Creating Community: How GE Aviation’s African American Forum is Connecting Employees

One of the first invites Norris Ryan received after he joined GE Aviation was from Charlene Cousar, the then-president of the African American/ Affinity Forum (AAF), inviting him to attend a general body meeting. After relocating from Huntsville, Alabama, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had no family or network, that invite was key to Ryan’s onboarding experience at the jet engine manufacturer. Almost instantly, he found a community of people who looked like him and people he could count on to make recommendations for someone new to the area, such as the best place for a haircut.

He not only found his GE Aviation family, Ryan found a network to grow his career at GE. Since starting at GE Aviation in 2014 as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt supporting GE Aviation’s Military Systems Operation, the AAF introduced him to contacts across the company and he gained leadership experience outside of his day-to-day role. Now, more than seven years later, Ryan is the president of AAF at GE Aviation’s headquarters in Evendale, near Cincinnati, and works in GE Aviation Services as the GEnx and CF6 Customized Service Agreement Productivity Leader.

Ryan calls AAF the “Authentic AAF,” meaning its members encourage each other to bring their whole selves to work and strive to maintain an environment where everyone feels safe and accepted.

“The AAF helps me become a better person and a better leader within our company. Without the AAF, I would not have an opportunity to be in a leadership position where I have to develop and set a strategy for what I want to accomplish that’s going to help the AAF, the Black community, and the business as well,” Ryan said.

The GE African American/Affinity Forum was founded in 1991 with a simple mission: “To provide members with development and networking opportunities while helping contribute to the growth of the company and volunteering in the communities where GE operates.” The mission of AAF includes three focus areas: recruitment, retention, and promotion of Black individuals. AAF is a mechanism to grow a stronger black presence in the business by continuing to build the talent pipeline, creating a sense of community, and developing its members into strong leaders for the business.

In addition to the corporate GE forum, whose members span multiple GE businesses, including Aviation, Healthcare and Power, GE Aviation has AAF chapters in Evendale, as well as Lynn, Batesville, Auburn, Grand Rapids, Dallas, Jacksonville, McAllen, Greenville, and Detroit.

Last year, GE named Chief Diversity Officers for the corporation, as well for each GE business. Mike Barber was named Chief Diversity Officer of GE and Joe Allen was named Chief Diversity Officer of GE Aviation.

“Inclusion is having people come to work being comfortable in who they are and the differences that they represent and bring to the team that add value. Not to come in and have to defend that they’re different,” Allen said.

Allen has been a part of AAF from its beginning. The network is a family to him.

“My network today still exists through AAF with those that are still here and those that have left. It’s a very important piece of who I am as a person and who I am as a leader,” he said. Allen held AAF leadership roles in each of the businesses he has been a part of over his career. He also served as the global operating leader for AAF for a two-year period in 2014

In his current role as Chief Diversity Officer at GE Aviation, Allen helps shape the strategy and execution of Inclusion and Diversity priorities and the missions of 10 employee resource groups at the company. In addition to AAF, other employee resource groups at GE Aviation are the Asian Pacific Allies and Friends (APAF), Pride Alliance, Hispanic Forum, Disabilities Advocacy Network, Early Career Professionals Organization (ECPO), Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA), Native American Network (NAN), Veterans Network, and Women’s Network.

A national spotlight on social injustices last year highlighted the importance of diversity and bringing your whole self to work. As a result, the GE Aviation AAF developed learning and lesson plans by partnering with the GE Learning team. Together, they developed a presentation known as “A Legacy of Purpose.” It was an opportunity to discuss AAF’s history and highlight AAF’s current mission statement.

“GE is a business that is not afraid to address certain issues and how we are going to be inclusive in learning why certain groups of people feel this way and how we can help,” says Ryan.

Black History Month has been a time to reflect on the legacy of AAF and the social injustices the Black community continues to face. Because of the strong foundation established many years ago, the AAF can continue to build on strategies to help the business execute its mission and evolve and change as needed. By developing programming and learning, building, and maintaining a pipeline of talent, and continuing to tell their stories, current members of the African American Forum will help the legacy of AAF move forward for future generations.

In 2021, the GE Aviation AAF’s focus areas are: strengthening GE’s connection with the community beyond volunteerism by partnering with more African American-affiliated organizations, identifying new ways to lift up the black community, and broadening the impact across Cincinnati and communities around the world.

The Aviation AAF plans to engage in multiple community service activities partnering with GE’s Lincoln Heights Initiative in Greater Cincinnati. AAF partners with the elementary school to provide STEM based training through initiatives such as STEM Day and COSI on Wheels. They also provide resources to help with yearly health fairs at Lincoln Heights Health Center. This is a multi-year initiative that focuses on economic development, public health and wellness, and beautification and social justice.

Finally, the AAF is refocusing efforts to partner with GE Aviation business leaders to improve Inclusion and Diversity metrics by concentrating on the recruitment strategy for entry-level talent and co-ops, developing strategies to support mid-career talent, and revitalizing professional development efforts in alignment with GE’s focus on lean. Based on Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), leadership and professional metrics associated with the latest diversity report, the AAF’s professional development, and recruitment strategies will be aligned to help improve the EEO data year over year.

“A key piece of the I&D strategy and structure is helping to identify fair and equitable processes that will contribute to greater representation of our diverse population at GE Aviation,” Allen said. “By collaborating with Employee Resource groups like the AAF, we continue to have a voice of the customer to help determine how to make those processes more fair and equitable.”

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