Feb 15, 2023 30 min read

Transforming Local Government Through DEI

Image of Guest, Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton, with a quote from the transcript about transforming government.

Episode 41, 47 min listen

Our guest for this episode, Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton, is focused on transforming public organizations and rebuilding trust in government through operationalizing racial equity. We'll hear about her diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work with communities across Illinois through her partnership with the Great Cities Institute.


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Learn more about the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).

Learn more about Great Cities and their initiative for Operationalizing DEI.

Learn more about Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Chicago.


Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton joined the faculty in the Department of Public Administration, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2017 after extensive experience in legislative advocacy and voter education, engagement and mobilization. Prior to joining UIC, she led voting rights and voter mobilization work for Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Chicago where she helped to pass landmark legislation expanding voting rights and strengthening election systems in Illinois. She is a Research Fellow at the Great Cities Institute and a member of several national initiatives that integrate public administration and racial equity together from the Kettering Foundation, National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association. Her current work focuses on the operationalization of racial equity practices inside of large public organizations that increase the public's trust in government and improves government performance, especially but not exclusively in historically marginalized communities. She was appointed associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at her college in 2021.



Kathleen Yang-Clayton  00:00

We can’t get to the democracy we really deserve absent government. It also means that the flawed institutions we have in policing and education and housing–even in representative government–then needs to be transformed. Not reformed, but transformed. You transform people when you help them learn you give them a safe space and the mission to learn for the greater good.

Ame Sanders  00:27

This is the State of inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders, welcome.

Today, we are happy to welcome Dr. Kathleen Yang-Clayton. Kathleen is a Research Fellow at the Great Cities Institute. She is Clinical Associate Professor of Public Administration and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But perhaps what’s even more important for our discussion today is the hands-on work she does with cities across the state of Illinois and beyond. Welcome, Kathleen. Thank you for joining us today.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  01:33

Thanks for having me.

-About Kathleen

Ame Sanders  01:35

Maybe we should start with a little bit about you. Just tell us a little bit about yourself, what brought you to this work in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion and especially what brought you to the work at the intersection of public policy and public administration.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  01:51

So, a little bit about myself. So, I grew up in Chicago. I went to Chicago Public Schools straight through. I feel very tied to the city. When I went to my undergraduate institution of study, I immediately realized that there’s this larger world around me and my thoughts and study took me to more of a global and international scale. I kind of just ignored or never was really told or never had the opportunity to really think about local government or local politics really.

So then, when I came back to Chicago–and this is not a neat path. It’s not like I did this and then I immediately thought, “I’m gonna go into diversity and equity and intersect with public administration.” I was finishing my graduate study in sociology at the University of Chicago. Pretty late in the process, I realized, “Oh, you know, what? I really would like to go into an applied field.” If you’re getting a PhD you don’t need that much training. You really don’t. But, I had the opportunity to start working at a civil rights organization here in the city of Chicago called the Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Now, back then it was called the Asian American institute. They hired me on as their first policy director and that’s actually where I started to get that experience and to reconnect with the communities that I came up in.

I identify as Korean American and so it was a real unique opportunity. But, I remember the first few times that I had to go and do know your rights workshops for some senior Korean Americans at the Korean American Center. That’s when I really started to realize that I had a lot of learning to do. I had a lot of learning on how to engage and listen to the questions that people were asking. A lot of the questions up front were, “Why don’t you speak Korean better?” Eventually, once I got past all that, they were like, “Okay, what is this voting business and why does this matter to me?” You can reside at the level of academic discourse, or you can actually drop down a level and listen to what their concerns are and really start figuring out like, what are the tools I need? What are some of the visuals? What are the real concerns that they’re asking about that may be related to voting, may be related to something completely different?

So, I think that’s where the lived experience of, okay, so this is about inclusion. How do we include people who are limited in English, who don’t identify primarily as American? They’ve been sort of pigeon-holed in a certain space because of their age, because of their language ability. You know, I did that for quite a while and quite frankly, I got burnt out. With the nonprofit life, you’re at a burnout rate. Like I used to joke that I have a mission-driven salary. It’s also a lot of work on the weekends, especially when we would be doing our Get Out the Vote work, where you’re doing things like voter registration, voter education, voter mobilization. You do that when people are at home, which is usually on the weekends and in the evenings.

