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By Scott D. Grayson, CAE, KCSAE Secretary

Just a few days after the killing of George Floyd the country was outraged causing riots to break out in the streets of the U.S. Associations and corporations across the country were appalled with the killing and were grappling with how to respond. Many felt they had a responsibility to speak out to their staff, members and customers. Some issued statements condemning the actions of the Minneapolis Police Officers involved in the incident. But some business wanted to do more. The immediate response was to put Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statements on business websites. The problem was just a statement without a plan, strategy or program in place does not necessarily have a positive impact on change. While APWA did issue a statement condemning the killing of George Floyd, we refrained from posting a DEI statement on our website until we had an actual plan in place. We wanted to develop a DEI Roadmap using a strategic and thoughtful process.

APWA already had a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee but we wanted to give them more of a voice and create a roadmap for what we call APWA’s DEI Journey. We are 87 years old, so we did not expect to make radical changes overnight. If we truly wanted to make a difference, we needed the APWA Board of Directors to be an integral part in developing the plan.

The first step was to bring in an expert facilitator to help us with this process. I interviewed eight different organization that had years of experience in this field. They were all great however, to get buy-in of our Board I needed to select the right person who would be the right fit and resonate with our Board. We are a Board made up of predominantly engineers and public administrators who like to make decisions based on research and data—not “touchy feeling stuff.” We hired McKinley Advisors. They have years of experience working with associations like ours on a variety of topics and specialize in DEI training helping organizations create plans around DEI.

Having worked in the DEI arena for years I know it is very easy to just go through the motions but never really impact positive change. Therefore, I told McKinley Advisors that we wanted a clear and concise Roadmap with specific goals and metrics so that we could create positive change and measure it. The roadmap had to be specific to APWA, its mission, vision and strategic plan. When we embarked on the work some asked, “What did we do wrong, why are we doing this?” We explained it is not about what we are doing wrong it is more about how we can be the best we can be. Embracing diversity, understanding what equity means and being as inclusive as possible allows organizations to expand their reach and be creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative.

We had two 2-hour virtual training sessions that included the entire Board of Directors, the DEI Committee as well as our Young Professionals Committee. These online trainings culminated in a ½ day face to face interactive workshop facilitated by McKinley Advisors. The group met and were led through interactive exercises to develop the Roadmap from which the organization will work. We call it a journey because it will not happen overnight. The three areas of focus are: education, culture, and governance.

When the group discussed education, we determined that not only is DEI education needed but the type of technical education that we currently offer should be diversified to be more inclusive and appealing to a wider audience. For example, APWA provides online training, certifications, and certificate programs to mid-level and upper-level public works professionals. Why were we not offering training to the operations staff within public works? As a result of our DEI discussions, we have begun to develop and provide more training to this group as well.

Culture: APWA is making a conscious effort to talk about and consider how each of our values show up in everything the organization does. We question our norms, behaviors, and practices both internally and externally. We talk about past practices at conference such as pledge of allegiance or prayers. We talk about whether we should provide prayer rooms, maternity rooms and conference buddy programs to make people feel more welcome and included. The first step is just asking questions and considering things that we have never proactively spoken about before as an organization.

We have embarked on rethinking our organizational systems and processes including strategy to include: our nominations and appointments processes for the Board, committees, speakers, and awards. Are we encouraging appropriate succession planning among leaders both at the national level and chapter level? How will we connect our DEI strategy to the organization through bylaws, policies, outreach partnerships, and membership? For example, if we want to include younger members on our Board we may need to revisit the time commitment required to serve which may not be possible for someone in their early or mid-career.

I am a realist and know that we cannot make major changes overnight. Some of the questions we continue to ask ourselves as we move forward are:

  • Is this DEI Roadmap headed in the right direction?
  • Is there anything major missing?
  • How might we ensure members and the broader community stay connected to APWA DEI work in a meaningful way?

Recently, there has been a backlash against some DEI programs that corporations and associations have rolled out over the last few years because some think the programs either have gone too far or were not properly envisioned when they were developed.

As for APWA, we are committed to seeing this through. We continue to populate our roadmap with meaningful metrics and will be conducting a membership survey so that we can establish a baseline to measure if we have made strides in the DEI space or not. We have also begun the same process with staff so that we can support this effort at the same time our staff is building their Roadmap. We are excited to positively impact change thereby resulting in growth and bringing us as an organization --not only from good to great-- but from great to amazing?

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