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The Cookout: Black CHG employees create a safe space to network

The Cookout creating a safe space for Black employees at CHG
Black CHG employees share a Thanksgiving lunch.

At CHG, our culture creates a community of inclusion and encourages our people to bring their whole selves to work. That’s why we give our people the opportunity to form or participate in Employee Network Groups, or ENGs for short.

Employee Network Groups allow us space to share our interests with like-minded colleagues. There are dozens of ENGs, ranging from arts enthusiasts to Star Wars fans, professional development, and wellness devotees. The Cookout is an Employee Network Group founded by Black CHG employees to create a safe space especially for them.

A warm welcome

Like a little kid before the first day of school, I was nervous about joining my first Zoom meeting of CHG’s Employee Network Group, The Cookout —a group created to give Black employees a place to network, vent, laugh, and feel safe.

The first thing you should know about my experience is I’m not black. In fact, I’m not a person of color at all. I was interested in the group after CHG CEO Scott Beck held a company-wide video chat to discuss racism and CHG’s commitment to diversity. I wanted to learn more about my Black colleagues and events they might be coordinating that could help me become a better ally.

I wasn’t alone that day. Group co-founder Melissa Reid warmly welcomed more than 50 CHG employees to the meeting. We talked about Scott’s message, and one of the group organizers encouraged us to watch the video, “I Am Not Your Negro,” in preparation for next month’s meeting. The meeting ended, but I wanted to know more about the group and the people who organized it.

The Cookout: Black employees create a safe space to network

The Cookout ENG is a safe space for Black CHG employees

The Cookout is the brainchild of Melissa Reid, administrative coordinator with our CompHealth office. Last summer, she and a couple of Black co-workers were chatting about how the company needed more Black representation. “We don’t have a safe space, anywhere we can just come together and be ourselves,” they agreed.

She told her colleagues they should form an Employee Network Group. If her friends would be the officers, Melissa would support them. Regine Azemard, CompHealth sales consultant, walked by just then. The two women didn’t really know each other but Regine also wanted a way for Black employees to connect. When her colleagues backed out, Melissa convinced Regine she should take a leadership role. Regine just happened to know the perfect person to round out their leadership team – Carm Benson, another sales consultant on the CompHealth team.

They were ready to start the paperwork that would move CHG to a new level of racial awareness.

In its application, each Employee Network Group is required to have a mission statement. The mission statement for The Cookout is:

“The Cookout will provide a safe space for Black CHG employees to network, socialize, and support one another. Our goal is to be a visible face for Black employees throughout CHG, without it being broken down by birth nation. We hope to provide a space to enjoy the diversity of the Black staff of CHG.”

The Black experience

Melissa says it took lots of listening on the part of company administrators and plenty of back and forth to help leaders begin to see what the Black experience is like at CHG. Leaders were especially concerned with the knowledge Black employees felt they had no safe space.

“Regine and I are both going to school,” Melissa shares. “Once, I booked a meeting room so I could have a one-on-one with her about a course I was taking.” Later, someone pulled Regine aside and wanted to know why the women were in a meeting room and what they were discussing. Both women felt if white women had been meeting, there would have been no questions.

They laugh, now, and say it’s an example of something Black people run into frequently. Whether they are shopping, eating out, or in a meeting, Carm says for her, the “Rule of 3” always applies.

The Cookout ENG is a safe space for Black CHG employees

“If you have three or more Black people together, white people think something must be up,” she explains.

“We’re not planning a coup,” Melissa adds.

The women laugh, but I am dumbfounded. I have never in my life encountered a situation like that or ever even had to worry about it — at work or in the community. Melissa says with The Cookout, “We just wanted it to feel like a bunch of friends hanging out during lunch without it being an issue.”

A group is born

All three women admit they were shocked when their application to become an Employee Network Group was approved. “It says a lot for our company,” Melissa says. I joined thinking with a name like The Cookout, there must be food involved somewhere. I was only partially right.

“A cookout is a Black barbeque with family and close friends invited into that space — just like with white people,” Melissa explains. “On social media, whenever a white artist does something that supports Black people or is down with our cause we say, ‘He’s invited to the cookout.’” The person “gets it.”

Getting recruits to join the new group turned out to be much harder than any of the organizers anticipated. They left flyers on the desks of Black colleagues but got no response.

“I think a lot of people were scared what their teammates would say if they started coming,” Carm says. “Maybe they didn’t think they needed a network outside of their teams.”

New employees were excited to meet others and readily accepted the invitation. The Cookout held its first meeting last fall. The group consisted of about 10-12 regulars who met monthly for lunch together, as well as occasional Happy Hour gatherings. They also planned a quarterly service project to extend their visibility to the community at large.

Tragedy leads to awareness

Then came COVID-19, followed by the tragic death of George Floyd. The place for Black CHG employees to feel safe, to network, and to mingle with people who understood their pain and their frustration disappeared into cyberspace.

Scott Beck broke the silence. His company-wide message of respect for all and promise to increase Black opportunity and awareness at CHG struck a chord.

“We went from 20 members, and then that first meeting after Scott spoke we had 50,” Melissa says. “There are a lot of people in the group who don’t quite understand what the group is about.”

The Cookout is a safe place for black employees to network. All three founders stress everyone is welcome. But they also explain The Cookout is not intended as a place for white people to learn about racism — that’s something they need to do on their own. The Cookout is a place to talk about pop culture, television, coping with micro-aggressions, and just be yourself. It’s about building a network and showing support.

A way to network, socialize, and make a difference

Not only does Melissa enjoy the chance to participate in service projects, she also loves that The Cookout gives her the opportunity to make new friends. “As a business partner, I’m very much secluded from the rest of the company,” Melissa shares. “There are people who work with me I never would have made friends with but now I talk to them regularly.”

Carm adds, “Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re really a part of anything. This gives us another option.” She especially enjoys the opportunity to hang out with Cookout members outside of work. Regine says the networking opportunity is the draw for her.

The Cookout volunteered to send members like Regine Azmard to a local school’s reading event.

As they look to the future, Melissa says her goals for The Cookout are philanthropic. “COVID isn’t going to last forever,” she shares. “I want to make change in our community. I want to do more of what we initially planned in terms of volunteer work.”

Carm says she wants the group to grow, especially the number of Black employees participating. “I want to personally meet every Black person in our company.” Regine adds, “I hope for the group to be a face for the Black employees in the company and to be known as a safe space. Hopefully, this group can be the catalyst to break down barriers.”

About the author

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones

JJ loves writing and hates cooking. When she’s not sharing stories about the remarkable people of CHG, you’ll probably find her reading, hiking, or on an adventure with the grandkids.

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