Theresa Fletcher-Brown currently serves as Director of EEO and Compliance Programs at the Chicago Transit Authority. In this position, Theresa blends over 20-years of experience in the public transportation industry with her educational background—having earned her Bachelor of Business at DePaul University, completing a Masters, Legal Studies (MLS) degree from Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law in 2024—and work as a certified DEIB Practitioner.
In early April, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Theresa virtually about her illustrious and wide-spanning career which is detailed below. This conversation is an invaluable resource for DEI Practitioners interested in concrete insights as to how the CTA has navigated and hosted inclusive conversations across its large and multifaceted workforce. It is also a useful resource for leaders interested in understanding how unconscious bias, microinvalidations, and our own lived experience are interconnected and a crucial dynamic in effective management.
David: Tell me more a bit about yourself along with an overview of your professional history.
Theresa: I have the pleasure of serving as the Director of EEO and Compliance Programs for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). In this role, I am responsible for DEI initiatives. It was an unconventional path to getting here. I worked for the CTA as a Special Projects Coordinator for the Office of the President before relocating to Arizona for nearly ten years. When I returned to Chicago and the CTA in 2013, I first worked in Rail Operations as the General Manager, Customer Service. My path to becoming a DEI practitioner really began with me returning to the CTA. From my role in Rail Customer Service, I moved into an Employee Relations role where I worked very closely with the EEO unit. After that, I worked in the Training and Workforce Development Department before being asked to join the EEO unit as Director.
In retrospect my path is unconventional but has ultimately led to a position that is my natural calling. I enjoy being a DEI practitioner and professional— it gives me joy to use my voice to provide allyship to marginalized communities.
In my capacity as Director of EEO and Compliance Programs, I oversee three primary compliance areas. The first is EEO, which is heavily regulated by the federal body that is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the CTA, we have a vibrant EEO program and policy based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ensures employees have essential workers’ rights and are employed free of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace. My second area is enforcing the CTA’s Drug and Alcohol Policy and Testing Program. The CTA is a drug free workplace. We need to ensure our operators are performing their duties and enforcing this policy ensures those means. The third area is American Disability Act (ADA) compliance. While I am not responsible for the programming of CTA’s ADA initiatives, I have one dedicated staff member who conducts ADA audits. If anyone from the disabled community experiences an issue that they perceive was related to their disability, we will work with various CTA bus and rail work locations to ensure that any issues or concerns are addressed as necessary.
David: What is one accomplishment with the CTA that you are most proud of?
Theresa: In thinking back to my journey to this role, it has become clear to me that my passion is for making sure people understand their rights in the workplace along with making sure employees can bring their whole authentic selves to the workplace.
Reflecting further on this question, I am excited to have the opportunity to speak about Common Ground. Common Ground is a discussion we launched in 2021 as a safe place for employees to have conversations about workplace concerns, especially as they relate to our work culture and the environment in which our employees report to each day. It is an ongoing virtual discussion about DEIB in the workplace we launched so that employees could pull up a virtual chair and learn more about what it means to work in an inclusive workforce.
CTA is the second largest public transit provider in North America, so we have a very large workforce of 10,000 plus employees. We literally move Chicago! With that type of heavy lift, it is important that employees feel as though they can bring their authentic selves into the workplace without feeling othered for their differences. I feel I gave a voice to Common Ground, and I am very proud of that. We are still going strong—we have had 22 Common Ground discussions since its launch. Our session in March of this year addressed the topic of microaggressions and microinclusions and was very well received. This virtual discussion is a platform we use to discuss and reinforce our diversity initiatives. And, of course, partnering with the Illinois Diversity Council has expanded our ability to bring more resources to the CTA.
CTA has a DEI Task Force that is headed by the Chief Administration Officer, who has been leading CTA’s DEI work since 2018 at the request of our President. When I joined the Task Force in 2020, what I noticed was that we were meeting at the top and having discussions then sending heritage month celebration notices, but we were not doing things that were reaching our mass audience, which is front line personnel. I asked myself how might we meet our masses? The beauty of Common Ground is that it was launched during the pandemic. The pandemic created opportunities, and one of those was the opportunity to meet more frequently virtually. Before, it was hard to find a space to have everyone come to one location- for example, having everyone come to our headquarters. Being able to meet virtually allowed us to have the conversation at multiple levels and promote them in a way where we could encourage all CTA employees to come into the virtual space.
David: I think people will be interested in knowing how you pulled this feat off! It can be difficult to have a brave or safe conversation, especially with that large of an employee base. How do you set the floor to have these conversations?
Theresa: One of the things I asked my manager, the Chief Administration Officer, for was permission to develop a subcommittee as part of his DEI Task Force. You have a lot of folks at the top sitting on the Task Force, but I needed people who were closer to the everyday conversations of workplace concerns. I asked for permission to start a DEIB Advisory Council. I wanted managers from various departments, folks in operations, maintenance teammates, you name it. When I launched it in 2021, I went to the department heads and asked them to recommend one to two individuals from their areas of responsibility and told them what I needed. I told them: I need a one-to-two-year commitment with these individuals, I want them to commit to meeting with us on a routine basis, and together we will work as a council and write our mission statement.
