Diversity is good business

John Benda
Manager of Maintenance & Traffic
Illinois State Toll Highway Authority
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

If you are one of the thousands of 2003 Congress attendees who happened to miss the "Diversity Is Good Business" educational session, or were unable to attend Congress, I invite you to read on.

Three APWA members were invited to speak on the topic of diversity from the prospective of their communities. Our desire was to select communities from different geographical areas, and of different sizes.

The following are some highlights of the presentation. Many thanks to the presenters and their communities for allowing them to share their experiences.

Eugene, Oregon: Eric Jones, Public Affairs Manager, Department of Public Works
Representing the Pacific Northwest, Eugene is the third largest city in Oregon with a population of 142,380 over 42 square miles. The Greater Metropolitan area population exceeds 250,000. Home to the University of Oregon, with an enrollment in excess of 20,000 students, Eugene is a very active community with numerous neighborhood and campus organizations that are actively involved in issues facing the community with the challenge being how to balance competing community values.

Eugene has met these challenges head-on by an in-depth and continuing diversity focus on all city departments.

A city-wide Diversity Advisory Council has been established and each department has active diversity committees that develop and implement work plan goals, such as diversity training, survey of employees, recruitment strategies, communication, and community outreach and involvement.

The Public Works Diversity Committee "Mission": "To challenge and lead the Public Works Department to provide a more respectful work environment in which diversity is a strength in providing services to the community," establishes diversity practices as integral to the business of the department.

Several recent accomplishments of the Public Works Diversity Committee are:

  • Employee Evaluations that incorporate workplace diversity measures as criteria for rating employee performance.

  • Piloted a successful Mentoring Program in 1999 that is now being expanded to all Public Works Divisions. The Mentoring Program, designed to help new employees be successful, is open to non-supervisory employees who have strong people skills, operational knowledge and familiarity with work crews, and are capable of keeping discussions confidential.

  • Completed an in-depth Workplace Assessment involving all employees that resulted in several key recommendations including demonstrating top management commitment to a respectful workplace, empowering all employees to be successful, resolving conflict and disputes in a timely manner, and reviewing and clarifying internal policies for better employee understanding. A follow-up assessment is planned.

The net effect of the above diversity focus has been: Greater pool of ideas (input) from employees; more teamwork; better recruitment, selection and retention of employees; fewer unproductive staff interactions; increased receptivity and adaptability to changes; and better service delivery through awareness of community needs and resulting increased community support.

Riviera Beach, Florida: Donald Jacobovitz, P.E., Director of Public Works
In some contrast to Eugene, Riviera Beach is located 75 miles north of Miami and directly north of West Palm Beach, has a population of just under 30,000 covering 8.3 square miles, and is a commercial seaport on the Atlantic Ocean.

While Riviera Beach does not currently have a formalized diversity program, it is embarking on a major redevelopment effort of commercial, recreational, cultural, and housing improvements on prime real estate involving some 850 acres of coastal property. Significant diversity efforts will be needed by the Community Redevelopment Agency that must effectively communicate with a broad range of issues and interest groups as the project(s) moves forward.

In moving forward the community recognizes the need to focus on issues of change management, employment practices, and fostering an atmosphere that promotes free flow of new ideas. Procurement practices are also slated for change to give less preferential treatment for local vendors and thereby receive increased participation and improved pricing. More EEO and other diversity training is planned to improve employment practices and stimulate new ideas and reduce job entrenchment.

Evanston, Illinois: Cathy Radek, Superintendent - Administrative Services, Department of Public Works
The City of Evanston, Illinois, the state's sixth largest community, was founded in 1863. It is located just 11 miles north of downtown Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some 75,000 residents occupy 8.5 square miles—certainly a densely populated area with nearly 9,400 persons per square mile. It is a vibrant, diverse community—in fact, residents pride themselves on the community's racial, religious, ethnic, social and economic diversity. Evanston shares a strong history with Northwestern University. Evanston grew up around the University.

Evanston is a community of variety and it is believed this variety creates vibrancy in the life of the town that encourages economic development. The number of businesses has increased by 27% over the past six years, and an impressive 1,400 new jobs have been created during the same time period.

