Feature Article - September 2022
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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Reaching & Engaging the Underserved

By Kelli Ra Anderson


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.

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.