One of the highlights of my tenure as ICMA president was engaging with members. While we covered much ground over the past year—from rethinking ICMA’s international footprint to making our dues structure more affordable—some of the most remarkable conversations I have had have been around the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). More specifically, ICMA’s role in providing members with tools for DEI.
Two years ago, the organization raced to respond to the needs of the many members who were struggling to find resources and tools that would help them navigate the turmoil their communities were experiencing in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Staff tirelessly created professional development and training programs; developed partnerships with public safety, policing, and racial equity experts; and generated best practice content.
While many members have praised the direction taken by the organization, others have expressed concern that ICMA’s work on racial equity and social justice could be viewed as promoting a political agenda, straying from its core mission of leadership and professional development. Given the broad differences in perception, it was clearly necessary to better understand our members’ needs in order to establish a plan for ICMA’s work in this area moving forward.
An In-Person Process
One of ICMA’s foundational principles—in fact, one of the core competencies essential to good local government leadership and management—is community engagement. That’s exactly where this process began: by engaging our members. ICMA is especially good at sitting down and talking through issues where there is member passion on divergent sides. Between December 2021 and August 2022, the regional vice presidents, several ICMA staff, and I conducted a listening tour of face-to-face meetings with members across the United States through every regional conference and in conjunction with many of our state association partners at their meetings. I personally had the honor of meeting with members in Texas, Oregon, Florida, Washington, the Atlanta area, the St. Louis region, and beyond.
With the aid of an expert, we developed a series of questions that would help us talk about these extremely sensitive issues in a safe environment. I have to commend those who took part in these sessions because conversations that involve race in which deep personal values are discussed can be difficult. Throughout the process I learned that much like our communities, ICMA members are very diverse, and everyone’s needs are not the same. For example, arriving at a common definition for some terms is important. Some people view social justice as affirmative action and others view it as treating all members of the community equitably.
Another important takeaway is that ICMA is constantly evolving—some think that evolution is good, and some feel as though change is happening too fast. Access the complete report here, which includes verbatim comments from the discussions. Within the report, you will see that several common themes emerge to provide direction.
There are six key areas that provide direction to ICMA moving forward:
- It is important that ICMA’s DEI work be aligned with the ICMA Code of Ethics and ICMA’s mission and not be perceived as political or divisive.
- ICMA should serve as a source of information, thought leadership, and best practices. DEI is no exception.
- ICMA should be the “go-to” resource to help members get assistance in dealing with specific issues or “wicked problems” facing local governments. Current resources and trainings are good, but these resources should be easier to identify and access.
- DEI is an important issue, but should not be the top issue for ICMA.
- The terminology used to describe these efforts matters. When framed as DEI, these issues tend to be viewed more positively; whereas when framed as “social justice,” they are viewed as being more political and/or polarizing.
- These issues should be presented factually. ICMA should be careful not to be seen as “taking sides.”
The clear message from the conversations is that by and large, members need and want support in this area to help move their communities forward. However, what that means to each individual member is different. While the results of our listening tour are incredibly helpful, they are qualitative in nature. As the next step in the discovery process, we will be conducting a survey of a representative sample of the membership. This will allow us to drill down and gain more definitive information about where we should focus our efforts.
While we found that there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, as in our home communities, it is in the middle where good policy outcomes happen. With the help of quantitative data, we can uncover which solutions we should continue to build on and what perhaps we can leave behind. This will remain a central topic for the ICMA Executive Board as we gather those results and develop an action plan moving forward.
What Is Your Role?
First, if you were one of the hundreds of members who provided feedback during the listening sessions, thank you for your contributions! If you were not able to participate, please feel free to share your feedback on the questions found in the Member Engagement Sessions Report. You may send your responses to email@example.com. Second, if you receive an ICMA survey in your inbox in 2023, please take a few minutes to complete it.
Finally, never stop engaging! As local government leaders we know that progress is not measured in a straight line, rather it occurs through a series of missteps, failed attempts, and an unwavering commitment to moving forward that ultimately results in progress. ICMA has continued to improve over these 108 years because of your involvement. Our association will not back away from timely issues facing our communities because they might make us uncomfortable. Despite the passion around this issue, our members were able to articulate their concerns and their needs in a constructive way. So, I humbly ask that you continue to carve out time in your incredibly busy lives to become part of the change you want to see at ICMA and in this great profession.
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