The last 50 or so days have been a roller coaster ride for everyone. Although we are all struggling, we are struggling in different ways, based on our circumstances and experiences. For some, it may be boring to “stay safe, stay home.” While for others it may be physically, mentally and emotionally dangerous. Many of us are home, balancing children and their schooling in addition to our own work. Accessing basic resources such as food and medical care has taken on new urgency as more people are experiencing food and health insecurity with fewer resources.
As we consider the concept of essential work, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) may not top anyone’s lists. However, DEI work is most essential in the critical moments of creating policies, procedures and programs to serve the people of this great state. As we are all experiencing the impact of COVID-19, it must not be lost on any of us that we experience it differently. What may be a nuisance to some could become an overwhelming obstacle for others. For this reason, now is the time to engage in DEI efforts because we are dealing with life or death consequences.
We must evaluate if what we say matches what we do and who we say we are, or if we use opportunities of chaos to dismantle programs while others are too busy to notice. Let’s take two communities for example: Ogden and Salt Lake County. Both areas are populated by people committed to promoting inclusive communities for all. Doing this work has become a cornerstone of their values.
Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to participate in an Ogden City Council working session regarding DEI and COVID-19. City Council members, city leadership, Diversity Commissioners (myself included) and members of the community participated in a conversation with Nubia Peña, Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs director. She co-authored the report, “Local Needs Among Utah’s Multicultural Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Report findings included the need to address unique safety concerns of underrepresented populations; critical need for translated materials from accurate, trusted sources; the importance of diverse representation and perspectives in decision making; coordinating information dissemination and recognition and commitment to addressing system inequities along the way.
As someone who studies diversity, I understand the commitment the city and community have undertaken to engage in inclusive practices. As a practitioner, I see COVID-19 as an opportunity to highlight equity issues that exist at institutional and systemic levels. While we are nowhere near perfect, the communication lines are open.
Local health agencies and community groups have several moving parts to coordinate. These efforts fall under the leadership of Viviana Felix, Ogden City Diversity Affairs officer. At a time when people are concerned with public health and safety and keeping the lights on, our city understands we must seek information across the community to make sure the city is doing the work for us all.
At a time when our worlds are operating in chaos, Ogden could have decided DEI efforts were not essential. However, they recognized precisely that DEI efforts are essential. If amid crisis, we cannot recognize the divisions and disparities between us, how could we ever see them in good times?
Compare this with Salt Lake County, a community where Ms. Emma Houston, Diversity and Inclusion director for the county, has been removed from her position and transitioned to the role of facilitator in Salt Lake County Human Resources. It does not appear there was any discussion with local stakeholders or community partners who have worked with Ms. Houston regarding this sudden change. It appears that Ms. Houston may not have had notice of this change. Furthermore, there has been no succession planning for the office moving forward. At a time when DEI issues matter more than ever, it seems as though Salt Lake County has changed its tune.
Does this mean that Salt Lake County leadership is no longer walking its talk? Where is that office going? What has happened to its operating funds? If Ms. Houston’s skills are being redirected to do implicit bias work with human resources, where are her other duties going, particularly those that address the relationship between the county and those who live, work and play in it? Is this the dismantling of diversity during COVID-19? And if so, what can we expect next?
I hope that Salt Lake County is in the process of rolling out their complete plan to the community. However, now is not the time to leave underserved communities on their own amid a storm with a leaky boat. We all deserve better than that.