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An Intentional Cause or Not? Shinning a New Light on Diversity in Illinois

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze 
October 10, 2019

The newly elected Illinois Governor, JB Pritzker, enacted recent legislation regarding diversity. This, combined with the unprecedented appointment of women and minorities to key positions earlier in Pritzker’s administration, may be an indication of a big change coming to Illinois. This will set a great example for the rest of the nation. The Governor sparked hope that heralds a new era for workplace diversity when as the Governor elect on January 10, 2019, he filled eight positions in his incoming administration, seven of which were female appointees. One of those was the appointment of Theresa Eagleson to head the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, “The giant agency that’s in charge of administering Medicaid and child support services,” with a total budget up to $23 billion. Brigadier General Alicia A. Tate-Nadeau, who was the first woman to be promoted to general in the Illinois Army National Guard was named the Director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and also makes history as the first woman to lead the agency. Tate-Nadeau was also appointed the Director of Homeland Security, making her the security chief in charge of managing security efforts in the State, a job typically held by men.

Governor Pritzker’s appointment of Dr. Ngozi Ezike as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health was also a sign of progress in the State’s diversity effort. Ezike, an African American woman, heads the Department of Public Health, whose mission is to promote health and wellness of citizens and visitors through prevention, control and monitoring of disease and injury.

A similar pattern was observed in the appointment to some boards. The Governor’s appointment of majority women to some boards signaled support for an enthusiastic embrace of diversity. This seeming spirit of reform may position the State to lead in a journey that is capable of having a ripple effect across the State and the nation. Out of the eight new board members Governor Pritzker appointed to the State Board of Education, six are females, including two African-Americans. The Governor also later replaced former superintendent, Tony Smith, who resigned in January, with a female appointee, Dr. Carmen Ayala. In a similar move, the Governor appointed majority women to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, an agency with the critical function of coordinating higher education in the State and also considered a sister agency to the State Board of Education with oversight of pre-K to 12 public education in the State.  The Governor’s appointment to the Illinois Board of Higher Education was highly anticipated, as Illinois experienced a major setback in higher education due to the budget impasse that impacted almost every institution that receives state funding for education. On August 2, 2019, Governor Pritzker announced nine new members to the board, which consist of 5 females and two African-American members. According to the Illinois e-News Release, the appointment builds, “On a strong team of diverse experts in their fields.”

On the legislation agenda, Governor Pritzker’s signing of HB3394 on August 27, 2019, a bill aimed at improving diversity of corporate boards in Illinois, signals that diversity may be an intentional cause this administration intends to pursue. The bill, which amends the Business Corporation Act of 1983, requires publicly held corporations in Illinois or foreign corporations with principal executive office in Illinois to disclose representation of women and minorities on their boards on the annual report submitted to the Secretary of State. The original version of the bill would have mandated corporations to have at least one female director and one African-American director on its board of directors. While critics claim the final version of the bill is watered-down and loses its intended value as a vehicle to improve diversity, the requirement for disclosure on an annual basis builds in transparency, which is critical in making any meaningful change. Illinois Representative, Emanuel Chris Welch, who introduced the bill said, “It’s a different bill, but I do believe the objectives of the original bill will be met.”

While it is important to recognize major milestones capable of changing the trajectory, it cannot be denied that many have lost hope as the lack of diversity has plagued the nation’s workplace for eternity. The rhetoric to achieve diversity has remained loud in the last two decades, however, the progress remains slow as females and minorities continue to be underrepresented in top executive positions. Though the examples in this report are certainly too limited in scope to fully understand the progress made to improve diversity in the State of Illinois, they give hope for a change in the positive direction and also highlight the significance of making diversity an intentional cause that require a conscious effort to achieve. The review of the next (2019) Illinois Gubernatorial Boards and Commissions Act Report, a legislative mandate to provide annual demographic breakdown of appointments by the Governor, will reveal a clearer picture of the progress made.

Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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