Equity, diversity and inclusion at Fermilab: a conversation with Sandra Charles, Jimmy McLeod and Jeomar Montelon

In July, Fermilab welcomed two new staff members to the Fermilab Office of Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer, Sandra Charles.

Jimmy McLeod focuses on diversity outreach and workforce development for Fermilab. He comes to the lab most recently from American Airlines, where he worked on the company’s inclusion and diversity efforts, representing and addressing the wide range of needs of workers employed by a global corporation. Prior to that, McLeod worked in higher education, supporting college students in leadership and career development.

Jeomar Montelon is Fermilab’s diversity and inclusion specialist. Before Fermilab, he worked for the healthcare tech company Jellyvision, where he built a diversity and inclusion program from the ground up. He also spent two years in Morocco as part of a youth development program in the Peace Corps, supporting people with disabilities, and worked for two years at Loyola University Chicago as a study-abroad advisor.

Sandra Charles was recently appointed as the lab’s chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer. She also continues to be responsible for the acquisition of talent for the lab’s workforce and internship programs as WDRS deputy head.


What is your role at Fermilab?

McLeod: I’m making folks aware of Fermilab and opportunities in STEM at Chicago entities that focus on diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging within a STEM space. These include the city colleges, existing undergrad and graduate programs, and nonprofit organizations. We’re looking to historically black colleges and some of the minority-serving institutions as a source of talent for our visiting-faculty initiatives and internships.

I’m also working to attract K-12 to STEM, including quite a few schools on the south and west sides of Chicago.

Montelon: I’m supporting the lab resource groups as well as the national groups that have chapters at the lab: the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. I’m working to instill that sense of belonging with them and making sure that we’re addressing equity, diversity and inclusion everywhere within the employee life cycle: talent retention and attraction, training and development, upward professional mobility. I’m also looking at the recommendations provided by employees and users to see how we can maintain momentum, augment the LRGs and elevate the diverse lab community internally.

I’ll be working with the TARGET high school internship program, which involves outreach with communities that have been untapped up to now, and helping strengthen partnerships with area schools and community leaders.

Sandra, as the chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer and the talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion manager, you’re now dual-hatted. How will that change what you do at the lab?

Charles: The focus of my work hasn’t necessarily changed. I remain committed to addressing the concerns and aspirations of each member of the lab community, and to ensuring that access to lab programs and opportunities is available to everyone. EDI has always been infused in the work the TADI team does. The experiences and expertise that both Jimmy and Jeomar bring to our work are great additions to a team that is laser focused on supporting the lab’s workforce and workplace EDI efforts.

“Inclusion requires a climate where everyone is welcoming to different identities.” — Sandra Charles

What will success in EDI look like?

McLeod: Within a year, I’d like to be able to point to quality relationships. Schools would send their students to our internship program, or they would invite a couple of lab employees to sit on a panel they’re hosting. I want us to participate in opportunities at external entities and have them participate in our initiatives. It would be good to see more diverse applicants from environments that we may not have seen in the past.

Montelon: Was there an increase in numbers with the TARGET program? Was there an increase in membership for the LRG or their events? How can we look at the data and tell a story with that? There’s success when we’re able to benchmark EDI-related activity and see augmentation in participation or numbers overall.

Charles: We’re standing up an EDI Task Force to elevate EDI at the lab, and it will definitely help us know when and if the climate at the laboratory is improving, whether or not the lab is providing a platform for individuals to have their concerns heard and addressed. We also want to be able to document that there’s greater inclusion of underrepresented populations in our internships and workforce and that we’re reaching our neighboring communities.

“We want to provide a space where there’s healthy dialogue … where you can show up, be yourself, feel safe, comfortable and empowered.” — Jimmy McLeod

What can we do better as a laboratory?

Charles: I think we can communicate better and collaborate more. We need to understand that EDI is not solely the responsibility of a particular office or person. Inclusion requires a climate where everyone is welcoming to different identities.

McLeod: Continue to increase belonging — and that’s true pretty much in every workplace. No matter how much folks love coming to work, or don’t, there’s always room to grow and allow folks to be even more of their true selves within a workplace, to bring their own perspectives. If you’re a parent, you don’t get to stop being a parent while you’re at work. If there are things going on in the world that affect folks who look like you or who are aligned in terms of the things you live with, you can’t just leave that stuff at home. We want to provide a space where there’s healthy dialogue that doesn’t distract from the work that needs to be done. We’re all here to produce work and to do a job. As much as you can show up, be yourself, and feel safe, comfortable and empowered within that space, that’s where we can grow. One thing we kind of take for granted is the value of just asking folks sort of how they’re doing in an intentional way. It’s little things like that and caring about folks and allowing them to express themselves.

Montelon: We can help shift the psyche of what we can do, because the radiance of this work falls on everyone everywhere, from the director down to the users to the interns. It goes up and down and laterally. We can let people know that they all have a part to play. It can be large, it can be small. We want people to feel that they can be their most authentic selves and most evolved selves in the workplace.

People tend to think of EDI in binary terms: good/bad, racist/not racist. It’s more intersectional than that. We’re all living on planet Earth. It’s not you versus me, but it’s us versus a system or systemic problems that go well beyond the lab.

Charles: Speak up against microaggressions. When one observes inappropriate behavior, it’s important that we collectively say that such an action is not okay. It’s not a matter of playing good cop-bad cop. It’s about ensuring that there’s civility and respect in all interactions. It is important that people have the opportunity and feel comfortable to express themselves.

“Celebrating small wins is something everyone can do. This work is about little steps, making them habitual, so inclusion becomes more of a practice.” — Jeomar Montelon

How can we support you and your work?

Montelon: Celebrating small wins is something everyone can do. For example, include someone in a chat or on Zoom if they don’t speak up as much. This work is about little steps, making them habitual, so it becomes more of a practice.

McLeod: It’s about not giving up hope. I imagine people are in different places with EDI, from “I’ve been mistreated since I’ve been here,” to “I think everything is perfect. I don’t know what people are complaining about.” We want to address the problems internally so the negative views don’t seep out into potential partnerships. We don’t want to let past experiences get in the way of future opportunities.

Charles: The attitude to have is that this is work we all do, as opposed to the work that someone else does. Perhaps the three of us are informed by the collective concerns and recommendations of the laboratory. So, we are devising pathways, making connections and building relationships. Growing those relationships, however, is in large measure dependent on a number of people at the laboratory. The work really is all of ours. We — the OCEDIO and TADI — happen to be the conduit. We each have a part to play in order for our in-reach and outreach efforts to bring about the climate and culture change we want to see.