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Is DEI study ‘solution looking for a problem’ or a needed diversity initiative?

Opponents held signs opposing a DEI study commissioned by the Hendersonville City Council during a meeting last week. Opponents held signs opposing a DEI study commissioned by the Hendersonville City Council during a meeting last week.

Asked to respond to a skeptic’s comment that the city’s $147,000 diversity study was a “solution looking for a problem,” Hendersonville’s mayor pro tem, Lyndsey Simpson, did not hesitate to answer.

“I wouldn’t say that we were looking for a problem. We know there is a problem,” she said. “We have several department heads within our organization. None of them are people of color. We have many people in our community that are technologically challenged and so they have issues getting information from us or using the new parking meters. And those are all things this is meant to address.”

Last Thursday night, six months after a team from Ahkirah Legal and Diversity Consultants embarked on a study of the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion, attitudes and record, company owner Ahkirah Bahiyyah Greer presented the study’s findings and recommendations. Greer’s appearance drew a crowd of about 35 people, several holding signs that said “DEI=Marxism," others with a red strike-thru over “DEI.”

At the City Council’s April 12 meeting, several members of the public spoke against the DEI study, saying it was unnecessary and divisive. Although the council does not take public comment during its mid-month workshop meeting, DEI opponents turned out anyway.

Judy and Mark Oldenburg, retirees from Chapel Hill, came to the meeting not expecting to speak but wanting to hear more about the study, which they regard as a waste of money.

Judy said her experience with the city’s customer service was very positive, recalling that she and a “lovely lady” bonded because they owned “wiener dogs.”

“I’ve never had anything but great service from everybody I got to know. If it’s not broke, do we really need to spend money (on a study)? … I’m retired from UNC Hospital and we treated everybody, we gave them service, we treated them good and followed up and everything. You’re working hard and running around — you didn’t have time to sit around b---ing and complaining about stupid stuff. It’s silly.”

Mark added: “This is a solution looking for a problem. This framework of tying people’s hands and trying to control their behaviors is not a good thing.”

Through interviews with city department heads and other employees, data collection and community listening sessions, the consultants produced a report on the city’s marketing. communications, hiring, job training and conflict resolution and made recommendations for making city's personnel policies more open, diverse and inclusive.

“These priorities can also be broken down into five key categories, which we have articulated as the moral and ethical case, the business case, the recognition case, regulatory case, and the identity case,” the report said.

Simpson said the City Council and city employees should be open to the consultants’ guidance.

“There could be this perceived bias from the city just based on the fact that, let’s say if all of our marketing had nothing but white people in it and that’s gonna make a person of color feel uncomfortable. And we don’t want that we want that,’ she said. “We want everyone to feel welcome in the city of Hendersonville, whether they work for us or they live here.”

She is interested, for instance, in how the consultants' can improve diversity in hiring.

“Right now, we’re not really getting the applicants. So why aren’t they applying? How can we encourage them to apply?” she said. “Sort of like what she mentioned in her presentation, where I recommend someone who thinks like me, and then they’ll recommend somebody that thinks like them, and now all of a sudden we have an organization of people that all think the same, which is not beneficial for anybody.”

The report recommends that the city form a 12-member DEI committee made up of department heads from the Police, Water and Sewer, Human Resources, Planning & Community Development & Communications and Finance departments and six employees from the Fire, Administration, Legal, Parks, Public Works & Engineering departments.

The purpose of the committee “is to promote a safe, equitable, diverse and inclusive environment where all differences and identities are respected, valued and included and where representation is celebrated and encouraged,” the DEI report said. “The committee will foster organizational change, establish a focused framework towards issues of diversity and inclusion and the promotion of the city of Hendersonville DEI Strategic Plan.”

The city also plans more community meetings to present the study and get feedback.

“We did some community meetings before,” Simpson said. “We had some issues getting people to attend, which I’m not surprised by but I’m hoping we can get some more people to come to the next one because now we’re really talking about — because that was all the information gathering — now we’re really talking about actionable items. How can we take your suggestions and implement them?”

After the DEI presentation last week, City Manager John Connet thanked the city's Diversity & Equity Committee, which the City Council in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020, and the employees of the city.

“I attended some of the focus groups,” he said. “I had heard bits and pieces of the history and I didn’t fully understand where they were coming from. I had my own thoughts about what certain terms meant, whether it be urban renewal” or other local change. “My personal view was different from other folks in the room. … We had to be willing to stretch ourselves a little bit. I appreciate the work of Ahkirah’s team and my team.

“They are definitely uncomfortable conversations and they will continue to be uncomfortable conversations. But we're going to continue to move our community forward. If we want to create great team members, we have to have these conversations. If you talk to anyone under the age of 35, we have to have these conversations.”

Simpson said the council ought to be open to input from the public, even if it’s negative.

“We want to have a conversation with people,” she said. “If they don’t understand what we’re trying to do or they don’t understand some of the recommendations that were made, we want to talk to them and help them understand because all of this is only meant to help everyone that lives here.”