I decided that since I had this PhD, I might as well try to use it for something and it just so happened, the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs had posted for the first time for full time faculty who were clinical faculty, which is different than tenure track faculty. So, clinical faculty happened more of an applied component to their work. We teach, we will still do research, and we do service, so public service as well. I thought, now is the time for me maybe to reengage with the academic world and see if this is the right fit for me. It just so happened that I landed in the Department of Public Administration. Recently, we rebranded to the Department of Public Policy Management, and Analytics, but I default because it’s easier to just say public administration. So, I brought a lot of the racial equity work that I had actually started learning about and being exposed to in my advocacy role through the efforts of the Chicago Community Trust, who actually was one of the first foundations in the city back in the mid 10s 2014-2015. They took us out to Seattle. We got acquainted with a Government Alliance for Racial Equity. There was a lot of effort to bring this new kind of thinking to Chicago in the mid 10s.

So, when I landed in the department, I really started reconnecting with more of my organizational sociology background, and thinking really hard about what does the community within an organization need to experience and feel in order for them to authentically go out into the external community? To be able to listen, to bring back ideas to have those ideas inform policymaking and programs? What I started to realize is that the communities within large public organizations are feeling marginalized and excluded as much as some of those communities that they serve, externally. That was sort of the origin story of really thinking about, “Okay, well, how do I leverage the things that I know about public administration, organizational sociology and racial equity, and apply it and see what can be done?”

Ame Sanders  07:32

Wow, there’s a lot packed in there. So, what I want to try to unpack that for a minute before we move on, and I ask you some questions about the work that you’ve been doing. So, first thing that struck me when I listened to your background, is it reminded me–and I think we should take a moment to remind our listeners–that the universities that are around us are filled with people who, in many cases, have very practical experience and have application knowledge of what we’re trying to accomplish. Finding those partnerships with local universities or regional universities or colleges can be incredibly beneficial for our communities.

So, listening to your background just reinforced that for me, I knew it already, but it reminds me of how important that is. It also reminded me of how there are a number of universities that are actively reaching out into communities to try to make a difference and impact the world around them. So, that’s an important partnership or friendship or allyship that you can find as you start your work.

-Her Work with Evanston, Illinois

One of the things I want to just pivot for a minute and talk about some of the work that you’ve done. I know that you worked some with Evanston, Illinois, and that’s how I first was introduced to you. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that work and way of kind of extending this idea of how from your role, you’re able to interact with local communities.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  08:58

Back in 2018, I started working with then-Assistant Deputy City Manager, Kimberly Richardson. What I mean by working with her is that I was a clinical professor, so a portion of my time should be spent on public service. So, that can be defined in a whole bunch of different ways: service to my college, to my university, to the region at large. When she and I started talking about some of the challenges that she was facing around realigning all of the social services programs that the city provides to its residents to improve the service and avoid cuts.

To do all of that, I started to talk with her about my interest primarily on focusing on the internal environment of public organizations. It just clicked at that point because she started to see the connections as well between why some of the programs were not meeting the needs of residents and tracing that back into the internal processes that employees felt like they had to constantly jump through just to be heard themselves. These are frontline staff. These are people who deliver SNAP benefits to low-income residents or work with seniors or run after-school programs. So, they know the communities that they work with. They absolutely care. But then when you come back into the organization and there’s no process for them to give feedback around and how to improve programs, they feel like they’re not being heard or marginalized, because they’re not in a certain department or they don’t have a certain title or rank. It can get extremely frustrating. When you see that reproduced along certain identities or patterns, it then elevates to something I become interested in.

Just to be clear, you know, there’s a lot of talk about individuals. Well, it’s this person’s fault, or it’s that person’s fault, or, you know, this person did this to me or that person’s not. That’s very individual-level analysis. To me, the more important focus for me is looking at institutional patterns that lead to disparate incomes on the inside of organizations.

