Uva Coles: Opening Doors to Real Diversity
An Afro-Latina leader at Peirce College and citywide change agent is helping to shape the future of Philly's workforce.
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"The best tool that’s available to me today is voice, and I use it every single time I can to make sure that we are addressing the undercurrent of bias.”
This is the voice of Uva Coles. A voice that seeks career development opportunities and partnerships for students at Peirce College. A voice that speaks about her own knowledge of the immigrant experience, and describes how we can better recognize the myriad of ways immigrants make our country stronger. A voice that has mentored others, spoken up about workplace inclusion for people of all identities, and encouraged young students to find their power in self-expression through bilingual poetry.
And without a doubt, it is a voice sorely needed in the face of a reality in which both the “undercurrent of bias” and explicit racism and discrimination shape the terms of life, death, and work in the United States.
A dynamic leader who has worked to not just develop her own career, but to ensure that many others from vulnerable populations and diverse identities are able to pursue their dreams, Uva Coles knows firsthand the power of persistence, mentorship, and professional support.
On April 18, Coles visited the AL DÍA newsroom to speak about her personal story, coming to the U.S. from Panama as a young student starting college, as well as her commitment to shaping the future of Philadelphia’s workforce both at Peirce College and with her participation on the steering committee of the citywide workforce initiative.
Coles’s voice first developed as a young child growing up in Panama City, Panama, guided by her mother’s steadfast dedication to ensuring Uva and her two other daughters received an education. Coles’s mother, Jannette Anckle, was one of 10 children and had Uva when she was 17-years-old. Jannette had become disconnected from the education system at 15 due to the struggles of poverty she had to confront day-to-day, at times not having enough to eat and listening to her own stomach growl in the classroom. However, because of the way in which she “understood the barriers that that lack of credentialing created for her,” Coles said her mother emphasized the value of education for her children, seeding Coles and her two sisters’ work ethic from an early age.
And so Coles and her sisters dedicated themselves to their schoolwork, knowing that “B’s were okay, C’s were not.”
Thanks to this strong guidance from her mother and the support of Mrs. Toni Sanchez, a mentor in high school, Coles navigated the complicated process of applying to American colleges and universities, and was ultimately accepted with a full scholarship to Claflin University, a historically black college in South Carolina, where she went on to receive her bachelor’s degrees in English and Criminal Justice.
Coming to school in the U.S. was a venture into the complete unknown for her at the time, Coles said, describing how even her expectations of the weather were a bit off; when she first arrived on campus in South Carolina she imagined she would finally see snow for the first time in her life.
But most importantly, Coles said her college experience meant that she “very quickly began to have a different understanding about the power of education and about the strength that my mother exhibited,” even as she started looking toward not just getting a job but developing a career path.
Coles soon landed her first career role at a for-profit that “happened to think very deeply at the time about diversity,” which in turn “opened [her] eyes to the world of workforce.”
That experience led Coles to begin asking the questions that she said continue to guide her work today: “When we look at the workforce space, when we look at opportunities, are we opening the door of opportunity for every person who’s raising a hand, and if they’re not raising a hand, why not? Are we questioning, are we curious about why some people are left behind?”
“I think it’s our responsibility as individuals to make sure that the door of opportunity is made available to all,” she added, emphasizing the ways in which mentorship is key to achieving this.
As Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Strategic Partnerships at Peirce College, a higher education institution that has been educating working adults for more than 150 years, Coles addresses the barriers and challenges many working adults may face who are seeking credentialing later on in life, perhaps due to disconnecting from school and the workforce early on, as was the case for Coles’s mother.
Prior to her current role, Coles held positions as Vice President of Student Services and Dean of Career Management at Peirce College. Before joining the Peirce College leadership team, she worked in various high-level nonprofit management positions, serving as Vice President of Intake Services at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Southeastern Pennsylvania and as Manager of Corporate Services at INROADS/Mid-Atlantic. Coles also received her Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership from Wilmington University in 2015.
This varied experience aids Coles in ensuring that Peirce is inclusive and empowers students in every way possible through partnerships with companies and career opportunities — a goal which she said is indicative of a “history of access and diversity” at Peirce, which was founded in 1865 to educate citizens returning from war but also opened its doors to women and people of color.
Peirce’s student body is now over 60 percent women, over 69 percent African-American, and includes many first-generation college students. In order to promote diversity and inclusion at Peirce, Coles said that the school’s instructors work to “meet students where they are, and consider their identities.”
