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Municipal Diversity Plans: Transitioning from Performative to Purposeful

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

By Samantha Rosette and Danielle Gadson
December 10, 2020
 

Introduction

Municipal diversity plans, strategic roadmaps to achieving racial equality in communities, have grown in popularity over the past decade. As calls for systemic changes regarding racial inequality have become stronger in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, concrete goals and corresponding measures of success are fundamental requirements of well-defined diversity plans. A cursory analysis of select municipal diversity plans and corresponding demographic data suggests there is more work to be done in this area; municipal plans are mostly performative in nature and do not translate into significant gains of community racial equality. A brief overview of this preliminary analysis and subsequent recommendations for meaningful progression are presented in this commentary.  

Overview of the Analysis and Findings

The goal of this analytic exercise was to explore the extent to which select demographic indicators showed improvement prior to and following the implementation of municipal diversity plans in five major cities in the United States. The intent was to identify and isolate best practices for improving diversity outcomes in municipalities. The selected cities all had comprehensive diversity plans on their public municipal website and the public availability of corresponding race and poverty data for the desired timeframe. For each city, we compared racial statistics on poverty, education attainment and job attainment before and after the implementation of each city’s diversity plan. On average, there were 4.2 years between the comparison years for each city with a maximum of 5 years and a minimum of 4 years across the five cities.

The comparison of the racial data before and after the implementation of the plan uncovered the following trends:

  1. The percentage of people of color living below the poverty line had little to no change: Poverty is arguably the most important concept to address and prioritize in the creation and implementation of municipal diversity plans. This is because poverty is a significant root of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement of people of color due to its all-encompassing and cyclical nature.
  2. Educational attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher for people of color had little to no change: Low educational attainment is a systemic barrier of upward mobility. The cost of higher education and lack of access to funding opportunities and application resources can be disproportionately prohibitive for individuals of color as compared to white individuals.
  3. The percentage of people of color working low-wage jobs increased: While there is some merit to moving people out of the ranks of the unemployed, if job programs created under diversity plans transition the unemployed to low-wage employees, they do not effectively address the root of racial disparities. In four of the five cities, the percentage of people of color working low-wage jobs increased, effectively reinforcing the systemic barriers disproportionately impacting marginalized populations, and maintaining a cycle of poverty.

Transitioning from Performative to Purposeful Plans

While the mere existence of a municipal diversity plan reflects a community commitment to the achievement of racial equality, more work must be done to achieve meaningful demographic shifts toward racial equity. A focus on equality and representative diversity, two common goals of municipal diversity plans, falls short of addressing the root of racial disparities, resulting in their persistence. Currently, municipal diversity plans simply prioritize the same access to resources for the entire population, emphasizing equality.  Alternatively, equitable approaches seek to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are receiving specialized support to meet their specific needs, thus addressing the root of this problem.

To this end, three major steps for improving municipal diversity plans are recommended:

  1. Review DEI current plans for performative language and intent and revise as needed.
    a. Performative language and intent exist when blanket statements condemning systems of oppression are made but no action is taken to address the systemic problem. This approach tends to benefit the organization as opposed to the populations experiencing the harm.
  1. Include mission driven SMART goals and action steps for each outcome.
    b. Municipal diversity plan goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Every outcome should have a tangible goal and plan for achievement that is continually monitored.

  2. Open sustained lines of meaningful dialogue with community partners of color regarding the plan.
    c. Collaboration is key in the creation of successful community-based diversity plans. Savvy administrations have a pulse on the communities that they serve and seeks to have open lines of mutual sharing and understanding with key partners, especially for marginalized communities.

Conclusion

Performative municipal diversity plans not only hurt marginalized communities but also suppress the cities’ potential achievement. By holding themselves to the lower standard of representative diversity, municipalities are limiting their potential to draw on the talents, knowledge and power of their entire communities. For purposeful change, municipalities must set a diversity standard that challenges and effectively combats systems of oppression; and currently, many are falling short. Transitioning from a performative municipal diversity plan to a SMART, purposeful Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan that effectively addresses the root causes of systemic racial inequality is key in the quest for racial equity.


Authors:

Samantha Rosette is a MPA Candidate at Villanova University. Her research focus includes equitable opportunity for marginalized youth through policy and advocacy. She can be reached at [email protected].

Danielle N. Gadson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University. Her research explores best practices in the equitable implementation of public programs. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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