To quote Cathy: "Simply put, diversity is good for business in Evanston."

Four target areas were further discussed in the presentation encompassing Human Relations, Health Services, Arts Promotion and Purchasing Practices. A few highlights are noted.

Human Relations

  • Enforcing the fair housing ordinance with particular attention to rental property standards.

  • Serving as an alternative dispute center. Three city staff members (one Hispanic, one African-American and one Caucasian) provide individual mediation services on housing as well as other interpersonal dispute matters—matters referred by judges in the local court system, as well as directly from citizens confronted with cultural differences.

  • Educating realtors and owners of rental property on how to screen tenants. Providing educational seminars to tenants on their rights and responsibilities.

  • Participating on a City Enforcement Team by looking at properties with a lot of police reports. By cooperating with police officers, fire safety personnel and the alderman of the ward, city staff attempt to create—by working with the landlord and the tenant—a decent place to live.

  • Conducting a semiannual outreach program for the many international university students as an aid to them, describing their rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the community—where to come for help and what to expect from government.

  • Providing fun for the entire community by sponsoring, in partnership with the police department, a CommUNITY picnic. Held annually during the last Sunday in August, it is a free celebration with all food and entertainment donated by our businesses.

Health and Human Services

  • Educating seniors through programs on various topics such as predatory lending practices or on understanding medical expenses and completing insurance forms.

  • Staffing a facility designed for seniors that will help attract younger seniors, serving as a friendly venue for children of seniors to meet for educational programs on care for the elderly, and helping the seniors plan for their own future health care.

  • Serving as resource for information on various area services for the elderly, focused on both elderly and their children and relatives.

  • Employing local graduate students for special projects by providing clinical and administrative experience.

  • Creating a Hispanic Outreach Specialist to provide a translator and someone whose role is to educate this segment of the population so that they are able to advocate for themselves.

Arts Promotion. Three innovative approaches have been developed.

  • A former school building now owned by the City houses 28 artistic tenants. Part of the rental agreement with each tenant is the requirement that 15% of the annual rental cost be returned to the community in the form of service by the artist. The City in turn sponsors an annual Arts Week by promoting the Center and providing free entertainment to draw people to the Center to see the work housed within the building and to meet the artists.

  • A public art committee acts as a review panel on all proposed public art projects. The City requires that 1% of all construction costs for new public buildings be dedicated for the creation of artwork to be permanently displayed. Criteria include appropriateness to the specific building project, artistic excellence, ability to complete the project, expression of diversity, and service to the community.

  • Annually the City sponsors the Ethnic Arts Festival, a two-day event on the lakefront, providing free continuous performance on two stages as well as over 100 tent sites for artisans and importers to display their art and crafts for sale. In addition, some two dozen food purveyors offer sampling of international cuisine to fairgoers.

The focus of these efforts is to make more than a token effort to attract diverse artistic expression; to celebrate it and make it possible for artists to thrive in the community.

Purchasing Practices

  • Minority, Women and Evanston business—target participation—in all city construction projects. While not a specific set-aside program but rather a goal-based program, Evanston aggressively monitors a target goal of 25% of all projects using minority, women or Evanston business enterprises to provide goods and services. Our coordination efforts are done during the pre-bid portion of a project when we supply information to potential bidders on minority, women and Evanston business enterprises.

  • Working in concert with the Chamber of Commerce, a Vendor Fair is hosted. City staff invites minority, women and Evanston-owned business enterprises to introduce themselves to area buying organizations as an aid to fostering future business opportunities. The goal is to improve business in a meet-and-greet atmosphere.

Whether applied within an organization to improve its responsiveness, flexibility and strength as is being done in Eugene, Oregon, or applied to a an economic redevelopment challenge in a coastal community like Riviera Beach, diversity emerges as a key element to success. In Evanston diversity is its identity, and the ongoing celebration of this fact has proven to be enormously successful and a catalyst for economic growth.

Diversity is good business.

John Benda can be reached at (630) 241-6800 or at jbenda@tollway.state.il.us.