Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion Capstone

The Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion fellows (2021-22) have been hard at work designing and implementing their capstone projects, with the ultimate goal of moving the needle on equity and inclusion in their organizations, communities, and themselves. Attendees at the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference stopped by to learn about the fellows’ capstone projects and how those lessons can be applied in their own communities.

How Do We Create the Opportunity for All Residents to Have Thriving Lives?

Mark Washington, city manager, Grand Rapids, Michigan, aimed to answer this important question through his capstone project. Washington did not waste time diving into the facts about his community, both the good and the bad. While Grand Rapids ranks high in the areas of young homebuyers, raising a family, sustainability, and more, glaring disparities take an active role in determining which Grand Rapids residents experience more positive outcomes. Washington outlined the poor percentage of minority-owned businesses, the over 60 percent African-American homeless population, the life expectancy gap between white and African-American residents, and more eye-opening disparities that serve as predictors of success in Grand Rapids.

While Grand Rapids began its racial equity journey in 2016 through its involvement in a GARE equity cohort, the work began as more educational and reactive rather than proactive. It wasn’t until 2019 that data-driven analysis from the Kellogg Foundation shined a light on racial disparities in Grand Rapids and equity was adopted into the city’s strategic plan. As was the case for just about every community at the time, 2020 spurred extreme racial, economic, health, housing, climate, and public safety tension, and Grand Rapids was no different. Washington acknowledged the new challenges that 2020 brought to the surface, and encouraged that leading through such tensions makes for a great opportunity.

That opportunity for Washington came in the form of the ICMA Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion, which provided the outlet to focus on polarity management. Some additional equity work that followed was the creation of more equity capacity in the form of a police oversight and accountability office and a new police strategic plan for the city. Then in 2021, $25 million was invested into initiatives that advanced equity, like participatory budgeting, hiring an equity specialist, incentives in the procurement process for minority contractors, expanded equity training, and more. 2022 ushered in even more investment in equity initiatives, with $34 million being invested, but tragedy struck when Grand Rapids experienced its own officer-involved shooting that year.

While this was a devastating blow, Grand Rapids acted in response to this tragedy with transparency and the use of a third-party investigation to determine appropriate action. Washington urged that this tragedy did not stifle its advancement of the work, but rather, fostered a new opportunity for violence reduction. These initiatives have been focused in the areas of policing efforts being centered on data informed issues, intentional job opportunities for youth, job training initiatives, diversion programs for at-risk youth, neighborhood activation initiatives, co-response teams for non-violent 911 calls, and the addressing of environmental justice issues. Washington anchored his lessons learned in embracing the journey that is equity work by expecting the unexpected, being adaptable, and staying committed to the equity vision.

A Regional Approach to Advancing Equity and Inclusion

Through her capstone project, Mona Miyasato, county executive officer, Santa Barbara County, California, aimed to uncover how equity and inclusion work can be sustained for the long haul, beyond mere compliance. More importantly, Miyasato aimed to determine what skills and information both she and other local government leaders need in order to achieve such sustainability.

Miyasato first highlighted some of the fundamental conversations that local government leaders need to partake in for equity work to move forward and eventually become hardcoded into organizations’ systems. Some essential conversations include discussing a council/board/community values alignment, determining what values are in conflict or competition with other values, assessing the priority given to certain values, addressing what the best approach is for the organization, and nailing down a safe place/brave space for authentic discussion.

Once these types of conversations take place, they provide a gauge as to where the council and other stakeholders stand on the equity topic, allowing for a more realistic starting point. One such question that Miyasato raised to spur conversation is, “Should we address equity collaboratively, as a region? If so, how?”

Miyasato’s solution to this was in the creation of the SEI and SLO Regional DEI Symposium (virtual) for city managers, county administrators, and their teams to come together and have a conversation about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their region. The symposium joined 55 participants from 11 jurisdictions, including nine city managers, eight assistants/deputies, department directors, and DEI officers, to view presentations, participate in breakout sessions, take polls, discuss DEI change and maturity models, and review next steps and action items to advance DEI regionally. From this experience, Miyasato grasped the importance of meeting people where they are, starting the conversation, tailoring messaging to the audience, and moving those conversations into planned action for sustainable results.

