A Public Sector Equalizer: Clear the Way for First-Gen Professionals

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is often the office battleground for larger civil rights struggles. Now, a new fight is afoot, dealing with education and family background.

In the federal workforce, a barrier to entry and differentiator for success is socioeconomic status – especially for first-generation professionals, defined as the first in their immediate families to hold a white-collar job.

“We have to find a way to find value in different stories,” Tinisha Agramonte, former Director in the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Commerce Department, said in her NextGen 2020 Virtual Summit keynote.

Qualitative research conducted by the Office of Civil Rights and U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the federal government doesn’t offer enough support for first-generation professionals. Office obstacles include having different communication styles, navigating authority structures and struggling to network.

In the virtual environment, many audience members typed back their experience. “I can so relate!! I didn’t even know what a watercooler was when I first started,” one attendee wrote.

Business dialect challenges are reinforced by imposter syndrome, Agramonte said, which is a feeling of being unqualified for one’s position. For first-generation professionals, that sentiment is all too familiar.

The passion Agramonte carries into her work is rooted in personal experience. Growing up in Los Angeles and being raised in a working family, she had a different route to professional life than many of her colleagues.

After community college and the seven years it took to get her degree, Agramonte still faced challenges once in the workforce. Though it was years ago, she has a fresh memory of sitting down at the main table in a meeting room before being tapped on the shoulder and asked to sit in one of the side chairs lining the walls. She wasn’t there yet, she was told.

“Many times when I thought about the obstacles that I faced, they really fell along socioeconomic lines,” Agramonte said. “It could be because I’m black, it could be because I’m female, but what I know for sure it is, is because I was born poor.”

Last year, the Commerce Department launched its First Generation Professionals (FGP) Initiative, which Agramonte architected. The FGP Initiative addresses many of the office-commissioned report’s findings, including setting up networking events and workshops for first-generation professionals across multiple agencies.

Independent federal programs have also paved new routes to the workforce. President Trump signed an executive order for the federal hiring practice to expand skills-based hiring and eliminate unnecessary college requirements.

Behind these programs is the idea that a nontraditional background can foster skills that a formal education can’t. Agramonte said the idea isn’t to devalue an Ivy League education and internships; it’s that multiple roads lead to success.

Before the keynote ended, Agramonte had a final ask for attendees.

“As you go about your day to day activity as emerging leaders, as current leaders, I want you to acknowledge in everything you do, who’s hand is being acknowledged and who’s hand is being ignored?” she said.

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