Ame Sanders  11:15

So, you started with the Assistant Deputy City Manager and with one orientation, and now what you just described is a slightly different orientation. Now, let’s fast forward a few years. Tell us about how the work has been going and where your focus is today and some of what they’ve learned along the way.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  11:35

Sure, absolutely. After we got done with the Social Services Project–this really small project that was like 6-8 months of just effort to really align the work and to empower leadership in that department and in different departments to really come up with their own solution that they knew would be better than what they currently had. They ended up consolidating about 5-6 programs that have been scattered across five or six departments into one department of human services. When the pandemic happened, what they realized was that one of the great things about actually being in the same department together is they can actually cross-communicate and inform each other about what was happening, because they all work with similar communities. In the past, they had been siloed across five or six departments. Now, again, each organization is different. So, there’s not like one cookie cutter like, “Okay, consolidate everything.” It’s more, listen to what your frontline staff managers are saying and design the thing that they’re saying will help them do their jobs better, and help them feel more included in the policymaking and the process.

After we did that, we were coming out of COVID and she reached out to me again. She’s like, “Hey look, I heard about the work that you’re doing in the forest preserves of Cook County, this three-year organizational change model that’s driven by an equity lens. I really think that we’re ready for that. We need that.” And so, we started and that’s when we came up with an intergovernmental contract. It was clear that the city was willing to invest in the employee empowerment and training skill set–upskilling, if you want to call it that–to start identifying pilot projects. That cohort of employees really saw as being important internal work that had to happen in order to improve the service delivery for the entire city.

Ame Sanders  13:36

So, let me check and see if I completely understand what you’re saying. So, in your work, what you found is that for cities to better serve their community, they have to look inside first at how they’re doing their work and how they are responding to their own employees within their organization.

-Transforming Local Government Through DEI

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  13:55

Absolutely. I mean, that’s very succinct. The challenge sometimes is that there’s a lot of pressure, especially on electeds, but also the relationship that electeds have with their public leadership (like the public administrators who are city managers, or directors and stuff) to try to deliver a new program externally. I kind of call it the “slapping lipstick on a pig” phenomenon. The challenge problem is that you already have a bunch of programs that you’ve tried, and often they don’t get implemented well. No one knows what happened with them. There are often internal challenges or meltdowns or no feedback loops or learning cultures so that people can actually learn.

So, something new gets launched. That puts a lot of pressure on employees on the inside who often don’t have access to training or to upskilling. They’re not given a chance to even weigh in on what the implementation looks like for a new workforce investment program or for whatever it is. They’re already doing work and creating outputs that clearly are not aligned with the outcomes that now the public wants to see, but that no one’s really paying attention to.

Okay, so then what are some of the work processes that are generating outputs that are now maybe not as aligned? How do we reconfigure them so that this individual position actually has a shot at shifting to other outputs that are aligned with impact that electeds and the public want to see? Not a lot of people pay attention to that. It’s hard to do. Often in city government, there is a lot of just putting out of fires. I used to be an external advocate. The way I used to approach this was my issue is the most important. Drop everything and pay attention to my issue. I still think it’s important that external advocates do that work. But, I do think that there’s an opportunity and I’ve seen the opportunity when we work with external advocacy organizations or with nonprofits that receive funding from cities that once they understand a little better the challenges of bureaucracy and how to best partner with the people inside the bureaucracy that really do want to see implementation and change happen, then things work better. Things just work a lot better.

I really think a lot about learning cultures inside of organizations. This is true in classrooms, or anywhere. If you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, or filled with anxiety, or constantly on the defensive, there’s no way you’re learning anything, because you can’t be honest. You can’t unpack things because you’re afraid something’s gonna leak out and then you’re gonna get yelled at by someone. No one likes that. That’s not a way to teach young people. That’s not a way to teach adults. That is truly part of what I see as being the urgent need for long-term transformative growth in government. We’ve hit an upper limit on the hollow state, on outsourcing a lot of the processes, on saying government is wasteful or we need less government and all this.

