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Profile: Stefanie Bowers

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

Responses by Stefanie Bowers
October 3, 2022

Stefanie Bowers

What brought you to DEI work? And, talk about how your position came to be and how your office fits within the larger city government framework.

Iowa City began to look at an Office of Equity and Human Rights through community-led initiatives. We started looking at racial equity in 2012, the year Trevon Martin was murdered in Florida. Like many others across the country, community members reacted and expected more from their local government in advancing equity at the municipal level. In response, the city council established an ad hoc diversity committee, which met for approximately one year and developed a set of recommendations on ways the City could advance this work. One was to create the Office of Equity and Human Rights.

Using racial equity toolkits and resources that Portland made available to acquaint ourselves with them, we began to apply an equity lens to review our policies, services and programs. The advisory committee also asked City staff to produce a racial report card each year, looking at hiring, City board and commission members’ demographics, the number of race-based complaints received and police data for adult and youth arrests and charges. Since 2013, the council has prioritized advancing racial equity as one of its strategic goals.

I began my first position in Iowa City in 2006 as human rights coordinator. At that time, I was responsible for enforcing local anti-discrimination laws. In 2012, that position advanced to being equity director.

What are the greatest challenges that you and your office have faced recently?

Operationalizing racial equity and making it part of daily practices, a challenge we have experienced since our work began.

Fortunately for my office, the county handles public health, so Iowa City did not have some of the burdens that other communities face related to COVID. But, the pandemic certainly has affected our ability to engage in outreach and conversations with our community. If you want to improve, you have to talk with community members and find the barriers so you can identify ways to mitigate or remove them. COVID became a challenge to us having those conversations. Prior to winter, we could use city parks and socially distance, but once winter hits in Iowa, we have almost four months of cold weather and it is not as easy to gather.

As 2021 moves along and many return to their “normal” or longstanding attitudes toward DEI efforts, how has your office responded?

This is common and something you see in this type of work. One thing that assisted us with City staff was when the council made equity part of its strategic plan and the city manager made it a priority. Leadership plays a very important role in making it clear to folks that this is something that is expected of them if they are working for the city.

Additionally, HR added questions to staff’s yearly evaluations related to what they have done to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in their role with the city. When something becomes part of a performance evaluation, it encourages reasonable people to do things to ensure that they can point to their contributions when they are evaluated. Our job descriptions also mention the city’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; when we conduct interviews, we ask candidates about what that means to them and how they think they can advance those initiatives if selected to work for the city.

The work you do is absolutely critical, but also extraordinarily difficult. How do find the energy and will to keep this work going and inspire others to join you?

One of the things that keeps me motivated is hearing what other communities are doing. Peers’ support is extremely important for both motivation and learning. There is so much overlap, even though we may be in different spaces. What is seen in one community is reflected in others across the country.

Stefanie Bowers is director of equity and human rights coordinator for the City of Iowa City. Her experience focuses on providing strategies, planning, facilitation and development of government work on racial equity and engagement for the present and long term. Her work includes enforcement and protection of Iowa City’s Human Rights Ordinance. Bowers graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and holds a JD from the University of Iowa College of Law. She can be reached at [email protected].

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