From the Beacon, April 2023

Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are essential. We need to weave all these threads together to create truly thriving and resilient communities, where each person is welcomed in and encouraged to be their best, authentic selves as neighbors and contributors.

Human biology proves that people need diversity, equity and inclusion in their lives. Our health and happiness is directly correlated with the number of friends we have and our level of access to basic resources. Further, the more we are connected to a diverse network of friends who support and welcome us for who we are, the longer we live and the more we enjoy and value our lives. That is true regardless of economic status.

On a larger scale, the world’s healthiest ecosystems are diverse, equitable (balanced in the access and use of resources), and inclusive. Unbalanced systems that lack diversity die out when confronted by new threats. Diverse and balanced systems are the ones that are the most resilient and adaptable to change.

As it is for people and ecosystems, our geographically defined communities are also healthier when we build in diversity, equity and inclusion. The challenge is that our communities have grown up in an extremely complex global system that has not rewarded diversity or been built with equity or inclusion. That’s why so many localities are looking to take action to find a better, healthier balance that takes DEI into account.

Yet, as we all know, advancing new initiatives to enhance diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in our communities is far, far easier said than done.

While the human impulse is to strive for community, we are also individuals, with differing histories, life experiences, advantages, disadvantages, political and social beliefs, and economic realities. Most people simply want to preserve what they know and cherish in their lives. And that’s the rub, because the prospect of change creates stress, and it is very hard for people to be their best selves under stress. Stressed people are defensive, don’t listen or absorb new information well, and place greater value on perceived downsides, and much less value on potential benefits.

And this is the challenge. We know that advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in our communities is vitally important, essential work. We also know that moving too fast without adequate preparation, planning, communication and engagement can hit roadblocks and stall long-term progress.

For many months, a terrific committee of local officials has been meeting regularly with the MMA to advise and inform the development of our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative. The group was introduced to MMA members at our Annual Meeting in January and has been researching the most effective ways to connect our members with resources, education and training to support the local officials and communities who are engaged in this important work.

On behalf of our Board of Directors and staff, we want to thank the members of the MMA DEI Advisory Committee: Westwood Town Administrator Christopher Coleman (co-chair), former Arlington Town Manager and past MMA President Adam Chapdelaine (co-chair), Bolton Finance Committee Chair Brian Boyle, Danvers Assistant Town Manager Jen Breaker, Lexington Select Board Chair and MMA President Jill Hai, North Adams Councillor and Pittsfield Chief Diversity Officer Michael Obasohan, North Andover Deputy Town Manager Dee Casey, Northborough Assistant Town Administrator Becca Meekins, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, Sharon Select Board Member Kiana Pierre-Louis, and Stoughton Select Board Member Debra Roberts. MMA staff members who are participating (in addition to me), are Communications and Membership Director Candace Pierce (as our lead), MMA Deputy Executive Director Katie McCue, and Education and Training Coordinator Lily Rancatore. They’ve all been fantastic contributors.

The most important decision was made early, and that was to be deliberate and thoughtful about how to move forward and build a plan that will have the best chance of being effective and sustainable.

Many of you will recall that the MMA partnered with the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) program to deliver introductory training to hundreds of local officials in 2021. At the time, the NLC emphasized the importance of meeting people and communities where they are, and then moving forward with a common understanding of what DEI work is, including setting specific goals, and including enough time for dialogue, consensus and deep communication.

The first steps include framing the discussion with common language and definitions around diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and other essential aspects of community building. Beyond framing the discussion, the MMA’s DEI Committee has set a phased approach, with an initial focus to support cities and towns in their internal DEI work, looking at human resources policies, employee training, operations, policies for boards and committees, establishing DEI positions, and similar activities. A second phase will then provide tools and training to support local officials as they engage with the public on broader efforts to advance DEI in the community at large.

Our DEI Committee devoted many hours to developing and approving the MMA’s DEI Framework, outlining our perspective and focus. You can download and read the MMA’s DEI Framework here.

Strategic planning isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty simple, really. There are four stages in a continuous circle: make sense, make a plan, make it happen, make revisions. Success is possible only when the plan is fully supported at the very top, and the implementation is done by distributed leaders throughout the system.

The committee is still in the “making sense” stage, meeting with key stakeholders, analyzing a recent survey of municipal CEOs, and connecting with municipal DEI directors from across the state. We have issued an RFP for consultants to assist with focus groups and the development of a strategic plan to set a timeline and develop the curriculum for our training and education programming and resource guides (“make a plan”). Then we’ll roll out our programs (“make it happen”), and we will certainly learn more at each stage, helping us update and change to enhance our effectiveness (“make revisions”).

This is exciting and valuable work. We have been intentionally deliberative, so that we can meet you (and our members) where you are, and deliver meaningful support that helps accelerate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in our communities.

The MMA is your partner in this work, and we look forward to the journey ahead of us.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO