Diversity Initiatives Are a Focus Among Westchester’s Governments

In a county that is ever-evolving, government and public programming has begun its own exercises in flexibility.

Westchester has changed dramatically over the past decade, from ambitious downtown revitalizations to shifting demographics. For many, the scale of that demographic shift became clear when the federal government published its 2020 census numbers. Data revealed the county’s population had increased 4 percent, to just over 990,000. That population had become more diverse, too: Westchester’s Asian, Black, and Hispanic/Latino communities all grew in that time span. Meanwhile, Westchester’s white, non-Hispanic population decreased from 57.6 to 51.5 percent.

Amid these changes, many of Westchester’s governments have been investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs — especially in the past few years, as current events, like the murder of George Floyd, have brought racial disparities and tensions to the fore.

DEI initiatives are often associated with the private sector: Within Westchester, many local law firms, nonprofits, and business associations are devoting resources to ensure people of all backgrounds can succeed. But similar work is also underway in the public sector. Local lawmakers at the county and municipal levels are pursuing programs to ensure Westchester government better represents its constituents — and that those constituents can thrive within the county’s borders.

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In 2021, for example, the city of New Rochelle created its first-ever director of diversity and inclusion position. The following year, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano appointed the city’s first equity officer — a post that would “bring unlimited possibilities to better diversifying our workforce and ensuring our policies are accessible and equitable for all,” the mayor explained at the time.

Joan McDonald, director of operations with the Westchester County Government, puts it crisply: “You want your workforce to reflect the demographics of the people that you serve.”

Joan McDonald
Courtesy of Westchester County Government

“As you get more into the local level, there’s much more interaction with residents of the county.”
—Joan McDonald

Defining DEI

At its core, DEI initiatives “are part of the solution to changing centuries of racism, ableism, sexism, and LGBTQ fear and discrimination,” Jan Fisher, the executive director of Nonprofit Westchester, told 914INC. last year.

Tiffany S.W. Hamilton, the CEO of YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester, has a similar definition: “What does it mean to be Black in Westchester? What does it mean to be Latinx in Westchester? Do you feel you belong? If so, where are those places?” She adds: “These are questions that can reveal the pockets of where we can grow or identify practices that we can scale.” As part of her work at the helm of the White Plains nonprofit, Hamilton oversees its Center for Racial Equity, which launched in 2021.

YMCA Group
YMCA Group. Courtesy YMCA White Plains and Central Westchester.

In many ways, Westchester’s public sector is best placed to do this work. “When faced with the heavy weight of the work to get there, many recognize it involves components of the community, scholarship, unwavering commitment, and additional resources and support,” Hamilton explains. And who better to muster those resources than policymakers and public servants?

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McDonald plays a key role leading this work at the county level — and is quick to stress its importance. She’s worked at a variety of altitudes in the public sector throughout her career, including as the Commissioner of Transportation for New York and the Commissioner of Economic Development for Connecticut. Her insight? “As you get more into the local level, there’s much more interaction with residents of the county.” And for those interactions to be productive and meaningful, she adds, the government needs to reflect the communities that it’s talking to.

Representation in Government

Over recent years, that reflection has become more accurate in some of Westchester’s public institutions. In 2015, Belinda Miles became the first Black woman president of Westchester Community College. And in 2022, Vivien McKenzie became the first Black woman mayor of Peekskill. Still, other glass ceilings remain intact: Westchester has never had a woman as county executive.

Courtesy YMCA White Plains and Central Westchester.

“Local government is positioned to lead and guide us through policies, advocate for access to resources, and provide direct services.”
— Tiffany S.W. Hamilton

But what about the rest of the county’s public workforce? Of about 4,550 employees, 49.5 percent are white and 50.45 are Black, Asian, American Indian, or members of other minority communities. “That’s about representative of what our county demographics are,” McDonald says. “We have good representation in our leadership,” she adds, referring to the county’s commissioners and directors.

Westchester’s diverse roster of public servants is the result of “several initiatives underway for the workforce,” McDonald explains. In 2022, for example, Westchester County joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a network of local governments across the US. The Alliance strives for “different outcomes in our communities,” its website reads. “To advance equity, government must focus not only on individual programs, but also on policy and institutional strategies that are driving the production of inequities.”

New Rochelle’s annual Pride event.
New Rochelle’s annual Pride event. Courtesy of City of New Rochelle.