Coles said that for adult learners, there are many barriers to participating in the classroom which must be addressed — a subject that is also a key part of Coles’s other role in shaping the future of Philadelphia’s workforce as a member of the steering committee for Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine, a new citywide initiative launched in February.
In thinking about the success of the citywide initiative, Coles said that it is essential to balance the immediate needs of the nearly 26 percent of the city population that lives in poverty with the goal of encouraging career development and vision via educational programs.
“I think the city has recognized that if you bring in cross-sectors in different organizations and leverage the work that we do organically, rather than asking us to stretch into areas that don’t make sense for us, we can then be more holistic in our thinking,” Coles said.
“Vulnerable populations are often left behind and they require support systems that have to be really thought through,” she continued. “If you bring in providers, workforce development organizations, systems, processes and individuals who do the work of supporting, and they can address those very basic needs first, then you are able to make sure that individuals have the tools they need to focus on the other things.”
Coles said that in order for the city to take care of basic needs — such as hunger, transportation, and daycare — that impact how people show up in the classroom or the workplace, organizations and sectors across the city must form “a continuum that locks arms and each of us does [our] part.”
Coles added that she feels that the initiative was created with the input of many voices and consideration of barriers to the workforce specific to different identities throughout the city.
“What you see is rather than the same people making the same decisions, which will lead to the same results, we had a diverse group of perspectives really challenging and pushing each other around this idea of equity,” Coles said.
Coles knows from her professional experience asking difficult questions about who does and doesn’t have access to opportunities in the workforce, and based on her own personal experience as an Afro-Latina immigrant in the U.S., that diversity and inclusion are not easily achieved and much work is needed to convert what can too often be used only as buzzwords into stable realities.
“We see it daily, I think, in our work that when you do not create space for that diversity, the results adversely impact people who are diverse,” Coles said, “so you need to have that lens.”
“I think oftentimes people simply expect this to happen magically. We think about diversity so things will diversify themselves magically. It’s simply not the case,” Coles added, noting that diversity, or who is at the table, is important, but inclusion, which she defined as how people of different identities feel when they’re present in the work environment, is also essential for companies and organizations to cultivate.
And part of that inclusion involves having uncomfortable conversations and dealing with bias head-on, Coles said, referring to the recent incident in Philadelphia in which a manager of a Starbucks called the police on two African-American men who were sitting in the cafe, who were subsequently arrested and forcibly removed, as a “watershed moment” for the city.
However, apart from more obvious instances of discrimination such as the Starbucks incident, Coles said that it is just as necessary to develop strategies to address the “bias undercurrent” in the workplace.
“We know typically how to deal when something is just obviously wrong. We can raise a hand, we can call human resources, we can march our way to organizations that can help us fight discrimination,” Coles said, adding that she tends to focus instead on the bias undercurrent, analyzing systems that are inherently prejudiced to figure out how to design them in a way that will naturally lead to a more inclusive environment.
Coles explained that the bias undercurrent describes a situation in which a woman might speak out in a meeting with mostly male colleagues and have her ideas go unheard, or a woman of color is labeled “aggressive” compared to a white man who is called “assertive” by the same manager, an aspect of the bias undercurrent which Coles herself experienced earlier in her career. These are the “‘Is it me?’ moments,” Coles noted, in which the person experiencing the bias is made to question themselves.
This discrimination also extends to immigrants, Coles said.
“When I came to the United States as an Afro-Latina, I did not recognize I would face discrimination because I was born and raised in a different country. So early on that was a little bit of a shock to my system and a little bit demoralizing and hurtful,” Coles said, noting that she also believes that the rhetoric is changing, and increasingly there is more of a push to acknowledge all the ways in which immigrants enrich the country as a whole — economically, culturally, intellectually.
Overall, Coles said, the conversation about how to shape a more diverse and inclusive workforce and country continues.
“I can tell you today that there are opportunities and rooms that are wide open for me, and that still today, there are quite a few opportunities that are not as readily available, and moments where, again, it’s not the explicit thing that’s said, but it’s the thing that’s done or unsaid that lets me know that that space is not necessarily inclusive,” Coles said.
But, she continued, “As painful as that is, it doesn’t stop me from showing up, continuing to show up, and from engaging in a conversation about what I’m seeing.”
Her voice, Coles affirmed, will continue to be heard and used to shape a more diverse, inclusive, and thriving workforce for the benefit of all of Philadelphia for years to come.