This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for LGBTQ Labor and Workplace Equality." It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
To learn more about solutions journalism, visit solutionsjournalism.org.
In the Steele Creak area of Charlotte, there’s an individual committed to making sure companies and individuals who are truly seeking inclusion at work have the tools to make it happen: Ciara Lilly.
Lilly has lived in Charlotte since 2007, when she graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in English. At that time, she thought the Queen City wouldn’t be more than a stopping point en route to New York for work with a large publication. Yet, the lure of a fancy new job in the Big Apple couldn’t break the inclination to stay in the CLT.
Lilly is a multi-talented impassioned community member who does a number of things within the workforce. As Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Diversified Maintenance (a national facility services company based in Tampa, Florida) she’s responsible for everything imaginable when it comes to the upkeep of a facility.That could include anything from cleaning and landscaping to COVID sanitizing.
How did it all begin? Let’s ask Lilly.
“Prior to joining the company, I worked with their sister company, Environmental Service Systems. They’re the second largest black owned business in Charlotte (based on the Charlotte Business Journals ranking as of 2021). I served as director of business development for eight years, charged with growing the company. At the time, my role was figuring out how to connect our company with large corporation that had a need for facilities service providers. My niche was working with organizations that had supplier diversity and diversity and inclusion programs.
“I was getting an opportunity to understand diversity and supplier diversity at a corporate level and realized this was something that I really enjoyed. I enjoyed learning how to implement diversity across large businesses. I enjoyed being the bridge between companies and suppliers. Seeing how diversity functions on a large scale, it was something that I wanted to do professionally. It was a natural fit for me to transition over and lead that for both companies now.”
In her personal life, Lilly will soon celebrate seven years of marriage to her partner Melinda. The women have been together for 14 years, a few of which Lilly has spent in attempting to establish a work/life balance that will provide her with more time to enjoy Jazzy, their four-pound Chorkie pooch, HGTV viewing and reading.
Reading isn’t Lilly’s only literary joy.
“Journaling is something I’ve picked back up recently. And philanthropy, finding ways to give back that are impactful. I have a scholarship at UNC-Charlotte right now in the name of my grandmother [Priscilla Kersey] because she was someone who emphasized the importance of education, when I was growing up. She’d say, ‘get your education, it’s the one thing that no one can take from you.’”
“I absorbed that. Unfortunately, she passed a year before I graduated, but knew I’d set up a scholarship in her name, for either first generation college students or others who might need some assistance in their academic journey. So, since 2016 I’ve been able to contribute to the tuition expenses for freshmen students, many of whom are first generation students. It’s been very rewarding. It’s my way of paying it forward.”
Paying it forward she is. From Diversity and Inclusion to the provision of college funding, Lilly is making her mark with meaningful contributions to the community. And just recently, the generally somewhat reserved individual decided to embrace a new level of transparency in her life to be more open, honest and real – most specifically about mental health matters.
Says Lilly: “I’ve become a big therapy advocate and I think we have to use these types of platforms to speak on that. I think most people think of me as very driven, but I have to give credit to my wife who was one of the main people that told me I should see a therapist.”
Though presented to her in the least shady way possible and with a sincere desire to see her successfully navigate a busy and often stressful life, Lilly initially resisted the idea. “I fought it for many years,” she admits. “I was one of those people who thought, that’s my business, I don’t need to share it with anyone else. But I found a therapist who has been incredible in helping me understand, process and get to the essence of who I am. As someone who was so anti-therapy in the past, I’ve practically gone on a campaign <chuckling>. Therapy gave me a safe space to process and also helped me to identify the types of behaviors that you pick up that are actually survival or defensive mechanisms. As a result of doing that personal work these last few years, it helped me to meet someone, someone new to me, a healed version of myself. I can now go out and speak to people and be an example that’s a blessing to others.”
Biggest on Lilly’s list of the benefits of therapy is, “To show up authentically and to challenge this grind culture. I started working at 14 and have had this drive, this work ethic all my life, but realized that under all of that, it was really a security blanket, a way of protecting myself.”
Clearly, self-care is important to her while she continues to strive towards making a broad and meaningful impact on our community.
“It’s bigger than what I have accomplished and what I can do for other people. It is about how I’m showing up for Ciara and making sure that she’s doing everything that she needs to do to be healed and whole. If I can shift the narrative from ‘here’s what I’ve accomplished to here’s how I show up’ then I think that’ll have a greater impact [than anything else].”