In that vein, the county’s recruiting department recently began working with about 200 professional and social organizations — at county, state, and national levels — that serve underutilized demographics. “We now mail out our weekly exam list and job postings to those organizations,” McDonald says.

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“We’re also looking at initiatives to make sure our colleges, universities, and high schools know that Westchester County is a good employer,” she adds. “And we are being much more proactive in that arena.”

True success is growth.
Sam Gomez

South of the county seat, in New Rochelle, Sam Gomez is conducting similar work, as director of diversity and inclusion for the city. “Our internal DEI efforts always begin with rigorous engagement,” he explains. The city regularly collects feedback from its more than 600 public employees with surveys about communication and the work environment.

Gomez says the city government also takes care to celebrate its diverse staff. “We just recently kicked off monthly employee-recognition ceremonies,” he explains. “We take pride in our diverse staff, which is also representative of the broader community, and make the dedicated effort to celebrate the different heritages that make up our city’s unique fabric. We do this through monthly luncheons which allow employees to engage with different foods, cultures, and conversations with folks they might not work with directly already.”

Sam Gomez, New Rochelle
Sam Gomez, New Rochelle. Photo by Stefan Radtke.

Gomez also explains that fair representation within the ranks of government can have a powerful ripple effect. “True success is growth,” he says. “Making sure our internal efforts increase and strengthen each year to then positively impact New Rochelle residents and local businesses.”

Hamilton, of the YWCA, sees the same pattern at work in White Plains. “As a service provider, we must work to ensure that the expectation of inclusion and equity in our consumer experience is articulated and supported,” she explains. “When we do the work internally, it sends the message that we are committed to you beyond the service, but also your experience.”

Employee Recognition Ceremony honors members of the Fire Department.
Employee Recognition Ceremony honors members of the Fire Department. Courtesy of City of New Rochelle.

Uplifting Underserved Communities

Of course, DEI work in public programming also aims to support people outside the realm of government. The county’s Minority and Women-owned Business Program supports minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) across Westchester, providing economic incentives, business opportunities, heightened awareness, workshops, and training.

“When we came into office, there really was no initiative,” McDonald, of Westchester County Government, recalls. (County Executive George Latimer assumed office January 1, 2018.)

To address this gap, the new administration convened a task force with first-hand experience: local MWBE leaders, along with relevant nonprofits, community colleges, and professional associations. “We wanted to identify what we should be doing,” McDonald explains. “And the task force was very productive.”

After a series of workshops to gather insights and advertise the new program, the task force made ambitious recommendations to the county, like significantly increasing the percentage of MWBEs in Westchester’s construction, professional services, and goods and commodities industries. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” McDonald says.

Westchester County Government
Courtesy of Westchester County Government

Indeed, the program has since proven to be a ballast — and, in the COVID era, a lifeline. In 2021 and 2022, the country deployed $5.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to MWBE businesses “so they could remain open and in service,” McDonald explains. (That $5.7 million was part of a larger $17-million program for all small businesses in Westchester.)

The county also maintains a website of all MWBEs within Westchester’s borders, allowing viewers to peruse categories ranging from architecture to ironworking to roofing. County staff — with the help of two MWBEs themselves — vet and certify each business on the list.

The county, itself, turns to these businesses when it needs services. “In 2022, county-wide MWBE utilization was at 26.1 percent of eligible expenditures,” McDonald says. “Of $365 million, $95.3 went to MWBEs. That is real progress from our perspective — we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

McDonald notes the county is doubling down in the years ahead: more workshops, more roundtables, more investments in MWBEs. “We’re going to make sure we meet and exceed our goals,” she says. “But equally important is making sure firms that are certified in this county have what they need: the appropriate legal support, accounting support, and insurance support. Those are the three areas where we feel [MWBEs] face barriers.”

In parallel, the county has also spent about $3 million in ARPA funds on the Launch1000 program, which began in 2021. McDonald describes the program as a start-up accelerator for local entrepreneurs, and in 2022 the initiative added a dual language (English-Spanish) component.

“The Launch1000 program is an investment in growing and diversifying Westchester’s small-business community,” explained Bridget Gibbons, Westchester County’s director of economic development, in a recent press release. “This program provides education, mentorship, and a supportive community to help residents take their ideas from concept to completion.”

Catalyst for Diversity event at the New York Power Authority, held in conjunction with the MTA.
Catalyst for Diversity event at the New York Power Authority, held in conjunction with the MTA. Courtesy of Westchester County Government.

Public programming to support MWBEs also exists at the city level. Gomez, of New Rochelle, explains that the city “is constantly developing programs that encourage the participation of minority- and women-owned businesses.”