In 2021 when we first launched, we made a determination that it would be too cumbersome to unpack these conversations over one month, or over the course of a one-hour session. Instead, we would schedule umbrella topics for the quarter, and we would unpack that topic over the course of the quarter. We broached this as a micro-learning opportunity. The learning would unpack each month’s lesson and remind learners what happened the previous month, and eventually be tied together and brought to a close. We did this four times over 2021. Our first topic was an easy one: unconscious bias. And I describe that as easy because of the way we framed it. The truth is we all have bias—we come with that, it is our brain’s way of processing and short-circuiting the information we are bombarded with daily to keep us sane. There is a lot of scientific information around bias. What we discussed is how do we disrupt the bias of other people, such as preferring to hire people that look like us, or that think like us. When we moved on, we talked about institutions of structural racism. Especially in racially marginalized communities, there are issues that tend to stigmatize black and brown communities as the fault of people in those communities. There are, however, institutions, such as over policing, banking, and housing, that contribute to the wealth gap in this great country we live in. It is important to talk about those underlying structures because people who have not done research assume it is a situation or condition of the way those communities live.
We stepped back in 2023. We wanted to rebrand and focus on increasing participation. I mentioned we are a 10,000 plus person workforce and we were frequently getting 30 to 40 people coming to the virtual table who were interested in expanding and increasing their understanding of DEI. This year, however, I wanted to be more intentional about how we could get more people involved and from various parts of the organization. Last month for our women’s conference, I was able to request and receive permission to bring a bus and train operator to the in-person event the ILDC organized. Can you imagine the impact of that opportunity to be in a room full of 200 other women from various roles and industries from this great city and state?
David: What is one DEI issue that you want more attention drawn to?
Theresa: When I first thought about this question, I went to microaggressions. It is not a new term, but many folks still do not grasp what it means to give or for someone to experience one. As leaders lead and organically rise, it becomes tougher to see blind spots. If you do not stay connected to DEI, you may short circuit in the way that you respond and view things, and that can lead to microaggressions occurring in the workplace. The word micro indicates something small, but there is nothing small about what a person experiences when they encounter a microaggression in the workplace. I am saying this because I experienced a microaggression at the hands of a vendor, and it continues to bother me that I did not address the situation because I am very certain it occurred across racial lines. A person of color, a person with a disability, someone who identifies as LGBTQ+, all may experience them over and over again in the workplace which is detrimental to their psychological safety and how they show up at work.
David: There is a term I recently heard that I love that is microinvalidation.
Theresa: Yes! At the Women’s Conference, there was a person on the panel, Lorri Newson, that works with our partner organization PACE. She is a black female CFO, and that is a position that does not typically get passed down to a woman, or to a woman of color. She talked about her experience being invalidated and gave the example of having coworkers say to her “I am going to have this other person sign this agreement” on documents where she was the executive signer. She mentioned asking, “well, who was in charge of signing this document before?” I thought that was so important because you have to approach these topics with empathy, and asking the question helps the other person understand whether or not they are thinking about this rationally or if they are unintentionally enacting a microinvalidation or microaggression.
When you combine unconscious bias and microaggressions, what you sometimes see is a person in a leadership position that may have certain biases they are unaware of. Your biases help you understand what is safe and what you can speak on, and these come from our lived experiences. Your background, your education, your political beliefs, the information you consume, all of those dimensions help to create your bias. If you are a leader, and let’s say for the purpose of this example, you are a white male leader, you may know very little about people of color, their culture, or how they show up to work. You may come to work every day with a ‘need to get things done’ mentality or say I don’t have time for the pleasantries. However, maybe this is one of the holiest days of the year for someone on your team that is celebrating Good Friday, or celebrating Passover, and you just gave them a big project that they need to deliver by the end of the day. In this situation, you might be operating from your unconscious biases by assigning that project without considering your team member’s needs. All of this is tied together, and leaders should understand that they need to be aware of their competencies, as well as being conscious of their cultural competency.
David: Where do you see the DEI space moving?
Theresa: One of the questions you gave me in preparation for this meeting mentioned the George Floyd murder. I looked back at that question to make sure it included the word murder. It is so important for us to speak truth to power. What happened to George Floyd was unconscionable, it was a tragic incident that should never have happened. I do not think anyone can deny that things have changed since then. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but a lot that has already changed. Organizations have begun initiating their DEI counsels and hiring DEI SMEs and creating a wave of change, so there is no doubt that this one incident acted as a catapult to the DEIB efforts that we see underway today.
When I look at media and commercials in particular, I see so much inclusion that I never saw as a person of color before. Whether it is Walmart or other big box organizations, you see people literally sitting at a table and everyone looks different and hails from different ethnic backgrounds. I know that DEIB is here to stay as long as practitioners continue the work they are doing, and that will hopefully bring about the change that we need in our society. I do not think you can put the proverbial genie back in the bottle, this is here to stay. Before DEI was just those three letters, but we are now expanding the definition to include belonging and accessibility, inclusivity. We keep expanding the definition along with expanding who shows up, and I think that wave of change will continue.
About the Author
David Sanchez-Aguilera, PHR is a Human Resources Program Manager with PuzzleHR and Chair of the Illinois Diversity Council’s Editorial Committee.