Written by: Katie Conboy
In the sixth grade, Maylene Pena was reading at the high-school level. Growing up in an impoverished and low-income community of Chicago, Maylene’s school could not provide her with the academic challenges she was ready for. As a young girl, Maylene recalls her mother sending her on the public bus across the city to attend programs that could meet her educational needs. Not having equal opportunities or access to resources fueled Maylene’s passion for change and heavily influenced her core values of equity and belonging.
Professionally, Maylene began work in the DE&I space about 15 years ago. However, real-life experiences in diversity and equity began in early childhood. Maylene’s parents were born in Puerto Rico and came to the United States as teenagers. Raised in a community that was predominantly Spanish speaking, Maylene held the role of interpreting for adults. From a young age, she became aware of the disparity of how people were treated based on skin color and language. It was evident to her that individuals were not given the same level of respect or dignity, simply because of a barrier in communication. On a personal level, Maylene knew she was equally as smart as her peers, but felt the weight of working twice as hard to gain access to spaces where she knew she belonged. “Even though my IQ said I belong in this space, my skin color didn’t fit into what was acceptable at the time.”
Instead of giving up, Maylene became an advocate for people of color in her community in various ways. She continues to find joy and fulfillment in helping others gain access to health resources, food, and education. She is dedicated to helping community health officials and other public servants understand and dismantle systemic racism. Maylene is also a pastor of a Christian church, and has seen her ministry poured out into her professional workspace. “It has come full circle that I can now do this full-time.”
In 2019, Maylene joined forces as a contractor with the Walker-Thomas Group, a comprehensive diversity and inclusion consulting company. She also started her own consultancy, focusing exclusively on DE&I topics. Maylene helps organizations that “know there is an issue but can’t put their finger on it.” When resources are exhausted, employees are calling for more, and existing programs have reached their capacity, Maylene and her team step in to address their needs and develop a customized strategic plan.
Pie for Everyone
For Maylene, living inclusively boils down to one thing, which is the capacity to love and accept others. In order for individuals and organizations to truly embrace and live inclusively, Maylene believes we must all get past our egos. She has worked with many individuals afraid to travel down the DE&I road because they are afraid to lose something. Instead, Maylene encourages the mindset, “There is enough pie for us all to eat.”
Maylene describes herself as a “forever optimist,” committed to viewing the metaphorical glass as half-full. With decades of experience in the DEI space, she has seen great progress. Although she recognizes there will always be work to do, Maylene affirms this generation for honing in and making intentional space for differences. “This generation is coming to the table expecting differences and asking questions for anyone who doesn’t fit into what is already understood.”
Warm your pot
Maylene’s advice to this generation of leaders centers around what can be done as a collective. Although we can’t dismantle racism as individuals, everyone can do their own part. One of her favorite sayings is, “We can’t boil the ocean, but I can warm my pot.”
Maylene didn’t end up formally attending college, and she seeks to encourage others that an official degree isn’t what qualifies someone to engage in DE&I efforts. Although she recognizes the value of education, she deeply treasures lived experience and a thirst for knowledge. “If you have lived experience, and a passion to help others, you too should seek how to warm your own pot.”