New Rochelle funds a range of projects and events along these lines. “Just last year, we were proud to provide business opportunities for over 100 minority- and women-owned businesses through our monthly luncheons and other city events, like the Taste of Union Avenue, Holiday Market, Summer Sizzle Concert Series, and Jazz Festival,” Gomez says.

Intersections

While DEI initiatives in public programming are distinct from those in the private sector and civil society, they often intersect and complement one another. The League of Women Voters of Westchester is a prime example of this dynamic.

The 100-year-old nonpartisan organization “educates the public and advocates for important issues,” explains Kathy Meany, its president. One of those issues is increasing the representation of women in Westchester governments. “There’s definitely still progress to be made,” Meany says.

Speakers at the “Untapped Solutions Job Fair.” (Left to right) Patricia Brigham, director of development, Westchester Library System; Nory Padilla, first deputy commissioner, Westchester County Department of Correction; Barbara D. Lambros, director of program development, Westchester County Department of Correction
Speakers at the “Untapped Solutions Job Fair.” (Left to right) Patricia Brigham, director of development, Westchester Library System; Nory Padilla, first deputy commissioner, Westchester County Department of Correction; Barbara D. Lambros, director of program development, Westchester County Department of Correction. Courtesy of Westchester County Government.

To accomplish this, the league hosts an event titled, Running & Winning, with the aim of increasing the field of women candidates across the county. “It’s an opportunity for young females — high-school juniors and seniors — to meet elected officials and hear their stories about why they decided to run for office,” Meany notes. Local officials, state congress people, and even the governor have been known to make appearances.

For the event, young women gather at Manhattanville College in Purchase and have the opportunity to run a mock campaign. They delve into public policy and key issues, oversee finance and marketing, and more. “It helps young females think about the future, and if they want to get involved in public service or maybe even run for office,” Meany says.

Photo courtesy of League of Women Voters of Westchester, Inc.

“There’s definitely still progress to be made.”
— Kathy Meany

Right now, the league is also advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in New York State, which will appear on the ballot for ratification this November. The amendment would formally acknowledge the diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges that women and other minorities in the state have long faced.

“While New York has a robust set of anti-discrimination statutes, our state constitution is inadequate when it comes to ensuring equality,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a recent press release about the amendment. “[The ERA] would prohibit discrimination against groups who have been historically targeted, including those with disabilities, LGBTQI+ individuals, people of color, immigrants, women, and pregnant people.”

DEI initiatives in the public sector also have a way of sparking change elsewhere. Local government is positioned to lead and guide us through policies, advocate for access to resources, and provide direct services,” Hamilton, of the YWCA, explains. “When we invest in the people or organizations to lead this work for the government, it sends a message to all members of the community that this work matters, their experience as community members matters, and even if we do not resolve it all, there is a longstanding commitment to address and remedy.”

One example of this force at work? Hamilton’s own organization. “The county has an opportunity to anchor and centralize these experiences so that agencies like the YWCA and the Center for Racial Equity can leverage that information to provide enhanced and specific services and programs,” she explains.

Photo courtesy of League of Women Voters of Westchester, Inc.

Gomez, of New Rochelle, seconds this notion. “We have placed a real importance on having a diverse workforce that not only reflects the diversity of our community, but bolsters a sense of belonging in employees and residents,” he says.

Change in any sector or industry is difficult — and perhaps most so in the public sector. Elections mean policies and agendas can shift every cycle. And taxpayer funding means increased scrutiny. Indeed, the very idea of DEI work has become politicized: “Critics of DEI have tried to scapegoat it for everything from regional bank failures to panels ripping off a Boeing plane in flight,” wrote The New York Times in a January article.

Hamilton sees this politicking as a distraction. “As the world drowns in the semantics of this work, we must remain focused on understanding the full experiences of our marginalized communities and continue to invest in improving those experiences,” she says, stressing the importance of staying the course — because the benefits are too important to ignore.

Success will show its face in a couple of different ways,” she explains. “You would see an increase in participation in not only services and resources but in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and our school systems — even how folks show up in the workplace.”

The League of Women Voters encourages students to celebrate and embrace their differences.
The League of Women Voters encourages students to celebrate and embrace their differences. Photo courtesy of League of Women Voters of Westchester, Inc.

And oftentimes, achieving this success hinges on initiatives within public programming. “For the cities that have made advancements, the expectation and funding started from the government,” Hamilton says.

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