I think that the COVID pandemic, and also the twin pandemic of systemic racism has shown that we actually need to feed healthy trainings and healthy nutrients back into the most fundamental institution that will help us get to a democracy that we’ve never had before. We can’t get to the democracy we really deserve absent government. I am happy to go into the debate about this with whomever would think otherwise, but that’s not how this works, right. But it also means that the flawed institutions we have in policing, and education, and housing, even in representative government, then needs to be transformed. Not reformed, but transformed. You do that –I mean, that maybe I’m just being a little self-interested here as a teacher–but you transform people when you help them learn and you give them the safe space and the mission to learn for the greater good. But we don’t have that right now. It’s a lot of defensive. The couple of small bright spots and the work we’re trying to do, I don’t want to oversell it. It’s not like we’re doing this everywhere, but we’re trying to do what we can grounded in the regional commitment that we have to Chicago and the state.

-A Three-Year Transformation Program

Ame Sanders  18:29

I just want to bring out a number of points that you highlighted. So first, I love your statement that we can’t get to the democracy we deserve without government and without transformation of some of the institutions that we have today. I just love that concept and that thought and that idea, because I firmly believe that as well. I was also intrigued by you mentioned along the way, a three-year transformation program. Can we just revisit that for a minute? Because I can’t just let that go by without trying to understand a little bit more about what you were referring to there.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  19:03

Oh, sure. Sure. So organizational change is very, very common in for-profits. This concept of learning cultures and even iterative thinking and prototyping, there are a lot of things that for-profits are driven by because of the profit motive and competition. I still haven’t figured out whether or not I’m really comfortable with the whole capitalist imperative of some of these models being driven by that. But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that learning and iterative testing is a categorical good whether or not-for-profits use it. I mean, a lot of scientific processes use this as well–experimentation and all of that.

So, a three-year organizational change model is very common. If you go to any business school 101, that’s a typical thing. There’s, of course, at least 100 models of what you do first, what you do second, all of this stuff. What I’ve done is adapted it for practicing public administrators who really have to think about the fact that they already have a to-do list that’s a mile long, and we’re asking them when they’re ready to consider this to add a piece that may actually help to address those burning issues that they have currently. Take for instance, post-pandemic, there’s been what they call the grey wave. There’s been a lot of retirements. A lot of local governments are kind of struggling around recruitment, retention, things like that. This is burning a hole on the to-do list of top leaders. Whether you’re a police chief, whether you’re a city manager, or village administrator, when you can’t fill positions or retain people in those positions, a lot of headaches emerge. So, the immediate response is usually, let’s just hire more people and let’s try to get more diverse people. Let’s do all that, which is great. It’s like pouring a bucket into a colander, right? Like you can pour more buckets in, you can raise it faster, but eventually got to look at the thing you’re pouring it in and be like, why are people leaving? Why can’t we attract anyone to apply that has more diversity in their backgrounds? What’s going on? Those questions are longer-term questions. You can’t fix them through a hiring cycle.

Quite frankly, whoever is at the head of these organizations right now–what I said when I started working with Evanston forresters, I’m like, “Look, you know, it’s a three-year commitment, but I’m just going to be very real with all of you. What’s going on in your organizations has been decades in the making. So please do not have the expectation that this one professor woman of color is going to come in and fix everything in one year or even in three years.” This is about testing and seeing what this learning culture and internal environment focus means for you at the end of three years. There’s a very strong component around sustainability and scalability. COVID happened during this. The murder of George Floyd happened. These things happen.

-The Lack of Trust in Government is Real

In Evanston, there’s been a lot of trauma, and some of the employees, the Black employees, have had their grievances for a really long time. This is not something that happened since 2020. So, I think that it’s important that they voiced their concerns. My interest is what structures and processes then do we explore and put into place that demonstrate to the current leadership internally, to city council, to the mayor, to the people of Evanston, that this is a long-term, ongoing commitment to process change, and improvement for those communities inside of the city? If there’s a certain group of employees inside the city that feel the way they do based on everything they wrote, it pretty much mirrors some of the things that I’ve read, that the communities outside of city government also feel. So, it’s a shared fate that we figure out what to do on the inside, not to the exclusion of the outside, but we got to do some work. It’s sort of like when you invite someone into your home, you gotta clean it up a little, make sure everything’s like in place and you’re inviting and it’s like a warm space to invite people into. But if you don’t have that, then there’s a disconnect. There’s growing frustration.

