Feature Article - September 2017
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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Parks

Planning, Programming and Staffing to Better Serve All Residents

By Chris Gelbach

Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Staffing

Park districts seeking to be more equitable and inclusive in their hiring and in attracting a more diverse mix of park-goers can have more success with the latter by addressing the former. "If a community can see that the staff is representative and looks like them, it does increase the odds of participation from that particular community," Caraveo said.

In fact, Caraveo often leads with the employment-related benefits of learning to swim in speaking to communities that traditionally under-participate in swim programs. "I don't necessarily speak to them about swimming as a sport, but swimming as a skill that can help develop a workforce for you," Caraveo said.

In lower-income communities where teens will often seek out minimum-wage jobs at age 15 or 16, he emphasizes how learning to swim and joining a swim team can then lead to a young person getting their Water Safety Instructor and Lifeguarding certification. They can then be prepared for a job in park districts that often have a desperate need for additional guards. "Now, you're getting a job that can pay $2 or $3 more per hour than your minimum-wage job. And if that can be in your community where you can walk, even better."

USA Swimming has several programs that can help park districts build this talent pipeline. By becoming a Make a Splash local partner of the USA Swimming Foundation, rec departments can become eligible for grant money for swim lessons and are subject to reporting to ensure lesson quality. Through USA Swimming, departments can also start a USA Swimming community swim team, joining more than 2,800 existing teams across the nation and gaining access to benefits such as coach education and development.

EBPRD, meanwhile, has a variety of initiatives aimed at exposing underserved communities to employment opportunities in the outdoors and conservation. These include a hands-on youth job fair where ages 12 to 21 can learn about different jobs in the park district such as interpretive, recreation, park ranger, maintenance and park police roles.

The EBPRD also has a two-pronged internship program. It includes academic internships tied to universities for which interns can get college credit, and field internships that trade school and high school students can participate in to build skills in park ranger, landscaping and other roles. Additional programs involve projects with at-risk youth who often continue in other EBRPD programs afterward.

To successfully attract interest from more diverse candidates, some parks departments are also reconsidering their job descriptions. "Our job descriptions are written to highlight the fact that we're looking for people who know how to connect with diverse communities," said Metro's Goorjian. "In fields where there isn't a diverse pipeline, we're doing what we can to help diversify that pipeline."

The department is doing that through programs such as its Youth Ecology Corps, where young people from low-income families get experience in natural resource centers. Many of the department's Partners in Nature program also focus on nature education and on exposing youth of color to careers in natural resources.

Metro additionally recognizes the importance of working with more minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses as contractors. It has recently held workshops in both English and Spanish to help these establishing businesses learn the ins and outs of the public procurement process. "We know it's not a level playing field, so we're trying to do things to make it more equitable," Goorjian said. The department is seeing results from the effort, with 17 of roughly 30 new contractors hired coming from minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses.

At the Avarna Group, Holliday often works with agencies to create more inclusive job descriptions and minimize bias in hiring. The group offers a free hiring toolkit online that describes a variety of tactics that can help organizations mitigate gender, racial and other hidden biases in recruiting, marketing, job descriptions, screening resumes, job interviews and candidate selection.

Tackling these and other issues can seem daunting. But they are individual steps that contribute to an ongoing process that results in park operations that can continue to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive over time.

"I think that understanding that the work is iterative can be really helpful for folks — they don't have to do it all at once," Holliday said. "But knowing that they're going to continue to chip away at it and going to continue to learn is a helpful framework to be in."