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Commission says Ashland needs DEI manager

The Ashland Social Equity and Racial Justice Commission is preparing to bring to Ashland City Council a recommendation that the city establish a new diversity, equity and inclusion manager staff position.

During the Dec. 2 SERJ Commission meeting, co-chair Emily Simon said appointing a DEI manager would serve as a better route for achieving goals than using a “patchwork” of consultants for training and the list of other tasks in front of the commission.

City Council identified four task areas June 15 for the commission to focus on over six months: working with community partners to develop a joint training, incident response and community acknowledgment program to address systemic root causes of injustice and to celebrate progress; work with Southern Oregon University to research actions by the city and other major institutions that directly impact marginalized groups; review and provide feedback on city efforts to integrate DEI values into human resource policies and provide training; and review and provide feedback on city master planning efforts and their relationship to social equity and racial justice goals.

“Even if we all stopped anything else we were doing, quit all of our jobs, gave up on all of our families … we couldn’t possibly do what has been asked for us to do in the work plan,” Simon said.

According to a draft letter addressed to the mayor and City Council, the commission plans to recommend that the city create a DEI manager position “to develop and implement internal policies and initiatives and to work with the SERJ Commission,” and budget about $150,000 for salary, benefits and training.

Co-chair Anyania Muse, who is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival director of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, advised that the process of establishing a new position and hiring someone, if approved, would likely carry into 2023.

Simon, author of the draft letter, requested feedback from commissioners during the Dec. 2 meeting.

According to the draft, the commission sent questions to Human Resource Director Tina Gray in October to better understand the city’s application of a racial equity lens as the commission “set out to tackle” its task to check on the city’s internal DEI framework.

“As an organization, we want to do more, and we need to do more to promote DEI,” Gray wrote in response to commission questions. “HR hopes to be a partner with SERJ. However, we have budget and resource limitations.”

Gray cited emergencies, staffing changes, shifting pandemic policy, and the two-person HR department covering about 250 employees as hindrances to progress, such as a plan “gaining momentum” prior to the pandemic and Almeda fire to create an internal DEI committee. The HR department planned to conduct a confidential survey to establish a baseline from employee feedback as to how the city is doing, before the emergencies “redirected” resources and priorities, she wrote.

Plans to convene the internal committee can resume once certain key leadership positions have been filled and in-person meetings can be scheduled, Gray said.

Existing training for city employees includes free semi-annual harassment training provided by the city’s insurance company with some focus on diversity, cultural awareness and bias removal. Prior to serving on a city interview panel, managers must undergo training about the importance of diversity in hiring, and bias recognition and elimination, Gray said.

Generally, a combination of staff and supervisors receive training, “with added emphasis on supervisory staff in a leadership role to establish or change the culture in their work environment,” she wrote. Some departments have budgeted and arranged for training in addition to citywide programs.

Incidents involving police and members of the public who feel they have suffered differential treatment on the basis of race or status are handled as internal affairs investigations into officer conduct, and complaints regarding city employees outside the police department would be directed to the city manager and/or human resource director for resolution, Gray said.

The city’s workplace fairness policy directs employees to the human resources department if they are uncomfortable talking with their supervisor about racism or discrimination in their work environment, she said.

In the draft letter, the commission said answers to its questions indicated a lack of experience in DEI within the city’s workforce.

“It is beyond the scope of this commission to devote sufficient time to fully educate the city on the appropriate policies needed and the implementation of those policies,” the draft letter said Tuesday. “We are a volunteer citizen body. It is clear to us that a person who is trained in DEI is needed to guide the city in all phases of this work: from recognizing racial bias, to trainings to counter such bias, and also for policies that are in place for both city employees and the public in the event a complaint is made regarding racial bias.”

Despite the fact that a recent half-day workshop for staff managers with the educational service Common Ground Conversations on Race was well received, Gray wrote, funding isn’t available to continue the training. The $3,500 spent on the workshop accounted for the entire HR, Safety and Risk Management budget, she said.

The SERJ commission’s draft letter cites the training as a positive step, adding that a DEI manager should be brought on to handle such training opportunities and other tasks assigned to the commission that necessitate a staff person.

Gray said Monday she supports the commission’s efforts and a dedicated position, and that HR staff are working closely with the city manager to address capacity and budget factors that have limited the two-staff member department’s ability to support SERJ.

“We have been under water in HR during the pandemic with additional and ever-changing mask mandates, employee COVID absence management, high turnover, and, more recently, the questions surrounding vaccine mandates and the implications on our workforce,” Gray said.

As far as the fiscal feasibility of a dedicated DEI staff position, Gray pointed to the City Council’s budget discussions, which are expected to include community engagement to help determine funding priorities, she said.

The SERJ Commission is slated to deliver a report to the council in January, highlighting plans for conciliatory services among other efforts.

“An individual may approach the commission regarding a specific instance of prejudice, discrimination or racism,” according to the ordinance. “If there is a mutual agreement from all parties involved in the incident, then the commission shall arrange for impartial, nonbinding, collaborative conciliatory services that do not conflict with the functions of any other government body.”

The commission could conceivably find people knowledgeable about social equity and racial justice nuances at the municipal and state level to offer conciliatory services at low or no cost, Muse said, but “what happens when you start to aggregate all of that data?” she posed.

“The mail storm that would happen to the city when you start to aggregate that data around racial incidents, what would happen legally for the city, may not only dismantle the City Council but the commission as well,” Muse said, emphasizing the importance of neutrality, policy understanding and clear planning in establishing conciliatory services.