7 Tips for Starting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committees

Many municipal planning departments are adopting a fairness and equity mindset in their work with the communities they serve. However such guiding principles need to be backed up by workplace practices elevating equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) goals within the planning firms and public agencies themselves.

Where some organizations get stuck is translating those goals into action.

Leadership Role is Vital in Fostering EDI Culture

Your organization's leadership should be talking about EDI as a core value, but leaders also have the responsibility to show their staff and the communities they serve that they mean business when it comes to your EDI culture. Fostering an inclusive workplace is both a top-down and bottom-up endeavor — and that needs ongoing attention and resources to produce results.

EDI efforts are essential to your employee recruitment and retention planning in today's competitive talent marketplace. Potential candidates will be keeping a close eye on how an organization lives its EDI values. Making EDI central to your organization's culture and continuing to take steps to make the workplace equitable for all employees is imperative.

A valuable starting point is a standing committee at your organization empowered to make changes and stay on top of issues. While leaders and senior managers can get the ball rolling, they don't have to be the primary drivers. In some offices, business resource groups (BRG) or employee resource groups (ERG) take the lead. "If you don't have immediate buy-in from leadership, you can get started as a grassroots effort," says Miguel Vazquez, AICP, the immediate past chair of the APA Diversity Committee. "The grassroots approach is an opportunity to establish community within the organization."

EDI committee membership should draw from all levels of the organization and represent as many backgrounds and perspectives as feasible. Keep in mind that diversity goes beyond racial, ethnic, and gender representation. Sexual orientation, age, disability, neurodiversity, religion, and language are other criteria that influence the personal experiences and worldviews that people bring to the workplace.

Here are some key steps to launching a diversity committee that can make your organization's EDI values part of everyday reality.

1. Start talking to people — at all levels

Self-selection is a good place to start but be aware that the burden of educating others and holding space for these conversations should not lie on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) colleagues, says Tiffany-Ann Taylor, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association. Regardless of how potential volunteers identify, they should be enthusiastic, energetic, and committed, which "will provide fuel to the entire committee," she adds. "If you're asking people to give up their time or to consider this as a trade-off worth their time, you should probably make sure that they're passionate."

2. Develop a strategy

Set up one or more master brainstorming sessions to discuss priorities, goals, and processes. What's the reach you want to capture? What's your approach to working with your top leaders? How will you communicate with colleagues in middle management, entry-level roles, and administration?

3. Consider shared committee leadership

Giovania Tiarachristie, a former deputy director and now a DEIJ consultant and wellness facilitator, notes that stress and burnout are real, and can impact progress. "It's important to have multiple folks in that position of leadership so it's not one person alone shouldering the responsibilities," she says, adding that co-chairs can be a successful approach in a diversity committee structure. It's useful to have one or more members who are skilled at project management, logistics, and handling detail work for the committee, as well as those whose focus is strategic ideation.

4. Be clear about its purpose and scope

An absence of clarity about the charge of the committee can squander the energy that could be applied to getting the job done and may decrease the buy-in of committee members. "Use your planner skills to synthesize ideas and find good ways of identifying consensus," says Libby Tyler, FAICP, the community development director for San Pablo, California.

Setting a clear goal helps the chair identify and communicate the skills and knowledge needed from committee members. Consider including people with experience in organizational development, crafting mission and vision statements, and strategic planning, for instance. These are all skill sets that will help keep the committee focused.

5. Provide training that reinforces the mission

These could be in-person classes or online resources that cover topics such as attaining cultural competency or understanding the impacts of unconscious bias. Such education could be especially useful for committee members when EDI considerations are not explicitly part of their everyday job. For example, training in the use of diverse pronouns may be a good starting point for the committee and then easily rolled out to others in the organization. Encouraging empathy counts a lot when you're training people to tackle issues that require new ways of approaching work and life.

6. Anticipate competing ideas and passionate dialogue

Acknowledge that dialogue, debate, and discussion can support idea sharing. Articulate what respectful conversation entails: It can preserve and build trust among colleagues and lead to bridging ideas across differences.

7. Understand that change takes time

It's not always obvious how your efforts are making a difference, but the results build little by little over time. On a practical level, develop periodic surveys that can provide feedback and measure results for the efforts you are making. "Change is slow and that's okay," says Taylor. "EDI is an evolving conversation."

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - monkeybusinessimages

About the author
Bobbie Albrecht is the American Planning Association's Career Services Manager.

September 19, 2022

By Bobbie Albrecht