On Thursday, September 9th, the “Triangle Business Journal” hosted an awards luncheon for their class of 2021 Leaders in Diversity at The Umstead Hotel and Spa. Among this year’s winners was Lisa Perkins, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh.
As Perkins was on stage accepting her award, she shared the quote by Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Through her career, Perkins has focused on the second part of that quote: celebrating differences.
“I think it is important that we have a world where people are not just included, but people can show up as they are,” she said.
For Perkins, who has been with Catholic Charities for over 10 years, her first day with Catholic Charities was a poignant one. On November 4, 2008, Perkins walked into the Fayetteville Office as regional director, which coincided with the election of Barak Obama.
“I think representation is important.” shared Perkins. “This was a huge diversity change for our country in general.”
In her time with Catholic Charities, Perkins witnessed change occur throughout the country and formerly repressed perspectives become more widely discussed.
“I believe we now have a heightened awareness of the injustices faced by the families we serve, people of color, and people who are most vulnerable in our communities.” she shared.
Perkins also reflected on the challenges she faced in her past, both professionally and personally.
“Most people of color have been prepared through life that we will face challenges of discrimination, and when we do, we have to find a way through that problem or around. You just keep moving and push through it.” she shared.
Perkins has kept moving within Catholic Charities. She first served the Fayetteville community, then moved to serve the Durham area before becoming assistant director and, finally, the first person of color to serve as executive director.
As executive director, Perkins implements changes to ensure a strong foundation for Catholic Charities. She hopes that everyone feels like they can serve at Catholic Charities and one day lead the organization.
“My goal is to lead an agency that is representative of the diverse communities we serve.” shared Perkins. “As executive director, I established an agency DEI Policy and DEI Committee which resulted in our Engage IDEAs series for staff and volunteers.”
The monthly Engage IDEAs (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Awareness) Discussion Series provides time and space during the workday for staff and volunteers to have focused discussions on current social issues around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). During the discussion, participants view a video or audio clip related to the topic of the month. Past discussion topics have included “Microaggressions” and “How to be a Better Ally.”
In addition to the Engage IDEAs series, Perkins has worked to actively recruit and support minority front line staff, administrative leadership, and board members. Perkins has curated a diverse leadership team of 10 bright and engaging individuals. This team includes three African American individuals, two Hispanic individuals, and four women. An annual demographics survey conducted by Catholic Charities identified a similar level of diversity present throughout the agency, from front line staff to management positions. She has also shifted vendor relationships to minority-owned businesses, including placing financial investments in minority-owned banks.
Perkins credits her team in being able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.
“I have a core set of leaders who have a heart for the work, the passion for the work, and they get that it is time to do something different. When you have that type of support, it magnifies everything you could do.” shared Perkins. “When you have other people come together to make a group to figure it out, it makes everything possible.”
Perkins isn’t resting on what has been accomplished, though. She still has goals she is working toward.
While she first focused her efforts on improving Catholic Charities internally, now she is focused on the impact Catholic Charities as an agency can make on the community. She is focused on what can be done to ensure systems and policies are fair for all members of the community. This includes exploring what can be done to make sure the barriers and challenges faced by the families served by Catholic Charities are no longer present.
“We’re asking ourselves, ‘What can we do so our neighbors don’t have to face injustice?’” shared Perkins. “We want the challenges that have led to these families generationally being in poverty to be removed so our work looks different in the future.”
As Perkins walked on stage to accept her award, the song “Stand Up” from the soundtrack for the film “Harriet” played. Perkins selected this song because of one line which resonated with her, “I’m gonna stand up, Take my people with me.”
“That’s so important to me.” shared Perkins. “I really have an opportunity to lead people to a different place. Not only everyone at Catholic Charities, but also the people that we serve. If we impact them, how many people can they impact? That is how change happens.”