As I’ve written about in prior blogs, one of my main personal and professional development goals of 2021 is to spend more time in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space. My desire to participate in the DEI space percolated for several years but was catalyzed by the highly publicized murder of George Floyd. I am not an expressive person when it comes to thoughts or emotions, but the killing and world reaction thereto touched me in a way that made me reflect on my own role benefiting from and perpetuating historical systems that, at best, passively tolerate and, at worst, actively enable the type of tragedy we see played out again and again in communities across the country. How many times has my privilege saved me from my own actions? Knowing myself as a younger man, probably with some frequency, although I can’t say that I noticed at the time.
And why would I have? A lot is wrapped up in my straight, middle-class, white maleness. I am the imagined default; historical structures of governance, commerce, and society were designed in my favor because people like me are the ones who did the designing. Sure, I worked hard and overcame my own obstacles, but I did so with the historical, structural advantages I have because of my white maleness. This is what I’m learning to contend with, and I am fortunate enough to work in an organization that supports this sort of development, have a colleague that serves as a fantastic mentor in this space (and others), and participate in organizations like ICMA that try to lift up and normalize the conversation about DEI and race in local government management.
Starting with Support
One thing I’ve learned is that one of the most difficult parts about starting this work is beginning it in the first place. Thankfully, I had support and people kind enough to hand me the ball, but I still have to take the ball and run with it.
I had to get okay with being uncomfortable: I do not always get it right and sometimes I get it very wrong. I absolutely and unequivocally have in the past. This is a difficult admission to make–particularly in public and immortalized on the internet–but it’s a necessary admission for growth to occur. Being uncomfortable comes with challenging your implicit and explicit biases, but it also comes with displaying the vulnerability necessary to grow and share with others and to try to facilitate what a colleague of mine recently referred to as racial healing. I have a lot of room for improvement in this area, however, I’ll have ample opportunity to work those skills as a participant in a year-long Government Alliance on Race & Equity cohort, of which my jurisdiction happens to be a member–and that’s part of the point, too–a lot of other people are interested in engaging in these conversations and, believe it or not, are willing to support and educate when you do get it wrong. That’s how the process works; we learn, grow, and heal together. Mutual respect, grace, and a willingness to, as Ms. Frizzle the Magic School Bus so wonderfully says,
"Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy." My approach to development in this space is very much stolen from the Friz. Take chances on people hearing you and on hearing people, make and acknowledge mistakes so you can learn from them, and be prepared to get messy.
I had to read and engage. As I mentioned previously, I have the benefit of a great mentor in this area who constantly recommends books, articles, trainings, and videos/webinars to support my learning and development. More importantly, she will follow up on them, “What did you think of that chapter/speaker/training?” and we’ll talk about it, even if only briefly. The types of readings I tend to get the most out of are those that challenge me to reflect on my own experience. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi lives up to the hype by not only building the framework for antiracism (and anti-otherisms) but for the direct applicability to public service–challenging, evaluating, reshaping, and rethinking public policies, institutions, and social arrangements core to the profession of public administration (Is this policy racist, not racist, or actively antiracist?). Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez takes a deep, detailed, and devastating dive into the near-universal data bias towards the ‘default white male,’ using examples ranging from the mundane daily activities to jaw-dropping, world-scale design. One example early in the book describes bias in snow-clearing procedures in a specific city–prioritizing clearing for cars over pedestrians when women and children are more likely to use sidewalks during daily activities and thereby leading to increased and disproportionate slip/fall injuries. How many in our profession are under pressure to get the roads cleared?
I had to be willing to seek out and take opportunities as they came. There are a ton of great offerings online and resources available through universities, advocacy organizations, and professional organizations. It may be worth checking out your alma mater or local institution to see what’s available. Earlier this year, I attended a webinar organized by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law. It was inexpensive, easy to access, and directly applicable to my job. The Color of Law is significant for those in local government because it challenges us on our home turf. To their credit, many professional organizations, universities, and others have responded with strong messaging, content, and the facilitation of difficult conversations (ICMA being one of them). Leverage their willingness to facilitate a conversation and participate.
I opened this post by sharing my desire to learn and grow in this space in 2021, but it’s important to say that this is not a year-long endeavor; there is no litmus test, no secret technique, and no tangible finish line. There is only the work and one’s willingness to grow. As said by people more talented than I, it is not enough to be not racist; one must become actively antiracist to effect change. From that, I have come to believe that silence and inaction on the part of people like me straddles the line between complacency and complicity. I have a platform from my profession, my societal position, and through my association with state and national organizations like ICMA, so why not use it to share my own development goals, setbacks, and, to the extent that I can, invite others to learn with me?