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Jan 9, 2023

Jennifer Luebke Wants “A Level Playing Field” For Employees with Disabilities

Here’s why PRIDE Industries hired an inclusion officer.

By Ed Goldman

My first question for Jennifer Luebke is no doubt an impertinent one: it’s about her job title. 

For the past year-and-a-half, she’s been the “chief workforce inclusion officer” at PRIDE Industries, one of my favorite nonprofits (I’ve written about the place and its late CEO Michael Ziegler at least a half-dozen times). PRIDE trains and finds jobs for people with disabilities. It’s both a marketplace success story—the organization has a lengthy list of services it provides, at competitive rates—and a miracle worker.

Edgy Cartoon

Jennifer Luebke. Photos by Kenni Camota.

So why, I ask, does a nonprofit that already openly embraces diversity in its workforce need someone on board to monitor it?

The question, it turns out, is not really impertinent. Just ignorant. 

Luebke (pronounced LOOB-key) speaks to other companies about hiring PRIDE employees, simultaneously helping to train people for the jobs she may help them find—as well as doing outreach with high-school and post-high-school students with job placement and creation.

She certainly knows whereof she speaks. Her son Antonio, now 24, from a former marriage—but adopted by her husband Christopher when the young man was 18—is what’s termed “intellectually disabled,” in his case meaning he has an IQ of 68.

Edgy Cartoon

Jennifer’s son Antonio. Photos by Kenni Camota.

“Since the adoption happened when Antonio was 18 years old and he was a legal adult, no notice to his biological father was necessary for the adult adoption to happen,” Luebke clarifies in a follow-up email after this chat, when I ask her about the legal process. “The judge spoke to Antonio to make sure he knew what he was doing and that this was done of my son’s will before she authorized the adoption.”

Antonio, as you can see from the photo, is a trim, athletic young man. A student in a certificate program at Georgia Tech, he works as a server at the Ansley Golf Club in Atlanta. He lives in an apartment with roommates who have similar disabilities, and also has a non-disabled student mentor on hand.

We’re having lunch at Piatti Ristorante, the recession- and pandemic-proof eatery in Sacramento’s tony Pavilions Shopping Center, Luebke, who’s 52, holds a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco. I find Luebke to be not only candid but also remarkably jargon-light for someone whose work takes her into the fields of education, social work, human resources and industry. 

Her professional and emotional goals are “to make the workplace a level playing field for people like my son,” who works in a job that coincides with his limited set of skills. “He’s a good worker,” his mom says. 

While DEI officers in the private, public and academic sectors are “all the rage,” as Luebke says “there’s a tendency to focus on women and minorities and not consider the disabled.” DEI is the acronym for diversity, equity and inclusion if you’ve been spared knowing of either its coinage or existence.

“But 26 percent of the population in the country is disabled in some way,” she says, adding that “most aren’t born that way.” 

On January 12, PRIDE is sponsoring a career day and ribbon-cutting reopening of its “Career Hub” in Citrus Heights, about 15 minutes from California’s capital, and celebrating the launch of its Youth Employment Services (YES) program, which helps prep young people from 16-25 years old who have “disabilities “and other barriers,” as Luebke explain, to learn job skills. 

“This isn’t a fundraiser,” she makes clear. Details are at https://www.prideindustries.com/pride-industries-career-hub-grand-re-opening.

In the meantime, families with relatives who have disabilities and want to find jobs, can contact the Help Line at PRIDE, with which Luebke works closely, every day helping to enable the disabled.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).