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Celebrating Diversity

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

By James Bourey
June 16, 2023

I have great respect for the scores of highly skilled and effective diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals helping organizations become more accepting and supportive of a diverse workforce. So it is with a significant level of humility that I offer this column. However, I must hasten to add that my views are based on over four decades of supporting and helping to develop a culture that supports a diverse group of people working together.

As I have labored to develop a workplace culture that supports a diverse workforce, I have seen the progression toward the most supportive work place as a continuum. This continuum starts with awareness. Decades ago, developing an awareness of cultural differences and the need to accept those differences seemed to be the major thrust. Not all the organizations which made a concerted effort to bring awareness to their workforce, took the second critical step of commitment to ensure their workplace was free of bias. And fewer still pushed the envelope to develop a level of cultural competency of employees. I would argue that even workplaces that develop awareness, make an absolute commitment to a bias free environment and provide cultural competency training for their employees fall short of all that is needed to embrace a diverse work environment. Only when there is a true celebration of diversity will everyone feel respected and valued.

I will use a specific example to help support this concept. One of the positions I held in my lengthy management career was as the Executive Director of a regional body serving a very large metropolitan area, including over 20 local governments and more than three million people. The organization had a broad range of responsibilities which included sophisticated computer modeling for transportation and air quality. Because of the complex work, there needed to be a highly technically skilled staff. The organization relied on people from other countries to do much of this work. I did learn a lot about H1-B work visas during this time.

We went through a very rigorous DEI program. Since I believe in employee feedback, I sought the opinions of employees about how they felt about the work environment. To our surprise and chagrin, most of the non-U.S. born employees said they felt less valued than their U.S. counterparts. We realized our work was far from complete. In order to demonstrate a genuine value for these employees, we developed a program to celebrate their cultures. We devoted a series of luncheons to focus on each of the different cultures of our employees. For each lunch we invited an employee to share some of their native food. We even gave each employee some money to buy the food they would cook for the group. This was an entirely voluntary program; voluntary for those preparing the food as well as those joining in on the lunch.

During the first luncheon, everyone who was in the office at the time participated. The second luncheon, everyone not only participated but made sure they were in the office for the event. Each luncheon turned into a wonderful celebration of the various cultures. The luncheons actually precipitated some of the employees to learn more about their own culture. The feedback made it clear that this dramatically changed how the foreign born employees felt. They recognized that they were indeed valued members of the team. Everyone believed they were on an equal footing. It is very evident to me that when an organization celebrates one another then diversity is truly embraced.      

Celebrations can take many forms. One of the positions I once held was as the County Administrator of a large urban county with approximately 10,000 employees. The area had a relatively significant and historically important Native American population. This was over twenty-five years ago, so much of today’s cultural sensitivities were not practiced. The celebration of the Columbus Day holiday was offensive to the Native American population as it is still today where it is recognized.

A group of Native American employees came to me to request that the celebration of Columbus Day be repealed. I agreed and recommended that the employees no longer receive Columbus Day off but rather have the day after Thanksgiving off instead. The Board agreed to this basic win-win proposition. This may seem rather mundane in today’s world but, at the time, it was huge for the Native American community. It represented a celebration of their culture and not of the settlers that took so much away from the indigenous people. I live in the City of Seattle, and at church services, cultural events, city council meetings and other events, there is a mention of being on the land of the indigenous people.

The foregoing examples do not involve gender identification and sexual orientation perspectives that have become lightning rod issues in many organizations. While it may make some uncomfortable to celebrate the freedom of who to love and how to express their own sexual expression, the organization doesn’t need to mandate everyone to participate. However, there does need to be inclusivity in what is celebrated. 

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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