How Can I Make an Impact?

Vicki Rios, assistant city manager, Glendale, Arizona, strived to make an impact by applying a DEI lens to her community’s equity initiatives. While Glendale’s council began with the following action checklist items: a newly adopted nondiscrimination policy, nondiscrimination language added to vendor contracts, and a newly formed human relations commission, Rios knew that this was not enough.

Around the time that these action items were being adopted by the council, five things took place for Rios and Glendale; she was selected to join the ICMA Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion, the former editor of the Glendale@Play magazine resigned, a councilmember posed a question about how Glendale’s staff demographics reflect that of the community, that same councilperson asked about a parks equity study, wondering if each area of the community had access to parks services (it did not), and Glendale was served a notice that its housing services were not equitable.

These events sparked Rios’ motivation to take a look at her community, and the services provided, through an equity lens and adjust where needed. One such adjustment was to a poster promoting lifeguard jobs available in the city. While Rios had seen this poster (depicting an all-white lifeguard staff) a number of times, she saw it differently this time, and the photo used on the poster was updated to a more diverse option. This was the first of many advertisements for the community that Glendale changed in order to accurately convey the diversity it is looking to include in its workforce and community programs.

Applying a DEI lens to the imagery that Glendale uses for job and program promotion has opened eyes and helped in the journey to be more equitable to all residents. Rios wrapped up her lessons learned about applying a DEI lens, highlighting the importance of focusing on unconscious bias, educating others without blame or shame, updating ads and messaging as needed (last year’s version isn’t always best), paying attention to staff demographics (do they reflect that of your community?), and driving the message throughout the entire organization.

“Dancing with the Smooth Operator”: A White Leader’s DEI Journey (so far)

The final fellow to present, James Bennett, city manager, Biddeford, Maine, took a deep dive into his personal journey and did not mince words in recognizing that growing up a white male in a white community, in the whitest state (Maine) in the nation, did not prepare him to lead when it came to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Rather, he found himself shaped by what he calls the “smooth operator” that is systemic racism.

Bennett walked through each step of his DEI journey, from being the “good white guy,” to realizing that he was actually doing it wrong, to his final state of “becoming real” and walking towards his bias. As the “good white guy,” Bennett thought he was doing everything right, from positively handling an extremely large hate group that came through his community in 2003 (with no one being injured), to keeping the community center open for 24 hours a day during the World Cup for everyone to watch, and to creating the ICMA Task Force on Strengthening Inclusiveness in the Profession in 2015. Bennett had amassed these proverbial “gold stars” and thought he had it right, until a wave of realization came onto him.

Bennett always operated under the belief that nothing was ever given to him, so he was not coming from a place of privilege. It wasn’t until session three of an equity cohort that he was selected to participate in that he finally realized that he indeed had benefited from white privilege. While he did work for everything that was given to him, and his inherent privilege did not take away from that, Bennett finally understood that everyone who does not look like him is “starting the race” behind him.

It was from that realization that Bennett accepted that it was time to stop being a “good person” and start being a real person. This meant taking a deep self-assessment on how things that he has done have been racist. This self-assessment encourages walking toward bias through awareness of bias, acknowledgement of bias, aspiration of how to be better, acting to create meaningful change, and accomplishment of progress and growth. Bennett encourages everyone to take this deep self-reflection in order to move forward with equity work in a more authentic way that can influence change in their communities.

Through Bennett’s expansive DEI journey, he has gathered that being part of a privileged class does not discount an individual’s personal sacrifice, realizing our own racial bias is essential to be able to work on it, racism and discrimination is the “smoothest operator” that any person will encounter, local government is where real change is happening, racism is not an identity (rather, a descriptive term of an action), and citizens can only love their community if their community loves them back.


Each member of the Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion gained invaluable knowledge that allowed them to make some measurable changes within their communities and themselves. Their stories can be yours as well. No matter where you are at on your equity journey, you can apply their lessons learned to your own community and find support through ICMA’s Equity resource hub.

Want to hear more about the Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion Fellows’ capstone projects? ICMA Annual Conference in-person and digital attendees can view on-demand content through December 31.

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