When asked the number one piece of advice she would tell the younger version of herself, Cara Valentino, Racial Justice and Equity Program Manager at RTI International (RTI), did not hesitate.

“Trust yourself.” 

Over her decade-long career at RTI, she has used the phrase as a drumbeat in her ongoing mission to bring racial justice and equity for Black people to the workplace. 

A lifelong advocate for racial equity – both within RTI and the community – Valentino accepted a full-time role leading RTI’s Racial Justice and Equity (RJE) Program almost a year ago. Now, her daily workload involves creating and nurturing an intentional focus on equity for Black employees by advancing the RTI Executive Leadership Team’s Commitments to Racial Justice and Equity.

“I never imagined I’d be in this work full-time – but I always knew I’d be involved in some way because of the impact of racism on my life and my family,” shared Valentino.  “Even though I am well aware that the harm I experienced is not on the same scale as what Black people collectively experience daily as a result of systemic racism.”

Finding Passion Amid Heartbreak

Growing up in a small town in California where racism was prevalent, Valentino reflected on the fact that “racism broke [her] heart from day one.” Her mother, a white woman who married a Black man, was disowned by her parents who chose never to meet Valentino based on a deep-rooted history of racism. Valentino still to this day wishes she had been able to know her maternal grandparents, and wonders if they ever regretted their choice.

Fast forward through the challenges and racism she faced as a half-Black woman in high school to today, and she has never lost sight of her passion for dismantling racism. Her mother was also passionately anti-racist and told Valentino at her death, “You were born to be a bridge between East and West, and I want you to continue this work.”

“After my mother’s transition, I accessed her genealogy and found that we had a history of slave owners on my mother’s side of the family,” said Valentino. “Studies have shown that trauma can be passed down through generations in our DNA. I am committed to reversing the collective harm that some of my ancestors brought upon the Black community over the years. I feel I have a duty to do my part to heal the trauma they imposed on others, and to serve as a transformative change agent for my community.”  

Turning Knowledge into Practice

Five years ago, Valentino was able to turn her passion into a remarkable success for Black employees and allies at RTI by leading the charge to officially bring the Black Employee Resource Group (BERG) to the institute. 

Valentino says that the BERG was responsible for many firsts at RTI, such as bringing ally training and microaggressions training for leaders to the institute, creating tactics to advance racial equity strategies and building a clearly defined, metrics-based approach linking goals and strategies of the group to RTI’s goals as an institute.

“After attending the BERG-hosted screening of Ava Duvernay’s documentary Thirteenth, an executive leader at RTI was inspired to provide funding to bring in a group of young Black men from a local organization that taught Black students how to code,” said Valentino. “RTI offered paid summer internships to the young men and they were mentored by Black leaders. We organized a breakfast with the interns and their mentors.  While they were engaging, the other BERG Co-Chair and I wept with joy at the next table over. It was deeply moving and inspiring to watch the young men receive mentoring from these leaders.  It’s part of what makes this work so worthwhile.”

Valentino, alongside the BERG Cultural Competency Committee at RTI, was also responsible for bringing open forums on race to BERG members and allies. The forums provided a safe space for Black employees and breakout rooms for allies to ask questions and receive answers. 

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the forums – although previously implemented by Valentino several years prior – were recognized as an elevated need as a space to help facilitate the additional discussions needed on racism in the workplace. They helped to provide opportunities for sharing and storytelling, which research shows is an important part of the healing process while experiencing ongoing racial trauma due to daily stressors and violence. 

“I was advised not to start the forums but sometimes you have to trust your gut,” she shared. “I’ve had bumps in the road and I’ve experienced people being unhappy with me, but my instincts have never led me astray.”

Walking the Talk

The brutal murder of George Floyd gripped the nation and specifically the attention of white America in 2020, which led to countless written corporate statements of commitments and support.  In her opinion, it was one of thousands of ongoing unjust murders of Black men and women — except this time it was on film, during a pandemic, where everyone was actually watching. To Valentino and many others, many of the statements were reactive and optical in nature, and sparse action was reflected. 

Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, RTI’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT) formed a partnership with RTI’s BERG to inform the institute’s path forward. The resulting public ELT Commitments included ELT participation in a racial ally training led by Valentino and Jane Allen, a senior manager of public health at RTI.

After the training, each participant was responsible for creating an action plan for continuing the work, one of which included partnering with Valentino and Allen to host the same training at another professional organization — with a collective responsibility for approximately 1 million people worldwide. That session inspired another training for a group of CEOs with an even larger reach.

“The public commitments of RTI’s ELT show that we are truly ‘walking the talk.’ You can only imagine the reach of these ally trainings and I cannot imagine an individual going through it without being impacted.”

A Vision for the Future 

Valentino shares that even after living through hardships and setbacks, and witnessing and experiencing the effects of systemic racism, she feels extremely hopeful for the future because race is a social construct — it only exists because it has been allowed to exist.

“Imagine what would happen if we dismantled the systemic racism that blocks the success of Black people and allows microaggressions in the workplace to exist,” said Valentino. “What would be the transformation of our workplace if we allowed Black people to bring their magnificence and innovation to an organization without experiencing systemic racism?”

Valentino’s future vision for RTI, and all organizations, places a strong emphasis on connecting those benefits with the strategy of an organization. This looks like having leaders and employee populations who represent the demographic of the location they exist in as well as the populations they serve.  

“The business case for diversity and the supporting research show that diverse teams perform better, produce higher levels of innovation, and improve the bottom line,” Valentino shared. “Furthermore, history shows that removing systemic barriers for Black people benefits all populations.”

She sees a world where psychological safety, inclusion and belonging are part and parcel of how organizations function, thereby eliciting the best possible outcomes from and for their employees. A world where racism has been eliminated, allowing Black people and other people of color to bring their whole selves, including their unique problem-solving perspectives that stem from their backgrounds and experience, to work, thereby enabling RTI to advance its mission. 

To Valentino it is “a world where we are no longer talking about race, but rather allocating all our precious energy and capability to our expanded humanity, allowing us to bring a deeper level of commitment and excellence to the actual work we are here to do.”

“Racism affects our collective humanity,” she shared. “We cannot live our mission at RTI of improving the human condition while racism exists.”