Getting Started With EDI in Your Office

Equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives are about translating values into actions. The start to create a meaningful EDI initiative requires research into the current culture and practices of the organization and a commitment by the leadership to change the course of action to promote fairness and equal participation at all levels. Increasingly, local governments — and their planning departments — are making significant changes to turn EDI values into action. In a recent APA Learning Circle, participating planners shared with one another steps their agencies or firms were taking to do just that.

The American Planning Association and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Planners of Color Interest Group recently partnered on the Diversity Climate Survey. In that survey, subtitled "Moving From Aspiration To Action: Reorienting Planners' Values Towards Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion," planners acknowledge that employers are responsible for creating a climate of inclusion that starts at recruitment and continues through employment.

In 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive directive that spelled out the efforts required to ensure fairness, diversity, equal opportunity, and transparency in city government.

In response, the LA city planning department was one of the first departments to stand up and endorse the initiative. In 2020, Faisal Roble, Los Angeles' principal planner, was named its first chief equity officer and charged with leading racial justice efforts within the department. The planning department had previous success in increasing gender equity — its ranks are 57 percent women, from the leadership to entry-level — so the planning department was poised to make significant progress.

In the recent APA Learning Circle, called "Getting Started with EDI in Your Office," Faisal explained that the department is sponsoring several listening sessions for the 450 planners employed to confidentially share their experiences of the workplace to understand how safe staff members feel and to get a baseline of inclusive diversity. The planning department will use that learning to create strategies for mentorship, promotion, and retention.

In Denver, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) looked to the community and targeted their efforts to create a workforce whose demographics mirror the diversity of those they serve. They also evaluated their recruitment efforts. Taking it a step further, Susan Wood, FAICP, a project manager for RTD, notes that the agency has used workforce recruitment strategies, some with training programs, that target area schools and universities. RTD continues to look for opportunities to recruit for a more diverse pool of talent, Wood says.

Muse Community + Design in Chicago is actively working on taking real action on EDI, too. "There isn't an aspect of our work that can't be refined or improved through an equity lens," says principal Courtney Kashima, AICP. Her point of view as a female business owner with a growing firm is to look at the procurement and payment process, in particular.

"I have public sector clients who regularly don't pay us for six, nine, or 12 months," Kashima says. "If you want to talk about equity, that's where the rubber hits the road, and I think it's something that's often overlooked."

4 Ways to Expand EDI in Your Office

Courtney Kashima, AICP, offers tips for small businesses.

  1. Review all your processes. You may think there is nothing inequitable about the form applicants fill out for sidewalk repair, as an example, but take a closer look — there could be something you can improve.
  2. Examine insurance requirements. Are they onerous to small businesses? The insurance requirements should match the scope of work.
  3. Think about growth potential and not simply experience when hiring consultants or employees. It's an easy way to open doors and walk the talk of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  4. Offer a stipend for community participation. If planners want contributions of lived experience, the intellectual property of stakeholder interviews, or input from focus groups, participants should be compensated.

On the other end of the spectrum, WSP is a global firm with about 49,000 employees worldwide, with 7,000 in the U.S. working in 100 offices. WSP recently reorganized and used the opportunity to look at the workforce to identify the composition of teams. Driving the process from the top, it put in place a program that focuses on developing women and people of color to be future leaders in the company. It's part of a three-year strategy to increase diversity in leadership positions.

Another APA Learning Circle participant was Lee Pearce, the manager of talent management for WSP USA. Pearce told the group that a key driver for change is happening through the formation of a representative council, a diverse group of high-performing employees selected to act as a conduit between employees and the executive team. Council members serve as mentors and role models, as well as provide valuable insights on what professional development skills are needed and suggest changes to diversify the leadership pipeline.

To ensure EDI policies produce desired results, firms and planning departments must create a program with measurable outcomes. Here are some steps to do that.

  1. Gather data. Review pertinent departmental functions, including, but not limited to, recruitment, hiring, training, retention, promotions, and contracting. Create a mechanism to hear from employees. Los Angeles uses focus groups to do this, while WSP's representative council of employees both gathers information and makes recommendations. Analyze your office policies and practices to determine whether they are helping or hindering efforts.
  2. Create recommendations for implementation. The plans should also identify any anticipated challenges, include a reporting and auditing component, and designate staff who will be principally charged with administering the proposed plan. Identify disparities in workforce outcomes. When LA measured hiring by gender, it discovered a gap then worked toward turning it around. Today 57 percent of the workforce are women.
  3. Set goals. Create a list of equity indicators specific to a department or office and describe how the department will develop reliable data to track progress on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Consider training goals and retention as indicators of progress.

A commitment to diversity and inclusion is a start, but to fully benefit from increased racial and gender diversity, organizations must be willing to change the culture and power structure. In any area of work, employees need ongoing training and support to accomplish goals and a way to monitor and evaluate progress. EDI efforts are no different.

Planning organizations have a duty to understand the communities they serve and that is reflected in the office environment, not only to provide perspective but in doing so honors our own and others' humanity.

Top image: Illustration from gettyimages.com.


About the author
Bobbie Albrecht is the American Planning Association's Career Services Manager. This blog post comes from conversations among participants during the APA Learning Circle on starting EDI initiatives in planning offices. APA Learning Circles are networking events for planners to share ideas, methods, and solutions with one another, while also helping APA to learn more about the challenges planners face on the job. Stay tuned for our next blog post in the series: Three Ways to Attract Diverse Talent.

August 17, 2021

By Bobbie Albrecht