Diversity, in and out of APWA

A Q&A

Editor’s Note: The Diversity Task Force was originally established in 1995 to prepare a statement on diversity for APWA. Previously, the association had established a Commission on Equal Opportunity, but as diversity issues arose in the workforce and organizational changes were made in the association, the Board of Directors established the task force to create a statement on diversity.

As the members of the task force believed that their work would be ongoing and important to the association, they requested the board to move the task force from temporary to permanent status by making it a standing committee of the association. Thus, the Diversity Committee was formed in December 1999.

The following Q&A casts some light on a number of diversity issues, both in general and within the association. Interviewees who graciously agreed to participate include Judy Mueller, Public Works Director for the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, and President-Elect of APWA (to become President in September 2000); Steven Masters, Public Utilities Administrator for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Chair of the Diversity Committee; and Anita Maltbia, Assistant Director for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, and member of the Diversity Committee.

Reporter: What is the purpose of the Diversity Committee?

Maltbia: The purpose is to facilitate members of APWA in their efforts to manage diversity, and to enhance diversity in their respective organizations as well as in APWA itself.

Mueller: I think it’s important that we understand where it came from. The original task force initially looked at the lack of diversity in the leadership of APWA, and looked to create opportunities for more diverse members to have leadership roles. When the task force was first created, our goal at that time was to work ourselves out of existence, and the ultimate goal would be that our leadership had become so diverse that we didn’t need a committee to talk about it anymore.

Reporter: When did APWA first become actively involved in the issues represented in diversity?

Maltbia: Diversity issues have been important to the association for at least 20 years. My first involvement was during the national Congress in Kansas City in 1980. A diversity group was in existence then, and I sat in on one of the meetings and began to be affiliated with it at that time.

Masters: The first APWA Congress I went to was Chicago in 1987. One of the things that really struck me was the emphasis on values within public works organizations. It was compelling to see and hear the interactions of those attending sessions on diversity and the overall issues of organizational values.

Reporter: What were some of the early themes in diversity? Are any of the themes different now?

Mueller: Initially the group was looking at diversity from a gender and racial standpoint. Now it’s far more encompassing by also looking at factors such as age and ethnicity. It’s much broader than where we were 15 or 20 years ago.

Maltbia: Back then it was probably a little more novel for the subject to be broached. At the time, there was definitely a need for APWA and public works to be very intentional in their efforts to be more diverse in almost every area.

Masters: For our public works utilities department, our early involvement emphasized the legal framework around affirmative action and discrimination. Over time, our attention has been directed toward making our workplace more positive and supportive of the different individuals who constitute our workforce. Stated somewhat differently, how can we build upon our productivity by supporting one another? I would characterize our organizational change from a focal point of the legal framework, moving more toward understanding our differences and building upon our common opportunities.

I think we see that sort of value evolving within individual public works departments and those private companies that service the public works industry. I’m impressed by the number of public works departments that have, as a part of their mission, a statement about human values in their workforce. I haven’t done anything scientific, but consistently you hear that theme come back.

Reporter: What are some of the programs and activities that are being led by the Diversity Committee?

Mueller: One of the most significant things that the Diversity Committee has done is to bring speakers to our national Congress, talking about diversity in the workplace. I remember when Anita was a speaker-not only did we fill the room, we had people standing everywhere. I had to run out and make copies of the handout. At the time, diversity was such an emerging issue that people really wanted help and advice on how to deal with the changing workplace. And we were surprised at our success. I think the committee has built on that to bring more of the management-level issues on diversity to our members.

I think a second big thing that the group did was the First Timers reception that they created at Congress to make people feel comfortable their first time there. Coming to Congress for the first time can be rather intimidating, not having been to a large professional Congress before, and this was a venue that the Committee created to give people the opportunity to meet other folks who were there for the first time and to make them feel more comfortable. That’s something that you probably wouldn’t think of in terms of diversity, but it’s one of the things that the group was sensitive to.

As I travel around the country, one of the things I hear frequently from the chapters is, “How do we get younger professionals interested in APWA?” And I didn’t hear that 15 years ago. I think the work of the Diversity Committee has made people sensitive to looking at the total membership, to see if we are really being inclusive of everyone who is in the public works profession.

Masters: We’re also working on a project, along with APWA staff, on the Emerging Leaders program. We’re hopeful that we’ll encourage evolving leaders to evaluate the notion of diversity, and also provide some opportunity for women and minorities to become more involved in APWA.

We are also trying to establish liaisons in every chapter. Each liaison would assist his or her chapter and president in having some sort of diversity programming sometime during the year, and in contributing ideas and success stories to the association.

Maltbia: We’re working on a handbook that will help programming and interaction at the chapter level. We also give awards for strides in diversity. The awards recognize governments and organizations that have taken the whole issue of diversity seriously and have put into place processes or programs that facilitate the goal of being more diverse.

