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New diversity officers struggle to make an impact in Massachusetts cities and towns

Cover illustration from the Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition's new guide for local diversity officers.
Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition
Cover illustration from the Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition's new guide for local diversity officers.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, cities across Massachusetts scrambled to hire diversity, equity and inclusion officers, who are typically tasked with advising officials on how to create a fair community for residents of all races and backgrounds. But across the Commonwealth, the people in these new positions are struggling to make significant changes and finding a lack of support from other city or town leaders.

Lowell’s first DEI officer stepped down in April, citing little support from critical stakeholders and microaggressions from colleagues. Falmouth’s DEI officer resigned in March after just five months on the job. Natick’s newly established DEI Committee has yet to fill any of its seven-member roster. In May, Pembroke disbanded their five-month-old committee altogether. These same issues have appeared in Worcester, which was ahead of many cities in creating the chief diversity officer position six years ago but has already cycled through three officers.

Each city has its own story, but some DEI leaders identified similar themes and came together late last year to generate best practices for municipal diversity efforts. Operating as the Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition, the group produced a guide in May to provide municipalities new strategies for successful DEI work, such as updating hiring practices and identifying other city staffers who will champion equity efforts within their departments.

Arlington’s first DEI director, Jillian Harvey, one of the guide’s co-authors, said she feels confident in her town’s support but has colleagues that are “really facing some challenges with leadership.” She said communication with municipal leaders is key to enact change in the town where 22% of residents are people of color, according to the latest census data.

Harvey meets weekly with Arlington’s town manager, police chief and HR officials to discuss the division’s work and any obstacles it may face in the town

“That doesn’t happen in other places, but meeting with leadership should be standard,” she said. “If they really value you and they value the work that you’re doing, they’re going to listen.”

Harvey added that DEI leadership positions are often created as a reaction to an animating incident. She said that fruitful DEI work comes from sustained interest from city governments rather than a label slapped on while tensions run high.

“[City governments] need to ask themselves, ‘Are you actually ready to hire a DEI officer?’” she said. “Are you going to have this person or an office actually be integrated into the work of the town? … If not, you’re not setting them up for success.”

The DEI guide says that there is no communal understanding of what diversity, equity and inclusion actually are. Rather, it recommends “working as a community to establish shared language around what diversity, equity and inclusion mean in your local context.”

"Every town entity is different, but a lot of the challenges we face are the same," Harvey said. "Everything gets kind of dumped under this DEI umbrella when really, DEI work is everyone's work."

“[City governments] need to ask themselves, ‘Are you actually ready to hire a DEI officer?’ … If not, you’re not setting them up for success.”


Stephanie Williams, Worcester’s former DEI officer, resigned after a little over a year on the job, saying she wanted to work in an environment where she could have “more of an impact.” Upon resigning, Williams said she felt a “disconnect between organizational and institutional impact needed for this work to be successful.”

Williams was the third DEI officer to resign over six years in Worcester, where people of color make up 32% of the population. After her departure, local NAACP President Fred Taylor Sr. released a scathing statement condemning the situation. “How can you tell Black and Brown people you are serious about diversity, yet not one diversity officer has stayed in the position for two years?” he wrote.

Williams told GBH News her decision to leave was difficult and partially blamed “politics,” though she declined to go into further detail about specific instances.

“A lot of times, people hire a diversity officer, drop them in their offices and say, ‘OK, fix it,’” Williams said. She added that new hires will enter the workforce ready to make a change, and the organizations will say yes — until it “makes them uncomfortable.”

Many cities and their leaders have expressed concern over the convoluted definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion and how they differ from each other.

In Quincy, where people of color make up about 40% of the city's population, City Councilor Ian Cain told GBH News that he and his colleagues on city’s Equity and Inclusion Commission felt the words "diversity," "equity" and "inclusion" had become buzzwords for talking points that inadvertently divided people.

“After 2020, everyone was just saying [DEI] as if there was a fundamental assumption that you were supposed to know what to do and know what it meant,” said Cain.

Cain and his committee recommended the city hire what they call a "community liaison," with duties akin to a DEI officer.

"We wanted to make sure that all residents in the city have access, communication, safety and service," said Cain. "There is a cultural component to this, that people can enjoy, participate and commonly interact across cultures."

The mayor called the recommendation reasonable, and soon after, the City Council approved a new budget allocating money for the liaison’s salary. The mayor has yet to appoint someone to the position.

While Quincy is hiring for this position without "diversity," "equity" or "inclusion" in the name, some of the cities with diversity officers worry about becoming an “in-name-only” position.

The DEI guide emphasizes that simply implementing a new position is not enough. City governments must guarantee that the office will be a priority and have a seat at the table. This requires a collaborative environment, which is necessary for successful DEI work.

“Treating DEI work as a collective effort will ensure that these behaviors are taking root throughout an organization,” reads the guide. “Make sure you have co-conspirators within your organization who will help you carry the responsibility and emotional weight of this work.”

In Andover, where 22% of the population are people of color, DEI officer Albert Pless said the town has been working hard to have the proper infrastructure necessary for effective work.

"We just released our first town DEI survey, and we're now going to analyze that data to inform whatever training and learning opportunities [will be available] for our staff," said Pless, who began his job in January.

However, Pless said much more is needed to ensure he, and other DEI officers in Massachusetts, can do their job efficiently and effectively.

“I think if you ask any DEI director now … do they have what they need now to do the work they’re asked to do? I don’t think anyone would say 'yes,'” he said. “At some point, we should be putting ourselves out of a job if we do it well because the workforce needs to be diversified.”

This story was originally published on wgbh.org

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