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To Advance Racial Equity, Encouraging City Employees to Have Difficult Conversations


schools chancellor roundtable

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said. Nearly 53 years since his death, the causes for which he is most famously remembered – civil rights and social justice – remain just as urgent and relevant today. While it has long been true, this reality crystalized for many Americans over the past year as a result of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black men and women, including the brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. These events made it clear that there is an urgent need to address systemic racism in our society. An open, honest reckoning about racial justice must happen and we cannot make lasting progress without it. 

That is why the City of New York is taking action to invite difficult conversations among employees about race equity. The New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) recently launched the Race Equity Initiative (REI), a model that offers a sustained focus on educating, engaging, assessing, and taking action. 

REI takes a multi-faceted approach to promoting race equity through: 

Inviting employees to participate in an employee-led learning series that features books, news articles, essays, podcasts, and other content focused on understanding race equity and its impact on all races. The learning series includes monthly selections that all employees are encouraged to discuss.

Offering unconscious bias training to all supervisors and managers across the department to ensure that agency leaders are aligned and cognizant of their actions, which inform workplace behaviors and decisions.

Hosting roundtable discussions to provide all employees with a safe space to engage in dialogue on an array of topics related to race equity, including but not limited to navigating racism in their personal and professional lives.

Enlisting outside facilitators to conduct voluntary and affinity-based focus groups so employees can share their experiences and thoughts on how DCAS and the city can further strengthen their commitment to race equity.

Collecting and analyzing data to identify opportunities to better support employees. 

Taken together, this vital work is already sparking discussion and fostering greater understanding among DCAS employees. The department seeks to encourage other city agencies to replicate or learn from this initiative, which was just introduced citywide at the NYC HR & EEO Our Common Ground– A Transformative Workplace conference from March 1 through March 5.

As the most diverse city in America, New York City is unique in how it can serve as a leader for this important work. City government not only prides itself on the diversity of its workforce, but New York is a place where people of every background are inextricably linked and create what former Mayor David Dinkins called a “gorgeous mosaic.”

So much of what we must do goes back to a simple truth: it is easy to fear or distrust what you don’t know or don’t understand. Frank, honest conversations between people and candid sharing of truths should not be feared as a wedge to divide people, but as a strength in helping people understand one another and feel connected to one another. It is through openness and sharing that we can build understanding that invites empathy and builds stronger bonds. 

We also recognize that leadership requires accountability and delivering measurable results. That is why it was important for our team to take a deep dive in using data to understand current circumstances and to build a roadmap for the progress ahead. We will be analyzing data we collect throughout the initiative to inform next steps and policy decisions.   

Ensuring race equity in the city’s workforce is not only a moral and ethical imperative, but it is also a simple matter of good government. In a city with the richness and diversity of New York, our municipal government can best serve its constituents only when its workforce reflects the talents and diversity of all New Yorkers. 

We profoundly believe in the power of public sector leadership and innovation and the Race Equity Initiative is a manifestation of that belief. All too often people think of the private sector as being the hub of innovation in the workplace, but government has a platform to affect major change on both the macro and micro levels. The City of New York and our team at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) is committed to being bold in promoting race equity and we hope the work we are doing will inspire you to be champions of change to create a more equitable future. 

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Dawn Pinnock is the Executive Deputy Commissioner for People Operations and Risk Management and Belinda French is the Diversity & EEO Officer at the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services. On Twitter @NYCDCAS.

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