Among the toughest challenges industry leaders working to advance diversity, equity and inclusion face has to do with eggshells, and not those left over from cooking, suggests Tracey MacRae, campus executive chef, assistant director of culinary and dining systems at the University of Washington. Rather, when good intentions around DEI stop at quotas and mandates, employees can be left feeling confused, polarized and like they’re walking on eggshells.
“The challenge is really significant,” MacRae says. “There are a lot of things happening very quickly, it’s a lot to adjust to and the minutia of it can be problematic. There’s often disparity between well-intentioned folks handing down language guidelines and mandates around DEI and those receiving the information and mandates. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to educate people about differences and the importance of equity and respect. But if we’re not providing sufficient tools, training and adjustment time, such initiatives don’t succeed. Ultimately, people won’t engage or speak up because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and being ostracized. As leaders, we have to put ourselves in the place of associates, all of whom come to work with very different life experiences, and create change with empathy, understanding and patience.”
MacRae joined the University of Washington as a sous chef 20 years ago, after spending 15 years working her way up through several kitchens and, eventually, owning her own restaurant. She has witnessed and experienced dismissiveness of women, people of color and people with disabilities in an industry that she says, despite some gains, continues to struggle with equity and inclusion.
“We’ve made some progress with diversity but less progress has been made with equity, and inclusion follows from that,” she says. “Equitable pay is part of it, but for me, another way of looking at equity is whether everyone is being asked to jump the fence at the same height. If so, not everyone’s going to make it over without a helping hand. It’s not just about hiring women, or black or brown faces. It’s about considering things that can make people feel excluded in the workplace and creating a path forward for them.”
Food, MacRae stresses, provides a powerful platform on which to build equity and inclusion. Part of her strategy targets inclusive community building via programs such as Recipes from Home, which caters to the university’s international population and also informs staff about diverse food cultures. Another targets food justice by ensuring menus include price points for individuals who may be food insecure.
“Food justice connects strongly to equity and inclusion. It means we’re meeting people where they are,” she says. “If someone is hungry or has a terrible home life and I’m expecting some sort of great work performance out of them, for example, I’m not looking at the big picture. That part of being inclusive of people and their needs, and supporting each other in a food community, is deeply important to me. It needs to be part of the conversation around DEI.”
Campus Executive Chef, Assistant Director of Culinary and Dining Systems