward mobility on the backburner while simultaneously promoting people that look like or express similar views as the leadership that’s in place.

Secondly, there can be issues with how staff engage with clients. Some people step into service work with the mindset that they are good people doing good things and they shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced or made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or generally unappreciated. I’m of the mindset that this type of person is more common than not and reflects a history of organizations providing platforms for members of privileged groups to show sympathy instead of existing alongside and in collaboration with the people we serve. A lack of diversity and education around equity and inclusion allows these dynamics to exist.

Finally, diversity allows members of majority groups to be challenged in their worldviews. Black men and women wearing their natural hair, adding some pizazz to their business casual attire, and speaking in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) shouldn’t be compared to Euro centric standards of professionalism that places hierarchy on cultural norms. We have to interrupt these biases and not just for Black folks but all marginalized and undeserved folks whose existence is criticized as being not enough or lacking in some way or another.

Why did you choose LightHouse?

Some people in my friend circles thought that I chose LightHouse due to its location in the Bay area. This is absolutely not true. While I like the city, I also value not being taxed at some of the highest rates known to humankind on top of extremely high rents. I can only imagine the trips I could take with that money. Brazil, South Africa and South Korea are still on my bucket list.

My interest in LightHouse is specifically on working to more fully become an advocate for persons with disabilities. While I’ve worked with persons with developmental disabilities and persons who are Deaf for a few years, I’ve found a major gap in my understanding of various abilities and in finding how I can best show up to ensure staff, clients and other stakeholders are able to fully participate in their work without having to ask permission to do.

What are your top three first priorities at LightHouse and how do you plan to achieve these goals?

Was I supposed to have priorities? I just came here for donuts.

First on my list is to create a strategic plan with the People and Culture team that maps out the steps we plan to take in relation to enhancing and being more accountable to the workers at LightHouse. We’ve already started a document to anchor our actions to more intentional strategy.

Secondly, I plan to collaborate in the forming of different employee groups who focus on specific areas where we can improve employee relations. This is already in the works.

Finally, and most importantly, the People and Culture team has had a discussion about our experiences with an ideal HR or People and Culture. We shared memories of company picnics for the whole family; retreats where individuals can meet senior leadership and hear about long-term goals for the organization; professional development opportunities that allowed staff to meet persons from different departments, and even recognition and rewards programs that include monthly drawings for things like airline tickets, restaurant gift cards, staycations and other goodies. We spoke of an HR team that truly embodied the people function within organizations. We are working collectively to create this kind of People and Culture team and we are eager to collaborate across the entire organization to bring a shared vision to life.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month serves its purpose for those of us who are open and willing to listen. However, I want Black History all year, in classrooms, in Board rooms, in management, in neighborhoods and in relationships with non-Black people.

LightHouse said publicly that it supports and aligns itself with the Black Lives Matter movement. What key things is the organization doing to stamp out any white privilege or systemic racism that may, or may not, exist and develop the culture to a committed anti-racist one?

This is an interesting question. I want to speak specifically to efforts that our team within People and Culture are taking. This choice is strategic as I think we have to move beyond addressing organizations as persons and instead, really focus on the efforts of specific leadership persons and/or teams in making change. One of the main tools that we are co-developing is a BIDE (Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity) Task Force. This group will be critical in designing plans that call out, resolve and monitor concerns around systemic racism as well as other phobias and isms that interfere with our ability to honor one another’s dignity.

Additionally, I’m not aware of everything happening at LightHouse but I know the Racial Equity Book and Movie Club use their space to learn and dialogue about race-based concerns. Also, different departments offer their programming in Spanish, which increases access to participation for Spanish-Speaking persons. If nothing else, I hope that this Black History Month is a reflection of Black women, Black LGBTQ+ persons, Black persons with disabilities, Black persons of mixed race ancestry, Black seniors and the beauty of aging and how Blackness, like all other demographics, isn’t monolithic but as diverse and varied as a Crayola box of crayons. You know the one with the sharpener built into the box.

