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New Westminster taking on racism and diversity

The City of New Westminster is tackling racism and diversity – an initiative that got underway before Black Lives Matter highlighted those issues on the worldwide stage.
New Westminster city hall
When council members attended the Sept. 30 meeting at city hall, they were sporting orange T-shirts in commemoration of Orange Shirt Day.

The City of New Westminster is tackling racism and diversity – an initiative that got underway before Black Lives Matter highlighted those issues on the worldwide stage.

The city has hired LevelUp Planning and Consulting to develop and implement a diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism (DEIAR) framework for the city, including the police and library boards.

“Most frameworks are around diversity, equity and inclusion, and what separates the City of New Westminster’s from everyone else is that you also have the word anti-racism,” said Jasmindra Jawanda, an associate at LevelUp. “That needs to also be mentioned because it puts New Westminster on the leading edge in terms of also embedding anti-racism in this really important framework.”

The framework aims to provide a roadmap and to drive change in equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism in the City of New Westminster. The goal is to complete the framework by the end of the year.

“The implementation of the framework will take place in 2021,” said a staff report. “This work will support the city in becoming a local government employer of choice by building a balanced, diverse and inclusive workforce which will contribute to a more healthier, productive and innovative organization.”

The framework will address a number of motions that have been approved by city council and the police board in recent months.

The framework’s goals include ensuring the city is providing an inclusive public service and a safe, respectable and inclusive work environment that’s free of harassment, discrimination and systemic barriers. It also seeks to offer equitable employment so the city attracts and retains a skilled workforce that reflects the diverse residents of the municipality, and adopt inclusive decision-making that ensures decisions are based on diverse, inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist policies, plans, practices and measures.

The process that’s underway stems from a motion put forward by Coun. Mary Trentadue in the spring of 2019, which stated it’s important to the health and wellbeing of the city for its hiring and training policies to address gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

“Long before we saw the global awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement happen earlier this year, the City of New Westminster did intend to do this work,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa. “But this past year we have truly, truly seen why this is more needed than ever.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said council has been having conversations about thei issue for quite some time, but it’s time to take it to the next level and embed it in the organization.

“We don’t want these really important conversations that we have in council chambers just to happen in isolation, in a bubble,” he said. “We want them to really get into the organization as a whole and maybe eventually, once we have made some success there, into the broader community.”

Coun. Chinu Das supports the initiative but believes the framework should be based on an asset-based approach, rather than a deficit-based approach. (While a deficit-based approach focuses on things like the city’s needs, gaps and problems, an asset-based approach considers things like strengths and opportunities.)

“We need to own this from the beginning, from the get-go, that our goal is to recognize that diversity is a strength, and it brings with it a whole other asset that we want in our workforce because that’s how we will deliver our work better,” she said. “It’s an asset to have these people. I want some wording in there that tells me we are not doing this because we think there is a deficit we need to fill; we are actually actively reaching for these assets.”

While the city’s workforce needs to be representative of the demographic profile in the community, Das said she does not want to play the “numbers game.” Instead of hiring people from diverse backgrounds to fill quotas, Das said more emphasis should be place on the skills those individuals bring to the city.

“I know that, as a person of colour myself, I have railed against being called a diversity hire,” she said. “You know I’ve said it on council as well, I do not want to be the token brownie. Because that is … opposite of what we are trying to do.”

Nakagawa agreed these types of initiatives are often considered as “quota filling” when they’re really recognizing that people have many different types of experiences and knowledge, which is of value to the city – even though it’s sometimes hard to quantify.

“It is crucially important that we name what we are talking about. Diversity is a bit whitewashing, quite frankly, of what we are trying to say here,” she said. “We are talking about race, primarily, but we are also talking about class and disability, rental status, socioeconomic status, and we have to be able to say those things explicitly. We have to be able to say Indigenous people, Black people, etc. If we just lump it all into ‘diversity,’ again, I think we are complicit, and we erase a lot of differences there that like Coun. Das said, bring value.”

Nakagawa said the framework also has to talk about intersectionality, as “people are not just one thing.”

“From a policy perspective, housing policy is equity policy is transit policy is public safety policy,” she said. “But also, people … come from multiple positions in their lives as well, and we have to have a way to talk about that. We cannot increase, let’s say, the racial diversity of our staff, if those people all identify as cishet (cisgender and heterosexual), able-bodied men, but they are racialized. That simply won’t be good enough. So we have to find ways to talk about intersectionality as well.”