Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


Reaching & Engaging the Underserved

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) encompass many things but at its core, DEI is about people. And key to beginning the process of identifying and addressing the needs of people, no matter the issue, is honest, open communication. It's that simple. The hard part is knowing how to make those conversations happen.

One tool, however, called Safe Zone Communication (SZC), is helping many agencies around the country finally get the DEI jump start they have been looking for.

"It started with COVID-19," said Tracey Crawford, executive director with the Northwest Special Recreation Association in Rolling Meadows, Ill., about the method's inception. "We were locked in our homes, and one of the things we were focused on as a nation was George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Maybe it was being isolated and home, but I was beginning to feel helpless—especially about being an African-American woman in a leadership role."

In response, she picked up the phone and began to talk regularly with two colleagues. Together, they processed not only their own feelings, but shared their concerns about the many entry-level staff hired just prior to COVID-19, now dealing with isolation, like themselves. How were they doing and reacting?

With so much emotional turmoil, division and need for understanding, Crawford and her colleagues wondered how to most effectively talk about these things. They began to brainstorm what kind of safe environment could help people bravely and authentically share their stories and ask their honest questions.

"Studies have shown when people start sharing their stories it puts us all on a human level and people can relate to you as a person," Crawford explained about how honest conversations can build bridges of understanding. "When we strip away all the stuff that makes us unique and get to the core of people, we are just happy, sad and glad and want to thrive and do our best for family and community."

Today this system of communication is being taught nationwide. Using an online chat space such as Zoom (enabling participants to literally feel at home because they are at home), a trained facilitator invites people to discuss a topic, to share a personal experience, to ask awkward and uncomfortable questions and process their thoughts without fear of pushback or reprisal. Meeting weekly, sometimes for three hours at a time, participants discover perspectives from others and learn about themselves in a way that is transformative.

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The results are leading to greater understanding, compassion and buy-in that is so necessary for DEI to go from a static theory on paper to a transformational reality impacting every aspect of staff and community experience. According to Crawford, the program is designed to impact four key areas or phases to create change: the personal, the professional, the agency, and the community.

Glenview Park District, one of the Northwest Special Recreation area agencies, was one of the first to try the model. Although the leadership team was initially nervous, said Crawford, once they tried it, they wanted more. As a result, they created a DEI committee in the agency to look at strategies, plans and policies.

"You start a conversation and hope it creates the synergy you need to create a committee or leaders to focus on looking at what you are doing through a DEI lens," Crawford explained. "And from that you evaluate, find blind spots and continue discussions."

Today they are working on changes in marketing, program planning and training focused on the many faces of diversity. They are having their own conversations. "We started it and now they are comfortable to have their own."

Who Are the Underserved?

At its core, DEI isn't about pushing an agenda. It's about "helping staff understand the community, and helping the community know they are understood," said Jon Marquardt, superintendent of Skokie Park District in Illinois and winner of the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association's (IPRA) 2021 DEI award, Champions for Change. "People think it's just about one thing, but forget it's about plenty of others like the disabled or older populations. If you believe that because your community doesn't have people of color you don't need to do it, you are missing the whole point."

In fact, the benefit of the DEI journey is that when tailored to each unique community, it will likely encompass and benefit so many more groups than initially imagined. Underserved populations range widely, from the financially disadvantaged to the elderly, teens, different language groups, and different religious communities, to say nothing of the issues swirling today around race, gender and LGBTQ+. No matter how homogeneous a community may seem to be, there will always be those who are underserved who need to be sought out, heard and welcomed.

For Oak Brook Park and Recreation in Oak Brook Ill., this year's winner of the Champions for Change, diversity, equity and inclusion began with surveys and listening to patron's needs. "In 2016 we didn't label it DEI, but it was about inclusive locker room facilities," said Laure Kosey, executive director of the park district about the challenges expressed by grandparents with grandchildren, caregivers with their elderly or young charges and breastfeeding mothers regarding single-sex locker rooms poorly suited to these multi-age and multi-gender needs. Today, there are plenty of locker room options for all.

Using tools like SZC also helped them recognize there were unintentional and needless barriers for some of their staff. For those whose second language was English, for example, communicating and understanding vacation days or dress codes explained in the personnel policy manual was no longer a problem once they provided a Spanish version for those who needed it.


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When a teenager approached their swim coach and requested their pronouns be "they, them and their" but that the coach not tell their parents, it was a step into unknown territory. After consulting with a lawyer to ensure they were responding appropriately, it led to the creation of a GAP strategy (express Gratitude for the trust placed in you, find out if they have Adult support, and Pass the information on to a supervisor). And for older staff less familiar with issues of gender identity, SZC gave them the space and place they needed to ask their questions, learn and be trained for experiences like these, which have become more commonplace in all communities.


Trying to understand and identify the barriers preventing the underserved from participating in park district events also takes initiative. For the financially disadvantaged, for example, transportation may not be an option. According to Dr. Augustus Hallmon, assistant professor at James Madison University's Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management in Harrisonburg, Va., we may only think of physical disability hindering access, but for children three miles away who may have to traverse dangerous neighborhoods, the solution to access isn't a ramp, but rather, finding partners to provide transportation for such things as after-school programs.


"Maybe it's your Boys and Girls Club, YMCA or local churches," Hallmon suggested. "Look for potential partners where kids are safely and consistently going, and partner with them." Or, if finances are a barrier, nonprofits like Every Kid Sports can assist families who can't afford the costs associated with youth sports.


Start Small


Making needed DEI changes can be overwhelming. "Start small," Kosey recommended. "There are a lot of things you can do that won't affect your operations: things like adding pronouns to your email signature, removing relationship status on emergency contact forms, and having a gluten-free food option when doing a birthday celebration." It's about paying attention to the little things like switching communication platforms when you realize younger staff no longer use email.


