Many local governments struggle to include more residents in their projects and often find that some voices are much louder than others, and many people aren’t heard at all.
To remedy this, cities are trying to increase their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. But before starting to meaningfully implement these elements across city initiatives, it’s important to begin with a clear understanding of the difference between the three principles. Once you understand the three parts of DEI, you can begin to create intentional processes that meaningfully lead to more representative and fair outcomes for all.
What’s in a name?
Even local governments with the best of intentions around diversity, equity, and inclusion often use the terms interchangeably. But words are important, as they signal a deeper understanding of the underlying barriers and opportunities surrounding this work. After all, if we don’t really understand DEI, then how can we come up with clear strategies to implement it? Let’s break it down.
Put simply, diversity is the presence of difference. In the context of civic engagement, diversity typically refers to the representation of different identities across traits such as race, gender identity, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and (dis)ability (among many other characteristics).
When speaking about diversity, it’s important that local governments are specific and intentional with their language—instead of a blanket statement like “we want to reach more diverse communities”, be clear about your why. Do your initiatives typically fail to reach people of color, thus leaving them out of the deliberation process? Then openly state your goals to remedy that with an intention statement such as, “we want to include more people of color to ensure their voices are heard in our projects”. This transparency helps build trust.
3 ways to incorporate diversity in your initiatives include:
- Involving leaders from local community groups—such as neighborhood associations, cultural, or religious groups—in your outreach to build relationships and trust.
- Setting up a community-based advisory committee to co-lead your project with a fuller representation of the diversity in your city.
- Meeting people where they are; for instance, by creating tangible youth and elderly engagement methods through specific outreach programs.
First, let’s be clear that equity is not the same as equality. Despite the terms often being used interchangeably, equality distributes the same benefits to all and assumes everyone should be treated the same regardless of needs, experiences, and opportunities. Equity, on the other hand, puts people on an equal footing by recognizing the systemic barriers that continue to oppress traditionally marginalized groups and implementing a fairer distribution of resources.
In short, equity recognizes that barriers and privileges mean not everyone comes to the table with the same resources. Equitable projects aim to correct for those imbalances by improving procedures and processes.
Photo credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change
3 ways to incorporate equity in your initiatives include:
- Recognizing that your community members have different engagement barriers, and offering multiple engagement methods per initiative: in-person, digitally, by phone.
- Increasing your staff’s capacity to provide equitable services by making sure more than one person is tasked with learning about and incorporating DEI.
- Acknowledging how negative past experiences with the government have led to current levels of distrust.
Inclusion is about all people feeling that they are welcome and valued. When people are intentionally included, it ensures more power sharing in decision-making. While communities tend to be diverse, often not everyone feels as though they belong—particularly those with traditionally marginalized identities such as (but certainly not limited to) people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Local governments can begin addressing this by asking what the current experience is like for these individuals to examine the barriers to inclusion. Inclusion has to be intentionally designed for so that differences are welcomed and various perspectives are respectfully heard.
3 ways to incorporate inclusion in your initiatives include:
- Evaluating how accessible your programs are; for instance, are your physical and digital spaces welcoming to all – elderly residents, new parents, those with disabilities?
- Increasing access to information and services by offering multilingual resources adjusted for your community’s specific populations.
- Reacting appropriately and in a timely manner to your residents main concerns, such as launching a community-led advisory committee or task force on policing.
Cities that take the time to incorporate DEI measures in their initiatives often find that decisions are more representative of their diverse communities, resources are more equitably distributed, and community members feel more understood and therefore have more trust in their government.