-The Lack of Trust Creates a Drag on Efficiency

The lack of trust in government is real and it’s a real problem. It creates a lot of drag. I mean, if we’re going to just talk about efficiency issues, because a lot of people just want to hear about how governments can be more efficient. When you have a lack of trust in government, that is a huge drag on efficiency. Because you can’t get people to show up, you can’t get people to open up their doors to help you replace lead pipes or to get their vaccinations or trust you to help when they need help. Then the social safety net doesn’t work. People fall through the safety nets that we do have.

I don’t think that nonprofits who get subcontracted to deliver some of these social services can be the only line of defense. Right? A) they don’t get funded enough, but B) nonprofits are partners with government. They’re not a replacement to government. The only way that we scale in an equitable way some of the cool innovative stuff that nonprofits get to do because they’re not government, the only way you scale that equitably across all let’s say, CPS [Chicago Public Schools] schools, is when you have a strong Chicago Public School System, right? You can’t have five schools that get this really amazing program and be like we’re done. How about the other 100 schools that really need the same program?

Ame Sanders  25:05

I found it fascinating that you talked about that the internal climate of the government is somewhat of a mirror of the external climate. Sometimes the government will focus on the community and the climate that exists in the community. But, what I heard you saying is those things most likely also exist within the government and if you find things within your governmental entity, you can almost rest assured that it’s out in the community as well. So, I found that fascinating. Then, the other thing I wanted to highlight is the fact that you reminded us that this is a long-term commitment. That even if we have a two- or three-year change initiative, or a commitment to change cycle that these things have been building for decades, and it will take some time to transform, dismantle, reform, the things that are necessary to be changed, or to create the kind of learning inclusive environment that you’re talking about inside the city government.

The other thing that I think is really important to bring out is your discussion about why a city government or public institutions should want to do this. It isn’t only about doing it for the greater good. That is important, but it also will improve their efficiency and reduce this drag, as you described. This lack of trust, lack of proper relationships with the people they serve and with their own teams internally create or feed this lack of trust that’s part of our culture right now. That’s a huge drag on their efficiency. So, there’s a motivation there beyond just this notion of the greater good and the fact that it’s something we should be doing.

But, I also want to ask you a little bit about once you start on this journey, if you’re working with a community, what I’ve seen and it feels like is once you begin to listen, and you open up the environment some, then things began to surface. People began to tell you things or share things with you that perhaps they have kept bottled up for a long time. And it almost sounds like as if it’s just happening. But in fact, people are now feeling that they can air grievances or concerns that they’ve had maybe for some time, but you have to face those.

-Research Focused: Test Your Assumptions

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  27:26

Yeah, you do. I think that one of the distinguishing elements of this model that I’ve co-created with all the people who have come along this journey with me is, I got to put my professor hat on. It’s very research informed. So, what I’ve found is when we’re recruiting for a cohort of employees (usually it’s been a cohort between 10 to 15 employees who want to learn something about equity and implementation, things like that). Yes, clearly it’s based on their experience, but also their commitment to the organization. They want to help improve it.

The model that we use is very research-informed. So, you can walk in with a grievance and say, “Man, you know, I don’t like this and this and XYZ.” You’re put into a team with other employees who have similar interests. I’ll give you an example. There was a team, they started the first year of the REDI model is the Racial Equity Diversity Inclusion model that I’ve been kind of refining over the past few years. So, one of the things I trained them on is how to test assumptions. So, I trained them on doing one-on-one interviews. Not conversations over coffee or beer, but actual semi-structured interviewing. So, they come together, and they’re like, “Okay, well, we know that really, management excludes employees of color in their evaluation structure.” So, I’m like, “Okay, that sounds like a working hypothesis. Go test it.” So, I trained them, they go out, they talked with five or six people, usually. There’s like four people on team or three to four. They came back and in this particular case, they came back and the feedback that they got was no, almost nobody gets evaluated on a regular basis except for our union folks because it’s in their contract for the raises. So, they went and spoke with some new managers and employees. The general consensus was, “I as a new manager was never told that I had to evaluate people who were not union members. I’ve never done an evaluation. Where do I go to get this information? How do I use this?”