LightHouse’s Ann Wai-Yee Kwong Believes in the Importance of Addressing Culture for Success in Blindness

LightHouse’s Ann Wai-Yee Kwong Believes in the Importance of Addressing Culture for Success in Blindness

The transition from childhood to young adulthood can be a difficult time in any young person’s life—but for those with limited resources, or a lack of information about what resources are available, the transition can become overwhelmingly difficult. For many students who are blind or have low vision, especially those facing cultural adversity, the information and resources regarding next steps towards a productive and successful future after high school simply are not provided. Most of the support given to students who are blind or have low vision and their families is offered through the public-school system. However, because there is a limited number of TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired) and other qualified VI educators in public schools, resources can be limited and are often stretched between school districts, making the actual time a blind or low vision student spends with these VI educators and mentors very minimal. Of these students, many are first generation American, introducing the additional difficulties of struggling with language barriers. These students are constantly having to balance learning to adapt to American culture in their schools where they are receiving an education, maintaining homelife culture within their families, and navigating this new world of blind culture and building their adaptive education and independence skillsets.

LightHouse Transition Program Specialist Ann Wai-Yee Kwong runs programs made up of trainings and informational workshops—some of which are offered in Spanish to support the blind and low vision Spanish speaking community—for young adults and their families to prepare for their futures and the transition from childhood into adulthood. Ann’s education and professional experience coupled with her own personal experiences as a blind woman who emigrated from Hong Kong as a child make her highly qualified in this area. Her unique brand of passion and empathy stemmed from her own transition experience makes her the ideal mentor to help pave a successful path towards furthering education and employment for our youth.

Growing up as a blind, first generation Chinese American in Los Angeles, Ann had little knowledge of what resources were available to her outside of what public school is legally obligated to provide.

“I had never heard of the landmark legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), nor learned about disability history,” Ann shares.

Historically, in many cultures across the globe, disabilities of any sort have been portrayed in limiting and negative terms. Blindness is often equated through language as a lack of knowledge. Phrases like “the blind leading the blind” create harmful societal expectations and stereotypes, many times leading to a lack of self-worth or self-confidence within the blindness community.

“It was not until I went to college that I discovered many of my peers with disabilities also shared, for the first time, the experience of feeling empowered as we cultivated disability community and found pride in our identities.  Subsequently, although the ADA has provided many educational rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities, there remains a great deal of work around shifting the negative societal perceptions of disabilities as well as in employment, where the employment rate of persons with disabilities, 19.3%, continues to lag far behind that of non-disabled persons, 66.3% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

This motivated Ann to build a career educating youth who are blind or have low vision about what blindness resources are available and how to make the most of these opportunities. She knows that understanding your options and developing healthy, positive social and personal ideologies about what it means to be blind are essential in working towards a successful future.

Over the years Ann has partnered with various blindness advocacy groups, government agencies like the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) as well as many VI educators. These partnerships have catalyzed her passion and informed her work with youth who are blind or have low vision, which then molded and inspired the programs she has started at LightHouse.

“The Youth Employment Services (YES) program and curriculum is based on research, best practices, and the nationally recognized Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). I strive to provide meaningful work-based experiences for youth to fill the gap for employers, creating a talented pool of future professionals.”

While creating equal opportunities and building a dynamic skillset and experience for blind and low vision youth is the mission of the work Ann does, for her, it is the social and emotional growth that is the most rewarding accomplishment.

“The best part of my job is building trust with my students and watching them build that confidence, because that is transferable. Once you instill that confidence in someone, that can’t be taken away,” Ann believes.

“My most rewarding experience while working at LightHouse is the genuine sense of community and family, we are able to build, especially during the YES Summer Academy when staff and students spend four full weeks working, learning, and living under one roof. This heartfelt sentiment is also expressed by our students, and I had not previously felt this in other blindness programs in my prior work, making this unique to LightHouse.”

The work Ann and the Youth Programs department is doing is starting to change the misconceptions of the lives people who are blind or have low vision can live, for both the blind community and those who are sighted. Ideas for new groundbreaking programs and plans to grow and expand the reach of Youth Programs is constantly underway.

Ann is continuing to further educate herself in the field of education, leadership, and advocacy. She is currently working towards her PhD in Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her growing knowledge and passion are packed into every LightHouse program she runs and is reflected in the future of every student she mentors. Because of incredible mentors like Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, the future of kids everywhere who are blind or have low vision is bolder than it’s ever been.

To learn more about our transition programs for youth, contact Ann at AKwong@lighthouse-sf.org or by phone or text at 415-484-8377.