Over the past few years, employers, organizations and governments nationwide have increased efforts to improve their diversity.
The Village of Wilmette is among them, installing a diversity, equity and inclusion pilot program eight months ago.
On Tuesday, April 11, Village staff presented to the board of trustees and residents a review of that program and what comes next for the Village’s DEI practices.
Wilmette was one of 15 communities to take part in the pilot program offered through the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus. The program’s focus is “to discuss and evaluate program concepts that support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as part of each organization,” according to a staff memo in the Village packet.
Village Manager Mike Braiman said during the meeting that one of the biggest takeaways from the program is governing with a focus on an “equity lens” as opposed to efficiency.
“We’ve always looked at things from an efficiency, or an effectiveness lens when we’re putting forth recommendations to the Village Board, or we’re preparing our budgets,” he said. “We haven’t focused on an equity lens, so that’s a different way for us as administrators and managers to think and to lead. And as we move forward with our DEI efforts, you’re going to hear us use the phrase ‘equity lens’ or you’re going to see our focus more on that.”
While the Village has many ideas for how to improve its equity work, Assistant Village Manager Erik Halgren said, the initial focus will be on working on diversity in recruitment and hiring practices.
As part of those efforts, Halgren said Village staff analyzed the racial backgrounds of all its employees, breaking it down by department: administration, engineering and public works, fire, police, and water. According to data in the board memo, 85.5 percent of Village staff is white, while only 1.4 percent is Black. Additionally, Black staff members are only represented in two departments: police (3.3 percent) and fire (2.2 percent).
Wilmette voters recently elected the town’s first Black trustee, Gerry Smith.
Hispanic employees make up the most significant minority representation, with 7.6 percent working across the Village.
Halgren said after collecting data, the and Braiman met with department directors to talk about the DEI goals and the intent of them.
“Our intent here, it wasn’t punitive. It wasn’t ‘you’re doing something wrong,’” Halgren said. “It’s how do we improve our process. How do we become better as an organization? And this is opening up ourselves to that feedback so that we can continually improve and hire and recruit the best people for the organization.”
Based on those interviews, in addition to speaking to 13 employees with diverse backgrounds, Halgren said staff learned that most employees do not find Village jobs through the website, but rather through their informal networks. He also said that many employees didn’t necessarily know about Wilmette or its characteristics as a community before they applied for a job.
Since the interviews, Halgren said the Village has worked on improving its recruitment efforts and has set short-, mid- and long-term goals, several of which reportedly have been implemented. This includes a referral program that was introduced on March 22; employee engagement surveys, to which Halgren said 60-70 percent of staff have responded; and an increased public presence at job fairs, such as one at Lewis University in Romeoville attended by the police department.
Halgren said other goals include examining restrictions on hiring — including seeing if certain educational requirements are necessary for specific jobs — in addition to focusing on benefits of working in Wilmette, such as access to the public transportation system including Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority.
Future goals include evaluating the Village’s hiring software and looking for ways to eliminate information that could lead to implicit bias such as address and name information.
A DEI committee is also in the works.
Village President Senta Plunkett thanked Braiman and Halgren for their work with DEI and agreed with their statements that change starts with local governments.
“I think it’s just really important to kind of show where our priorities are as a community,” she said.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.