"People don't think about the little changes that can be done that will make a huge impact on the people they affect," Kosey said. And while starting small (what Kosey describes as "eating an elephant one bite at a time"), is a good start, once underserved people are identified and their voices are heard, changes made to help them actually benefit many more people.


"The Sandlot was one of the best investments we ever made," Kosey said, referring to a fenced-in inclusive playground built in 2018. "It has had such positive feedback—parents travel from all over because their autistic child can enjoy every element. That's a good story."



Get On Board


Starting the conversation is also about bringing diverse voices to the decision-making process by creating a DEI board or taskforce. "Most people look around the room and think, 'We have DEI,'" Kosey said about a common misconception that DEI is just a series of checklists, a binder on a shelf or polling a few minority members of the staff. "That is not enough. I encourage those managers to make sure everyone has a seat at the table."


While it may take time, the goal is to eventually have multiple perspectives on the board. Where those board members come from will differ depending on each facility's needs. For some, it's only staff. For others, it will include community members as well.


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For VIDA Fitness, an upscale health club in Washington, D.C., creating a DEI board that included community members and allies like a superintendent of the school system or a VP of sales and digital marketing, in addition to VIDA staff, has been incredibly valuable. "Find allies, identify resources and bring them into the fold," advised Michaela Brown, general manager of the facility and chair of the VIDA Diversity and Inclusion Board. "The end result is a board to define the scope, structure and goals and to turn conversations into action."


A DEI advocate and speaker who recently hosted a workshop at this year's IHRSA convention, Brown encourages managers to look for board members who understand and care about the unique needs of the community. "Have a town hall on DEI, and people will come who have interest and resources," Brown said about one method that has been successful in attracting potential board members. "You want resources on a local level—not someone who can't relate to your community. That's what we did and it's been fruitful."


In the Skokie Park District, a staff diversity committee was created after using the district's five-year comprehensive plan as a template to help create diversity-related initiatives. However, the committee didn't initially reflect the incredible diversity of a community with more than 70 language groups. "We got into a situation where the committee was all white for the most part," Marquardt admitted. "But you don't want to go out and say, 'Hey, you're from a minority group! Would you like to be on our committee?' People look at you like you're nuts."


For Skokie, finding a diverse staff to participate on the board started with planting seeds to prove the district was serious about DEI transformation. By inviting national speakers whose personal stories helped replace stereotypes with human experiences everyone could relate to, and training staff with such programs as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) for children of trauma, or the National SEED Project's diversity training to develop leaders, Skokie has attracted the kind of motivated and initiative-taking staff they need who look for ways to incorporate DEI into their programming. "If you rely on training alone," Marquardt warned, "you will lose them."



Training Everyone—Including You


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There comes a point, however, when you don't know what you don't know. Some 45% of facilities surveyed by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) in 2021 cited a need for recommended metrics, hiring practices and tools, and assessments as their top concerns. Getting an outside perspective from a consulting company for regular DEI audits can help identify blind spots, develop strategies to address them and then help measure progress with accountability.


Bringing in speakers, using training videos, continuing regular conversations, attending DEI webinars and convention workshops to learn about barriers to DEI (like microaggressions and unintended bias), as well as learning what diversity, equity and inclusion really are and look like, are essential to help staff and leadership better review and improve all practices and policies.


Training yourself, as a manager, by involvement in DEI groups and your own DEI board or taskforce is also invaluable. "I have personally been working with the IPRA on their diversity leadership task force," Kosey said about her own DEI journey. "I have a great DEI community around me."


Hiring Staff


Ideally, getting buy-in from your staff begins before they are hired. "It starts from the moment we receive resumes," Kosey said. "The hiring manager removes the name, address and numbers from the resume to prevent unconscious bias during the process. We ask DEI questions in the interview, and from there our DEI committee provides some kind of training to staff at least once a year."


In an effort to better reflect the diversity of their managerial staff (which initially did not resemble the nearly 50% black and more than 50% female demographic of their community), VIDA Fitness now includes a member of their diversity board in all managerial interviews to help ensure they are addressing diversity gaps and to gauge the level of the candidate's sensitivity to DEI and their mission.


Promoting from within has been another incredibly effective and creative way VIDA has improved the diversity of their personal training staff through a PT certification scholarship program for any disadvantaged and underrepresented staff who may be interested. "This has given them the opportunity to be part of the fitness industry and a whole new career path," Brown said about the popular program that has benefited former housekeeping and desk associates, among others. It's a win-win.




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One of the inevitable results of any change is pushback. It only stands to reason that in a pluralistic society with so many points of view, there is bound to be friction. When Brown is speaking or leading a workshop she always reminds future change-makers this will be part of the experience. "You will ruffle feathers so you want people to know that's OK," Brown said. "This isn't a straightforward path. You are changing years of norms and cultural understanding, so expect growth areas and turbulence—expect that and welcome it as you move forward."


For some, that pushback has not come from their own community, but those outside it. When the Skokie Park District's first family pride event was featured in Newsweek magazine, it caught the critical attention of a national politician who tweeted her opposition. Thousands of angry emails and calls from around the country, including death threats, resulted. "It gets very upsetting to see the hate," Marquardt said, especially when the negative characterization and accusations were completely false, "but when you go to the event and see the kids running around and having a good time, it zeros out all the negativity."


For Kosey, whose department has also been the target of some hostile messages, it actually strengthens her resolve. "We received a voicemail spewing hate about Black Lives Matter," she recalled about one isolated event. "So I saved it. It motivates me to be an ally for the marginalized. DEI is a process so we are still working on it. Remember, it's like eating an elephant. You don't do it all at once. Just one bite at a time." RM




Kelli Ra Anderson