Reporter: What are we seeing as differing issues in comparing the private sector and public organizations in our industry, as pertains to diversity?

Maltbia: Quite frankly, I don’t think that the issues differ that much. My husband worked in the private sector, and over the years we have been able to compare notes. He has had to concern himself with some of the very same issues. If anything, the public sector has been held to an even higher requirement simply because everything we do is open to public scrutiny. But the same issues exist for both sectors, and in fact I am aware of several large corporations that have met recently to discuss-to use my term-how to go “beneath the surface.”

By that I mean that for a lot of years there has been polite conversation about diversity, which usually does not result in positive action nor does it put it very high on the priority list. And that’s not to say that you’re to have impolite conversation, but it is to say that you’re to be more real, to put out on the table what the real issues are and grapple with those, as opposed to just dancing around the edges. The marketplace and the high employment level have caused both public and private sectors to see that they need to be more serious about making good use of all of our human resources.

Masters: I think as time has gone by we’re seeing that, in the private sector, increasingly their customer base is outside the U.S. Increasingly, municipalities, as they acquire hardware and services, are working with companies that have an international base. So, within the private sector the notion of the global economy and global workforce is a reality. And I think we’re seeing more frequently in the public sector, partly because our workforce is changing, individuals joining our workforce who were born in other countries. It’s interesting to see how things are changing.

While I believe that APWA has always been concerned about the legal framework which I mentioned earlier, my observation is that the association has also always worked to provide insight, guidance, and leadership on the values of building upon our human capital. As you look to the private sector and those companies that are successful in other countries, you see that being central to their mission. As you look at APWA, we’ve become more involved with the private sector, and I think that we’re also seeing the focus on a more global perspective becoming a natural for the association.

Reporter: Let’s go back to something Judy mentioned earlier, regarding making new attendees at Congress feel more comfortable. How does that fit in with the concept of diversity?

Maltbia: Well, many times new attendees at Congress are also relative newcomers into the world of public works. Hopefully, a fair percentage of those newcomers are women and minorities, as well as the disabled. So in working to try to ensure that newcomers to the conference have a good experience, we are reaching out to that group of people who will include women, minorities, and people with disabilities, as well as white males. In setting aside time to inform and greet these first-time attendees, we will increase the probability that they will have a good experience, that they will understand the conference, and that they will meet some people.

That is really what it’s all about-being inclusive. It’s very easy to go to a big conference and feel like a stranger. So this provides an avenue to begin the inclusion process.

Mueller: Let me give you an example. Fifteen years ago, when I’d go to national Congress and walk through the exhibit hall with my husband, all of the exhibitors would speak to him and not to me, even though my name tag was the member color. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Reporter: What changes that are occurring within the workplace also need to be emphasized by the association’s diversity initiative?

Mueller: I think the full emphasis that we’re all seeing on teamwork in all of our organizations; employees learning to work together; other employees who are different than they are; making them learn to not just accept but to appreciate the differences; and to build on the strengths that those differences bring to the workplace.

Maltbia: More and more organizations are recognizing that it’s not enough just to do a half a day with the line people, that you need to work with the leadership of an organization and make sure that they are on board in their understanding and their commitment to diversity. I believe that every organization needs to approach it in that way-that we need to make sure that our leadership is committed to being inclusive.

And the thing that I said earlier, which is that people are desirous of dealing with real issues as opposed to a kind of window-dressing approach-we as an organization seek to do the same thing. We need to help, particularly, our supervisors and managers to understand that this is not something “nice” to do, that it really is a matter of competence in being a good supervisor or manager, and that you can deal effectively with people from various backgrounds.

If you are a supervisor or a manager and you have people whose talents are either not fully developed, or not fully utilized, then it is your job to assist in the development of their potential. In so doing, the organization is strengthened and its goals are attained, if not surpassed.

Reporter: Are there any other issues regarding diversity that you would like to address?

Mueller: One of the things that I hope to do next year [as APWA President] is to create more opportunities for younger members, women, and minorities in leadership roles, and to make presidential appointments with this in mind. I believe it’s important to reach out and create some opportunities for some new faces, to identify some new blood in the organization.

Masters: One parting thought: increasingly we are seeing private business and public organizations work on ways to be more inclusive and to capitalize on the ideas and human resources that are within their organizations. Those organizations that are able to use diversity as a strength, to build on it as a strength, are better meeting the needs of all their employees, experiencing a synergy that results in more productive operations. And they’re having fun doing it.

Maltbia: I would just stress again the importance of dealing with real issues and helping people to understand a couple of things: that being inclusive is about being competent in your position, and that you have to be able to cultivate all of the resources available to you. We cannot afford to ignore groups of people because they don’t fit a certain physical mold.