A question often asked by students preparing to enter the local government field is "What do I need to know about the profession before I start my first job?" One of the ways ICMA is helping students answer this question is through a new learning program, the ICMA Student Chapter Leadership Network Series. Open to all student chapter members of ICMA, this multi-part series is exposing student chapter leaders to important issues in local government today, and how they can build skills to step into the profession post-graduation with an understanding of the ongoing challenges facing local government leaders. This series also allows chapter leaders to bring this information back to their chapters, helping their members make the most of their ICMA membership and build their understanding of the importance of local government management.
In the second session held on January 25, 2021, the ICMA Student Chapter Leadership Network Series welcomed Siri Russell, chief equity officer of Albemarle County, Virginia, to discuss equity and inclusion in local government, specifically answering the question "How can students focus on equity and inclusion as they enter the profession and throughout their careers?"
Two student attendees of this session, Kayleigh Vocca, MPPA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Katie Beemer, MPA candidate at Grand Valley State University, reflect on their session experience.
Kayleigh Vocca, student member, University of Massachusetts Amherst
As a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and intern for the town of Amherst, the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are far from being unfamiliar, but Siri Russell made new points that resonated with me as a young professional. To start, there was a discussion of recognizing the differentiation between inequality, equality, equity, and justice.
It is innately easy to think about these four words and the issues that they are connected with on the surface level. It is also easy to think of these words in association with the overarching mission of municipalities. Simply, what we want as leaders in local government is to avoid systems of inequality, promote policies of equity, and reach collective justice. But this is much easier said than done. Russell made the argument that one must look deeper to find what it is that promotes the uneven distribution of tools and resources within a municipality. If professionals in local government only tackle that uneven distribution, then a band-aid solution is all that will be offered. To effectively address inequity and injustice, band-aid solutions will not suffice.
This leads to the second point Russell made. Inequity is not a sole result of the limited opportunities but also a result of the inaccessibility of structural elements and disproportionate societal norms that further the construction of inequity. A root cause evaluation of the entire inequitable system needs to be the focus, not a semi-solution of increasing resources or tools. If we take the easy way out by just looking at the surface problems and their immediate effects, how can we expect to produce long-term change, equitable results, or collective justice?
As a young professional who is just getting started in local government, my true understanding of equity and inclusion has been amplified as a result of Russell’s discussion. I am now able to approach a systematic problem by seeking out the origin of what is causing inequity to find a solution. Long-term change is needed to make substantial results in our municipalities. Again, this is much easier said than done as governmental systems and processes are complex and multilayered–the essence of a bureaucracy. We need to commit to making deeper analyses and to develop more progressive policies that foster equity and create justice. If the foundation of an inequitable system is ignored, we cannot, as local government professionals, expect to improve that system. Local governments need to shift focus to inequity preventions, not just interventions.
Katie Beemer, student member, Grand Valley State University
One of the things I enjoyed most about Siri Russell’s presentation was not just that we were able to explore more in depth the different meanings behind diversity, equity, and inclusion, but she gave us practical steps to “rebalance the tree” in our own workplaces.
In her work, she stated that her county’s mission is “to enhance the well-being and quality of life for all community members through the provision of the highest level of public service consistent with the prudent use of public funds,” and how one of the most important parts of that mission was making sure that well-being and quality of life was distributed equitably across all community members.
One great idea that she had, that I will be using in my own career, is to look at a breakdown of various quality of life indicators (age, median income, unemployment rate, etc.) and sort by race, by gender, by census tract, etc. to ensure that you are meeting the same quality of life indicators consistently for people of all demographics.
Another great tip that she shared was using a community impact assessment tool to put equity into your projects from step one, and get those designing the project to be thinking about who is at the table, do they have the right amount of engagement, are we thinking of what the unintended consequences of our actions might be, are we identifying opportunities to mitigate negative opportunities? The use of a community impact tool can be a valuable resource, especially because it encourages people to think not just about the benefits being distributed equitably, but that the burdens are as well.
Utilizing these tools can help local government managers make more equitable decisions across the board, and make sure that all members of our communities are included.
Learn more about the ICMA Student Chapter Program and how ICMA supports the next generation of managers.