'Diversity is a journey': How suburban governments are addressing diversity and inclusion

  • Geneace Williams of Burr Ridge was never interested in working in city government -- until she recognized Naperville's recent efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

    Geneace Williams of Burr Ridge was never interested in working in city government -- until she recognized Naperville's recent efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Geneace Williams, who was hired in February as Naperville's new diversity, equity and inclusion manager, said she feels the city created the position at "the perfect time" amid recent race-related issues on a local and national scale.

    Geneace Williams, who was hired in February as Naperville's new diversity, equity and inclusion manager, said she feels the city created the position at "the perfect time" amid recent race-related issues on a local and national scale. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • After being hired in February as Naperville's new diversity, equity and inclusion manager, Geneace Williams of Burr Ridge says her primary goal is to bring about positive change. "It's about all of us working together," she said. "Diversity is a journey. It's not a destination."

    After being hired in February as Naperville's new diversity, equity and inclusion manager, Geneace Williams of Burr Ridge says her primary goal is to bring about positive change. "It's about all of us working together," she said. "Diversity is a journey. It's not a destination." John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted5/11/2021 5:22 AM

Geneace Williams had no interest in working for a city government, even after a friend sent her an intriguing job post for a new diversity, equity and inclusion manager in Naperville.

With years of experience as a diversity consultant, the Burr Ridge resident was hoping to expand into a full-time role in the private sector. But when information about the Naperville position appeared before her a second time, she decided to take a closer look.

 

She read about the city's efforts to create an "inclusive community that values diversity," as is reflected in its amended mission statement. She watched Mayor Steve Chirico's state of the city address from last May, including a segment in which residents of various backgrounds and demographics described the welcoming nature of Naperville and proclaimed, "I belong."

Sensing a commitment to diversity and a desire for change amid recent race-related issues in Naperville and across the nation, Williams wanted to be part of the journey.

"I feel that it's the perfect time because when we are at a place where there is tension, more and more people need to step up. More and more people need to have their voices heard," said Williams, who took on the role in February.

"Even though it's tough, we need all hands on deck," she said. "I just want to be one of those sets of hands on deck."

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Creating the diversity, equity and inclusion position -- for which records show Williams is earning an annual salary of $110,000 -- is among Naperville's latest steps toward advancing initiatives that celebrate diversity and denounce discrimination.

The city has suffered a black eye in recent years after multiple occasions of racism were reported at a restaurant, school and gas station. Hoping to illustrate a commitment to inclusion, council members revised Naperville's mission statement in 2019 and later adopted a formal resolution and a set of recommendations for workforce and community engagement.

The city also created a human rights and fair housing commission, for which Williams serves as co-liaison, to address complaints about discrimination in housing or public accommodations.

Other agencies throughout the suburbs have leadership roles devoted to diversity and inclusion, including Naperville Unit District 203, Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and William Rainey Harper College in Palatine. St. Charles Unit District 303 voted in March to create such a position as well as hire a company offering staff training in diversity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Elgin and Arlington Heights have both invested in consultants to push forward diversity and inclusion initiatives, and the Lake County Board has a special committee focused on related issues and practices.

While enacting government policies is a positive step, Williams said, it's also important to recognize the work of community advocates who have long pushed for change. Rather than repeat their efforts, she said, she wants to "find the synergies and fill the gaps."

Understanding Naperville's culture and community is a top priority for the city's newest manager, who says she has spent her first three months on the job listening. She's received a wide array of feedback so far, she said, including from some who have never experienced issues of racism or discrimination.

But others have expressed concerns surrounding racial tensions in the city and nationwide, Williams said, pointing to protests that turned violent in downtown Naperville last summer after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"What I am finding is that there are a whole lot of people that are glad the city created this position and that I'm here," she said. "People are raising all kinds of things they've experienced and things they want to see addressed in the city around inclusivity. ... People want to feel a sense that everybody belongs."

In her approach to tackling the new position, Williams' listening phase is followed by a learning phase, where she gathers data, collects information and creates a task force to help develop a framework for the city's diversity and inclusion efforts. The third phase is leveraging, she said, which entails internal and external work to bring those initiatives to life.

Other objectives include engaging with students and youth organizations, holding cultural awareness and educational seminars, and offering opportunities for open dialogue among community members.

"My biggest goal is to do the work that brings about positive change. But we, as a city, will have to confront our growing edges to (do so)," Williams said. "It's about all of us working together. Diversity is a journey. It's not a destination."

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