Celebrating APWA's diversity successes

Jason E. Cosby, P.E.
Assistant Director of Public Works
City of San Antonio, Texas
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

Diversity awareness is essential for the continued vitality of an organization in a global economy, and particularly as trends predict significant increases in diversified workforces. In order to create a strong and resilient workforce, employers must attract and retain employees who are qualified, motivated, and dedicated to the goals of the organization.

For these reasons an APWA Diversity Task Force was established in 1995, and was charged with developing a statement on diversity for the association. Previously, the association had established a Commission on Equal Opportunity, but as diversity issues arose in the workforce and organizational changes were made in the association, the board sunset the commission and established the task force to create a statement on diversity. The original diversity statement was modified in 2000. The current statement is:

The American Public Works Association recognizes, appreciates and fosters the synergy which is created when the work environment values the differences in individuals and practices inclusiveness and open communication.

Diversity is an issue that is ongoing in an organization. It needs constant attention and revitalization for organizations to reach their full potential of mastering the capabilities that a diverse population has to offer through greater productivity, more creativity, and an improved bottom line.

The Diversity Task Force first met at the Congress in 1996 with the goal of expanding upon the definition of diversity as it applies to APWA and to set a process in order for APWA to respond successfully to the issue of diversity. To build on these efforts, it was necessary to gather information from surveys and hold discussions with diverse groups. By assessing and analyzing the data, we gained valuable insight into helping our membership understand why it is important to work on the process of softening attitudes and behavior toward individuals who are perceived to be different.

In 1999, the Diversity Task Force became a standing committee of the Board of Directors, emphasizing the board's commitment to embrace the concept of inclusiveness throughout APWA. In an effort to further our organization's goal and progress toward a greater understanding of diversity, the Diversity Committee established the concept of Chapter Diversity Liaisons for each chapter as an extension of the committee. Furthermore, committee members have written numerous case studies and articles that have been published in the APWA Reporter, assisted in the first Emerging Leaders Program at the 2000 Congress, and developed criteria, program content and a critique of the program. Several roundtable sessions at Congress have also been held on diversity initiatives, such as "Building Positive and Supportive Work Places" and "Implementing Quality Improvement into Your Everyday Operations." Additionally, a minimum of three educational sessions on issues dealing with diversity are held at each Congress. For the past seven years, a Diversity Luncheon with a speaker has also been held.

Identification of diversity processes
The committee determined that several processes were needed to continue successful diversity management within the association. The following processes were implemented:

Education of APWA staff and members on the definition of diversity and creating a diversity awareness within the association needed to occur. Most importantly, to accomplish positive acceptance and response, the committee determined it was necessary for support of diversity awareness and inclusion to begin at the top, beginning with the board and national-level staff and filter down to the chapters/branches and general membership. The first diversity training for board leadership was held at the 1998 Congress and was touted as highly successful. At this Congress, Dr. Dennis Davis created an atmosphere for learning and sharing of information that stimulated requests for further training. In 2001, the APWA headquarters staff held weekly diversity awareness sessions following their regular staff meetings.

Inclusion of new members
The APWA Congress or chapter meetings may seem intimidating to new members attending their first national conference or local chapter meeting, as they often do not feel included in programs, activities, and in conversations at meetings. The committee made suggestions on how to reach out to new members through mentorship programs, phone calls, welcoming letters, new member packets, inclusion on committees and/or task forces, etc. These efforts can be implemented at the branch level also.

Case studies
Success stories of chapters/branches/individual members in the area of diversity were showcased as case studies in the APWA Reporter and Bridges publications.

Through a survey provided to the House of Delegates, first-time attendees, and registrants of Congress, the committee obtained valuable data on diversity programs (or the lack thereof) throughout the membership.

Diversity Exemplary Practices Award
The committee developed the Diversity Exemplary Practices Award, which was first presented at the 1997 Awards Reception. Currently, up to two awards are presented annually to an individual and/or organization that promotes integrating diversity into society or an organization's programs.

Over the years, the Diversity Committee has been responsible for several educational sessions on diversity issues at each Congress. Some of the titles reflect topics that held the interest of Congress registrants: "Diversity Works: Putting Minority Recruitment to Work for You"; "Focusing on Capabilities, Not Disabilities"; "Implementing World-Class Workforce Development"; "Harnessing Emotional Intelligence to Enhance Diversity"; "RESPECT: You've Either Got It...Or You Don't"; "Diversity: A Business Necessity"; "Thinking Outside the Box: The Benefits of a Diverse Workforce"; "Exploring Cultural Taboos Around the Globe: The Do's and Don'ts of Building International Relationships"; and "Round Houses, Ships on Dry Land and Chorus Line Cultivating: Public Works Around the World." A few of these sessions were co-sponsored with the International Affairs Committee.

The committee has also provided quotes to the "Diversity Awareness Corner" in each issue of the APWA Reporter. The APWA Diversity Resource Guide was created to provide chapters and branches with creative ideas on addressing diversity awareness in meetings, programs, and newsletters; on welcoming new members; and on how to work with and utilize the various generational aspects of our members. It is available on the APWA website. The second volume of the guide will be available at the 2003 Congress and will address additional areas of diversity. Generic diversity policies/guidelines in the areas of purchasing/procurement, customer service and employment were developed for use by public works agencies and other employers.

The Diversity Committee will continue to strive to reach our organization's mission of educating our membership of the benefits of implementing diversity within their employment settings and in their chapters/branches. Please join us at our Congress, chapter conferences, and branch activities and share with us examples of successful diversity-related efforts within your organization.

We believe that through all of our efforts, we can manage differences in the association and in the workplace.

Jason E. Cosby, a 2002 Top Ten recipient, can be reached at (210) 207-7785 or at jcosby@sanantonio.gov.

Listed are the past and present members who have served on the Diversity Committee/Task Force since its formation: Jennifer Barlas, John Benda, Ann Burnett, Vanessa Conrad, Jason Cosby, Brenda Eighmey, Herb Fain, Ronald Ford, Julia Forgue, Sharyn Fox, Betty Francis, Karen Johnson, Teree Caldwell-Johnson, Barbara Little, Anita Maltbia, Steve Masters, Elizabeth Mitchell, George Rowe, Teresa Scott, Donald Stackhouse, William Stone, Alice Stoner, Elrhei Thibodeaux, David Yue, and Larry Lux (who served as board liaison).