Inclusion Starts at Home

By Audrey Roofeh ’00

couple cutting wedding cake

When I meet with a new client for the first time, I usually have a set of slides I use to introduce our team. I used to use a professional photo of me in a suit. And one day I dropped that picture and added this portrait from my parents’ wedding day, which says more about how I approach my work for them than any headshot could.

My story, and how I came to do work on equity, inclusion, diversity, and accessibility, starts in Chicago in 1975. My father, Jahanshah Roofeh, was a recent immigrant from Iran, working at Rush Hospital. That’s where he met his colleague Elizabeth Mary Margaret Mills Jennings. She said he looked like actor Omar Sharif. They fell in love, got married, and had three kids. I was the oldest.

For me, being a part of an Iranian-Irish-American household offered the chance to think about and to experience being an insider and an outsider, even within our own family.

For many years I didn’t talk about my background. I didn’t know how. Then I observed people describe themselves as half-white or half-something. I took on that explanation, but I learned that being half always meant not being enough for someone else. What I realized as I got older was that I am not half anything. I’m double.

In some places I’m white as can be, and that’s easy as can be. I don’t notice my race at all. No one makes any offhand remarks; I don’t suffer any consequence, big or small, because of it. And other times, when I stand out as Iranian American, I can see how my race and my ethnicity affect me, how I’m treated differently. That double identity gave me the gift of seeing my own whiteness and how I uphold systems of oppression. This experience helped me to talk about ways I am privileged as well as the ways I’m charged for being — or appearing — nonwhite. That’s not easy when others have already decided what box I belong in.

This is what I tell clients when we begin working together. My experience being the child of Liz and Jahan is that it’s hard to deeply understand how people experience exclusion or respect unless you can empathize with others’ experiences. And you can’t empathize with others’ experiences unless you can name it and recognize it.

Being able to recognize what makes people feel a sense of belonging is the gift my parents gave me. Now I share that with others by helping people understand one another’s experiences and how each person has value at work.

This was the gift of a lifetime. 

Audrey Roofeh ’00 is the CEO of Mariana Strategies, a workplace culture consulting firm focused on creating safe and inclusive workplaces.

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