So, then the pilot team was like “Okay. Hold on a second. So, we need to think about how to test a training for new managers on how to give inclusive good evaluations.” How you connect that up with work performance. You see how their initial assumption was there was just this bias and what they realized is actually, there might still be bias, but almost everybody across the board is being affected by the absence of something that is really critical to organizational performance, which is manager training.

Ame Sanders  30:21

Wow, that’s a great example to illustrate how even through this you can find some very basic things that need to be addressed across the board. That’s really helpful. So maybe this is a good place to pivot and talk about you’re working with initiatives that go across the state. Can you talk a little bit about this larger program that you guys have going on with the Great Cities Institute and operationalizing DEI? We’ve talked about that a little bit, but maybe get into that initiative with the Great Cities Institute.

-Educating the Next Generation of Public Leaders

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  30:53

Okay. Yeah, absolutely. I’ll just backtrack around, you asked a question about how do we transform? How do we do this? It’s not easy. But just for sake of completeness, there is a path where I see–and this is going to go into the learning to operationalize racial equity, this pilot that we did–we need more people who see the value of government and want to pursue careers in government. This means that we should be talking with undergrads in community colleges, at public universities and elsewhere, and show them the importance in a very non-cynical and positive way, right? Because the only way they hear about it usually is like the ranting and raving, right? Like, ah, so we need to show them how connected they are to this. So, there’s one group.

The second group are Masters students who are in Masters of Public Administration, Masters of Public Policy, who often are not provided opportunities to learn in their coursework, participatory methods of governance. How do I actually facilitate a meeting? I know that it sounds like the simplest thing. Here’s what I’ve realized: when I say we should train MPAs on how to facilitate meetings, the general attitude is everyone knows how to facilitate a meeting. You just sit there, and you tell people everything that could have been in a memo facilitated? And I’m like, “No.” Right? What are some participatory methods that have already been established around citizens assemblies or budgeting? They never learn about this stuff. They don’t. I mean, rarely, unless they run into me or my colleagues at the Great Cities Institute. They’re like, “Oh, wow. This is really great.”

-Operationalizing DEI with the Great Cities Institute

So, we need to train up-and-coming public leaders so that they can go work for the existing professionals, and this goes into this pilot that we just finished with 14 municipalities. These were mostly larger and smaller suburbs. So, it was a pilot, let me just be really clear. So, it was with Great Cities Institute, the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus, and the Illinois County City Manager’s Association (ILCMA). It was the first time that ILCMA and MMC have partnered on a training program like this. So, they took the lead in thinking about different rubrics on who do we let in? Is it a large municipality that can afford some of this stuff? What do smaller municipalities need? More diverse communities versus older aging-in-place committees? All this stuff, right? So, they figured that out. My attitude was, look, this is the first time we’re doing it. It’s a pilot. Let’s just let’s test it out. Let’s see what sticks and what doesn’t stick. So, we had 14 municipalities. It’s a very long list. It goes from, relatively small, but mighty suburbs, like Hazelcrest in the Southland, here in Chicago, the greater Chicagoland region all the way to sort of the larger metro suburbs, such as Naperville and Schomburg, and even Peoria.

So, these are organizations that sent mostly leaders, but we accepted–so again, there are city managers, village administrators, police chiefs that were all in the room as well as directors of HR. Down to, in terms of the hierarchy, officers in a police department. We tried to target the top-level leadership, primarily because what I have found in the organizational work is if existing leaders really don’t feel comfortable or don’t understand what this equity-driven organizational change work means or entails, then they don’t know what to be supportive around. They also are on a learning curve themselves, but to acknowledge that when you achieve a relatively high level of authority in an organization, you’ve learned a lot of stuff and you know things, but the leaders that we tend to attract are the ones that instinctively know these are patterns. I’m seeing patterns and I’m getting really tired of spending 80% of my time putting out fires versus 80% of my time making our organization stronger, attracting great staff, and retaining great stuff. That’s where they want to be. They don’t want to be in the “mad” bucket.

