Feature Article - September 2022
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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Reaching & Engaging the Underserved

By Kelli Ra Anderson


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.

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."