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NUWC Division Newport, NAVSEA leaders foster discussions on diversity and inequality

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | July 28, 2020

NEWPORT, R.I. —

As protests against racial inequality are ongoing throughout the country, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport remains committed to providing a welcoming, inclusive and empowering workplace for people of all races, genders, and sexual identities.

“I have walked through this world for 54 years as a white male. It would be inappropriate for me to say, ‘I feel your pain’ to any minority group that has been and continues to suffer, but I can say I’m extremely troubled by the prejudices that continue to exist in our society,” Division Newport Technical Director Ron Vien said during an online chat on June 9. “As a line manager for 21 years, I’ve had some great training opportunities to learn about both conscious and unconscious biases. I’m committed to continuing to drive for a work environment that embraces diversity and inclusiveness.

“Throughout all my training, I find the greatest lessons I have learned are from talking with those who can help me better understand the world from their perspective. Only by exposing yourself and opening your mind to other viewpoints can you grow as a person.”

That line of thinking is what led Vien to hold a chat with the workforce to discuss the death of George Floyd and society’s subsequent response. Vien’s intent with the forum was to foster those discussions by hearing some of the stories of prejudice employees have faced in their lives so everyone can gain a better understanding of life from another’s perspective.

“One of my takeaways from the chat and the livestream was that there’s a lot that we need to learn from the experiences of our workforce, and there’s a lot of work that we need to do to move forward,” said Vima Manfredo, an engineer in the Combat Systems Future Capabilities Branch of the Undersea Warfare (USW) Combat Systems Department. “We have been taking some steps in addressing these issues but there’s a lot more work to do. Some of this work is addressing the uncomfortable facts that we haven’t done enough to ensure there are no barriers.”

Manfredo, who also is Division Newport’s special emphasis program manager (SEPM) for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender employee resource group, shared in the online chat a story of discrimination she has faced. Her story was from 2010 when she first began working at Division Newport.

“I was walking toward my building and ran into a line manager. They struck a conversation with me, and once I said I came from Puerto Rico, this person said, ‘Oh you're one of our number hires to pad the diversity numbers,’” Manfredo said. “I chose this story over others because of how deflating it felt.

“It is important for us as an organization to be careful to not tokenize individuals in our quest to become a diverse organization. If we hire a diverse workforce but then diminish their accomplishments, then we did nothing.”

Manfredo recently discussed inclusion, diversity-building communities with other warfare centers, and what it means to be a better bystander in an internal podcast. During Vien’s online chat, Manfredo and a few others asked what specifically Division Newport is doing to foster an inclusive culture.

Vien noted that he and Commanding Officer Capt. Chad Hennings regularly meet with Deputy Director, Equal Employment Opportunity Matthew Souza, to discuss diversity and inclusion issues. A meeting between leadership and the command’s seven SEPMs was held on July 9 to discuss future efforts to improve Division Newport’s culture. Topics included recruiting and outreach, indoctrination, mentoring, SEPM engagement, training and promotions. The SEPMS will identify teams to work on these areas and develop action plans.

After other employees shared stories during the chat, Manfredo posted a series of observations as how Division Newport can maintain momentum on this effort:

  1. Branch heads, division heads, etc. should have training and ability cultivation into how to have uncomfortable conversations in their branches. These conversations include matters of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
  2. We must continue to share our stories (things like “The Knot,” a storytelling series by and for the workforce).
  3. Our workforce should be provided the tools to combat biases and all the –isms. This goes beyond training. I am talking about checking in, building a space where we can talk openly without the fear of repercussions.
  4. We each must commit ourselves to be better, to learn and to combat our own biases.
  5. Release a list of resources (books, articles) from which employees can learn, with a particular emphasis on intersectional identities.

A number of these efforts, both at the Division Newport and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) level, are underway and in various stages of development. In August, NAVSEA is planning to broadcast an enterprise-wide Town Hall to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

Sravanthi “Sree” Bodana, head of the Information Systems and Data Analytics Branch in the USW Platforms and Payload Integration Department, is a member of the NAVSEA Inclusion and Engagement Council and previously was the Division Newport SEPM for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Bodana is one of 25 members on the council made up of employees from across all of NAVSEA. It is divided into subcommittees with specific focus areas, including diversity, inclusion, engagement and communications. Her project with the council directly addresses Manfredo’s first observation.

“My inspiration for the training objective came about from being a minority here at Division Newport. There were some off-color remarks I heard over the years,” Bodana said. “Supervisors can make a lot of difference by maintaining a good work environment to minimize such remarks and other exclusionary behavior. They need to be well-versed in conscious and unconscious bias.”

When Bodana became a branch head in 2018, she attended a Propel Warfare Centers workshop that addresses accountability, the merit promotion systems and EEO. According to Bodana, though, the training did not address helping supervisors to become aware of their own unconscious and conscious biases.

“We all have them. Once you’re aware of your biases, you have to do some self-reflection and work through them,” Bodana said. “You have to learn how to not let them affect hiring, recruiting, promotions and project placement. Supervisors should lead by example, exhibit objective behavior and hold people accountable for exclusionary behavior. Small acts of inclusion and caring go a long way in promoting a healthy, diverse work environment.  As with Ms. Manfredo’s experience, exclusionary behavior whether intentional or unintentional can encompass all levels of an organization.”

Bodana is collaborating with other supervisors and line managers to brainstorm on expanding awareness to teams at the organizational level. The difficult conversations need to happen at every level, she said.

The mission of the council is to advise and assist NAVSEA to recruit, retain, recognize achievement and professionally develop a diverse, high-performing workforce that promotes excellence as well as diversity and inclusion throughout the organization.

“When Vice Adm. [Tom] Moore and I established the council in October 2018, we didn’t know what to expect. We gave the team a wide berth and allowed the members to identify initiatives we could use to build a more inclusive workforce culture,” NAVSEA Executive Director Jim Smerchansky said in a recent all-hands message. “They self-organized into groups and have been making constant progress ever since. I am really happy with the path the council is on and am appreciative of the efforts of the members and those who have supported them as they worked this enterprise-wide initiative.”

Among the council’s accomplishments is building an Inclusion Competency Model that will allow people at all levels to better understand the need for an inclusive culture. A feedback mechanism for current employees who interview for NAVSEA jobs and are not selected also has been developed. This tool provides employees ways to grow professionally to improve their chances of being selected for future vacancies. The group also has developed an internal website page at the NAVSEA level.

Various teams of champions, composed of NAVSEA senior executives, have been established to assist council members with challenges associated with several initiatives. Bodana and her group are working these champions to ensure training messages are consistent across NAVSEA.

While Bodana has seen firsthand what the council and others dedicated to equality have accomplished, she knows there still is plenty of work to do.

“My overall experience has been amazing. This group of people, they’re really amazing, they’re intelligent, have an open mind and everyone knows they have biases too. We all have them,” Bodana said. “We’re working toward the same goal. The world would be a much better place if everyone had those same ideals about how you treat each other.

“We’re all on this council, we all applied, we had to write these narratives, but just hearing some of the members’ stories is eye-opening and motivating to do something about this. Enough is enough. We’re in 2020 and this shouldn’t be happening.”

NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater  systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869.  Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

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