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Commission asks Ashland council to support hiring DEI manager

Editor’s note: ED&I, EDI and DEI are used interchangeably as variations of diversity, equity and inclusion.

ASHLAND — The Social Equity and Racial Justice Commission recommended in its progress report to Ashland City Council last week that the city hire a diversity, equity and inclusion manager.

The commission refined a hefty initial six-month work plan to focus on racial equity issues within the city, making contact with community partners, and collaborative conciliatory services, according to the report included in council materials.

Commission Co-Chair Emily Simon said the “crucial issue” in front of the City Council regarding an investment in diversity, equity and inclusion was the hiring of a full-time DEI manager.

“When we first got together and started looking at what we wanted to do with this broad panoply of things, we started by looking at our own backyard, in our own house, which is the city of Ashland,” Simon said during the Feb. 15 council meeting. “Without an ED&I manager, we will always be nibbling around the edges of the ability to do the work that we all want to do.”

According to the commission report, the city’s only significant DEI policy is “blind applications” — described as a “giant step forward” — and the HR department tapped its entire annual training budget of $3,500 for one four-hour employee training on racial equity. The training represented a positive first step but does not equate to comprehensive DEI programming, according to the report.

The commission sent questions to Human Resources Director Tina Gray last October to better understand the city’s application of a racial equity lens as the commission tackled its task to check on the internal DEI framework.

“[The commission learned] that despite the best efforts and intentions to integrate the values of diversity, equity and inclusion into its human resource policies, the city of Ashland is failing, not for lack of interest and commitment, but because of inadequate resources,” according to the report.

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.

Simon said EDI requires establishing a framework of “policies, procedure, feedback and accountability” that sets employees, citizens and new hires up for success.

Co-Chair Anyania Muse said EDI work breaks from “traditionalism” in terms of engaging people, recognizing differences across race, age, gender, sexual orientation and religion.

“The grouping of EDI work is really just an umbrella to hold all of that, to support both integration and transformation of the way we do the work,” Muse said. “There is no check mark that you mark off and you have somehow arrived — it is a continuous and ongoing set of norms and procedures.”

Muse previously served as the first equity officer for Marin County, California, and currently works as the director of inclusion, diversity, equity and access for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Each state has a required level of training, but achieving “real inclusion” goes beyond simple compliance, Muse said.

Muse asked the council to consider the purpose of the city’s statement on DEI and where the responsibility lies for engaging with social equity and racial justice issues between citizens, city employees and across groups. The DEI position would most effectively find a home somewhere between the city manager’s office, mayor’s office and human resources department, she said.

The ordinance that formed the SERJ Commission said “an individual may approach the commission regarding a specific instance of prejudice, discrimination or racism” and upon agreement by all parties, the commission “shall arrange for impartial, nonbinding, collaborative conciliatory services that do not conflict with the functions of any other government body.”

Muse said offering conciliatory services without a DEI manager means handing the work to a consultant — a loose problem with no one to hold it as the city hasn’t yet clarified goals, budget and commitment surrounding the services sought, she said.

“I think the most strategic way to assist the city in making good on its promise of this commission and the work that it wants it to do is to have a full-time equity manager who can then do either an RFP process or vet conciliatory services that will work alongside that manager and create an infrastructure to hold that work,” Muse said.

The city and SERJ Commission could bring in a consultant or group to develop a three- or five-year plan, covering the ramifications of hiring a DEI manager, roles and responsibilities, and what matters fall under the purview of Equal Employment Opportunity or human resources, Muse said.

According to the commission’s report, Gresham, Hillsboro, Wilsonville, Eugene and other Oregon cities have added a DEI manager, and in Ashland, a budget of $150,000 would cover a salary of $80,000-$100,000 plus benefits and a training budget.

Simon said the SERJ Commission fulfilled the first step: Identifying need. Muse brings experience and tools that can be used for budgeting and hiring criteria, she said, adding that the commission lacks the time, training and capacity to accomplish all the tasks assigned by the council.

Muse emphasized a need to select a qualified candidate who can engage in open conversations, understands how to work across difference, can help the city “hear what you may not have been willing to hear thus far,” and knows how to meaningfully move the work forward.

“You are not hiring somebody to only deal with Black issues,” Muse said. “You are hiring somebody who has the capacity to engage in a conversation about what real inclusion looks like.”

Muse advised against giving DEI manager responsibilities to the HR director because of legal considerations and conflicting power balance. As far as partnerships with neighboring municipalities, “in terms of creating a repository and a space for the work that Ashland needs to do, you want to go into this very singularly and then build out the partnerships,” she said.

The commission also called for the council to issue a clear policy directive to the city manager to ensure that a “culturally competent” calendar, including all religious holidays, is integrated into the master calendar used by city staff.

Mayor Julie Akins said she looks to the City Council to keep the DEI manager request moving forward.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.