Ame Sanders  35:18

So, what did you learn and what did they learn in this pilot?

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  35:21

Well, so we just actually finished a six-month cycle. We just got done with the sixth cycle. Literally we’re doing debrief and focus group evaluations right now. So, what I can say, like some real top line, municipalities are of different sizes, and often the ones that are smaller and less resourced really could use a lot of support. It’s not just about a pilot project. So, you know, the whole idea in the six-months cycle is that we guided teams of two from each of the municipalities to develop an action plan for a pilot project that they are now going and implementing. So, we did a lot of training, they did you know, some of the one on one to test assumptions, we worked on communicating, you know what this word really means, which often means that you have to be kind of the DEI NorthStar around this work.

If you’re a city manager, and you’re sitting in 500, different meetings, 499 of them might not say anything about diversity, equity or inclusion, and that’s fine. But your role or with this training, you can start seeing how thinking about how do we increase inclusion, as we’re developing a new minority and women-owned business program? What are some of the equity concerns that we have heard around the way we develop affordable housing programs? Right, like your that’s your job, your job is not to be in the weeds? Right. But your job is as the DEI NorthStar house, how do some of these things already kind of naturally connect? The other piece to this, which was an interesting finding is I’d say, at least half the teams, the pilots that they came up with, you almost don’t see any DEI language in there. I think that’s a good thing, right? They’re using an analytical tool that helps them to see patterns of marginalization and exclusion. Lack of impact. But what they’re testing is a mainstream approach to how do we address this issue of retention in our IT department? Almost anything you can think of within an organization can and should have a DEI lens to it, but it doesn’t have to be called DEI.

In fact, I prefer it not be it because I am seeing backlash right now. I’m seeing a lot of siloing. A lot of “we’ve got one, so we’re done. No more DEI. We did the implicit bias training. We’re good. Check.” Right? I see that and you know, to adapt, you have to really think about like how everyday challenges and processes can be improved when people understand and learn what equity means when you operationalize it, what inclusion means when you operationalize it. So, operationalizing is that really boring, kind of nerdy part. When you say inclusion and you want to include more people to help you determine how to design a new program for affordable housing, the operational part means you go into that Department of Planning, or whoever’s leading this, and you ask, “What are some of the moments where the policy processes moving forward, and where we are reaching out to key stakeholders, and where decision points are actually being made based upon that engagement?”

-The Triangle of Effectiveness, Equity, and Efficiency

I know it sounds really boring, but this stuff matters, because everyone has a process. The reality is that these public hearings where you get 30 seconds, public hearings, where they’ve already decided they’re going to close down to schools, doesn’t help with the lack of trusting government. So, what I’m saying about operationalizing inclusion is stop with that. I would love to see a moment where there’s enough of a critical mass inside of government where people just start saying, “Wait, that’s not equitable. That’s not an inclusive or equitable process. We already know which schools we’re going to close down, why are we having public hearings?” See what I’m saying? By the way, here’s an analysis that shows we should actually keep three of the schools open, and not build a new school and fully fund the schools that actually exist. I’m actually talking about something that’s going on in Chicago. That to me is the vision–when we don’t have to fight from the outside to call this out. Where good people working on the inside, get pushed out because they have this analysis that actually is trying to improve the efficiency, equity, and effectiveness of government. Those three things often are kind of in conflict with each other. Especially the efficiency lens. People like using that efficiency lens and say, “Oh, we’re gonna close this down because blah blah like lack of enrollment or the aging infrastructure.’ Whatever, right? But when you weigh it with what is equitable and what is effective, sometimes you have to loosen the assumptions or the constraints on what is efficient. Sometimes democracy is not efficient, right? We’ve been operating pretty lean for the past 40-50 years. Last time I checked the headlines, things are not going so great. There’s just this distrust and incivility, you know, maybe effective efficiency should be qualified by equity and effectiveness.

