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Updated: September 5, 2022 Focus on Diversity & Inclusion

As Worcester prepares to publicize its racial equity audits, top leadership hopes to improve structural supports

Photo/Grant Welker Crowds of people gather in Worcester Common in front of City Hall.

The City of Worcester has been without a chief diversity officer for nearly six months now, since Stephanie Williams resigned in March, sparking widespread concern about the high turnover rate of CDOs working for Worcester. As early as mid-September, however, that could change.

Private consultancy Letterman White Consulting, LLC, based in Quincy, has been working with City leadership to conduct racial equity audits to try to understand why three diversity executives have left since the CDO role was created in 2016. 

Eric Batista, Worcester acting city manager

“I don’t want to hire anyone until we put the structure in place,” said Eric Batista, who took over as interim chief diversity officer about two months before being named acting city manager, and is still filling both roles.

“For me, my priority is to work with a consultant and to work with the [City] Council on putting the structure in place that will allow for the chief diversity officer to be successful,” Batista said.

The audits focused on Worcester’s human resources and health and human services departments, and Letterman White submitted a final report to Batista in early August.

The acting city manager has been reviewing the report and building a communications strategy, with plans to present the findings to City Council at the public meeting on Sept. 20, Batista said. 

Valerie Zolezzi-Wyndham, founder of Promoting Good

“They need to listen to what's in it and not be defensive about any findings,” said Valerie Zolezzi-Wyndham, founder of Upton diversity consultancy Promoting Good, LLC, adding transparency about the audits will be vital for the City’s improvement. “It’s only by knowing what you’re doing wrong that you’re going to do better.”

Weak structures

Worcester is not the only institution struggling to keep diversity professionals for the long-term. Although demand for the role has skyrocketed in the past five years, the average tenure for chief diversity officers is three years, according to Bloomberg News.

From September 2020 to August 2021, hiring for diversity and inclusion executives rose 111%, according to LinkedIn. This spike can largely be attributed to rising racial consciousness among businesses after George Floyd was murdered by police in May 2020, but this may be part of the problem, said Jillian Harvey, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Town of Arlington.

“A lot of these roles were created in response to [George Floyd’s murder], which isn’t necessarily the best thing because it’s kind of like that Band-aid mentality,” Harvey said. “My advice for folks who are struggling is to really look at their own system right now and ask why they’re wanting to hire someone.”

Although Worcester’s CDO role has been around about six years, leadership is still attempting to backtrack and build a stronger foundation for diversity work, Batista said.

In Worcester, the chief diversity officer is mainly tasked with internal responsibilities like hiring. Without a strong structure to hold hiring entities throughout the City accountable, problems could persist, Zolezzi-Wyndham said.

“As I think about the challenges that I used to hear about from Stephanie, I think one of the biggest challenges is just how much autonomy individual departments have to hire who and how they want. I don't know how strong their systems are,” she said. “Because the City doesn't have a practice of meeting with diversity, equity, and inclusion, not having somebody who is at a leadership level keeping folks accountable means that people who have bad practices are being allowed to continue.”

Williams declined to comment for this story. In her resignation letter in February, Williams wrote diversity, equity, and inclusion was considered more of an extracurricular activity within the Worcester city government, saying a CDO needs more than a title to succeed.

Building a commitment

To Batista, creating that foundation starts with a strong mission and vision.

“One of the key primary things that shows that a city is ready is the city itself creating a mission and vision around diversity, equity, and inclusion. If we don’t have that … then our chief diversity officer comes in and feels like there’s no direction,” he said.

Harvey echoed this sentiment. She has held her position in Arlington since 2019 and said her work has been doable because the rest of the administration has a clear commitment to diversity work.

“Seeing their vision is really what made me confident that this was an investment for the town,” she said.

Batista did not share any details about the content of the racial equity audits, nor what that structure might look like, but said it will become more clear in when he presents the report to City Council later in September. 

Jillian Harvey, DEI director for Town of Arlington

He did confirm the City is still planning to eventually hire a single chief diversity officer, rather than pivot to other models, like a committee or task force.

Harvey, who received funding to hire two additional coordinators for her department in Arlington, said a larger diversity team is often necessary for municipalities.

“Sometimes one single person is not it,” she said. “Sometimes a committee is better, sometimes a task force is better … because then you’re distributing the work and you’re making everyone realize that you all need to do this.”

The need for this kind of distribution of responsibility is not lost on Batista. He said he specifically asked the City Council to allow him to continue serving as interim chief diversity officer when they were considering him for acting city manager not only because he felt a personal commitment to the work, but because he believed it would set a positive precedent for one of the City’s top leaders to prioritize diversity work this way.

Right now, he meets weekly for one-on-one meetings with Letterman White Consulting. The next step will be getting the rest of the City on board, however.

“I can sit here and do everything I can, but if the leadership and the department heads and the staff are not supportive or they don’t understand it, then a lot of this work won’t come into fruition,” he said. “If this job becomes only my job, then I think, as a community, we will fail.”

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