Ame Sanders  41:07

I love that triangle of effectiveness, equity, and efficiency for us to think about as a city or community how to balance that and what tradeoffs might have to be made in order to achieve the ultimate goal that we want to achieve for our local government.

-Kathleen's Closing Advice

So, for our communities that are listening, are there one or two pieces of advice that you would give them as they begin to take on this work and think about how to transform their own communities?

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  41:31

Well, I guess it depends on who’s listening. So, if it’s public leaders and people who are leaders of organizations where you have both the headache and the responsibility of (and the value) of wanting to improve your internal operations and understanding that there are some things that are not great that we need to do better on. Often these are public leaders and administrators who also get it when something hits the airwaves, or whatever it is. Just something happens. If you find that happening over and over again, then thinking about what an initial commitment to an organizational change pilot.

There’s really only a lot of things to gain in terms of insight, improved employee engagement, upskilling of employees are things that you can really use some of your administrative power to create space for a group of employees to actually explore and to learn.

If you’re a medium to large sized nonprofit, often you are operating like a public organization. Quite honestly, there’s often less oversight in large nonprofits than there is for a municipality, or for a Forest Preserve District. So, it would be board members. It would be the people who are supposed to be holding leadership accountable and looking at recurring patterns or trying to understand like, what are some of the institutionalized practices, even in this large nonprofit, that we see are in need of transformation?

For external advocates, I would say that there’s definitely continue doing the watchdog engagement, the coming up with better policy solutions, or more plus a community-informed foreign policy solutions. But do not make the assumption that everyone inside of government is just doing great, super-empowered, just not helping you because they’re just being mean. There’s a lot of stuff going on inside of large public organizations. Finding people who are willing to risk some of the privilege they have working inside of government to help do the right thing. I know that sounds very naive, but it’s true, right? We need more people who are willing to do that. The cynicism is just overwhelming. I would say, keep your eyes open, right? Build alliances. Consider getting your MPA that’s a Master’s in Public Administration for those who may not be aware. Everyone knows what an MBA is. So, I always start with that. An MPA is for public service. It’s a management degree in public service, and we need more and better trained managers and leaders in public service.

Ame Sanders  44:25

Thank you for that advice, Kathleen, because it gets a good place for us to close out, which is, there are actions that all of us can take. And there are opportunities for all of us to both advocate for the changes that our communities require. But if we are in a place of power or privilege or authority to begin to look internal to our organization and how we can make it more effective, equitable, and efficient. Thank you so much for your time.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton  44:58

Thank you, Ame. This was great.


Ame Sanders  45:01

In her role, Kathleen frequently steps outside of the four walls of the university and provides her expertise, methods, and coaching to help communities across Illinois and beyond operationalize DEI within their public entities. You know, in our discussion, Kathleen reminded us that the lack of inclusion and equity we see in our communities is so often mirrored inside our public institutions and local governmental entities and that transformational change is what’s needed.

She also reminded us that the challenges that are faced in our public institutions from policing, to housing, to education, that those have been decades in the making, and they will not be transformed quickly or easily. It’s going to be work and will take commitment and time. Still, Kathleen gave us hope that change is possible, that many of our institutions are filled with people who are committed to their communities and to the mission of serving their neighbors. Kathleen told us that it’s really about creating a culture of learning and continuous improvement with a DEI lens that will bring about the transformation that we’re looking for both internally in our organizations, externally for our services that we provide, as well as with our community engagement.

Kathleen suggested that transformative growth in our public institutions can come when we look at the broader institutional patterns and disparities that are creating inequities across our organization. Make a commitment to change. Ground our work in research. Start small with a pilot program. Embrace iterative learning, prototyping, and experimentation. Then listen to and empower our frontline employees to be part of and even to drive the change. And then she reminded us that as leaders, we should assume our role to act as the North Star for inclusion and equity within our organization, helping to ensure that our teams maintain an equity and inclusion lens across all of the work that we do.

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time.

And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We’d love your comments.

Thanks so much for listening


Guest: Kathleen Yang-Clayton

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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