Legendary poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength.” Our nation is at an inflection point where we are more diverse than ever—and across our communities, it has become more important than ever for us to recognize, respect, and represent the communities we serve. So when the NRPA released its annual report, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Parks and Recreation, in April, it left me hopeful in seeing the growth and commitment for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and practices at parks and recreation departments across the nation.
Much work is still to be done, but I’m confident that parks and recreation departments will be able to increase their impact. We’ve reached a moment where we have an opportunity to engage citizens in our community with impactful, innovative, and compelling programming and policies that will be reflective of the communities that we serve. As leaders, it is no longer acceptable for DEI policies and practices to be optional for parks and recreation departments—they’re a necessity if you wish to reflect your community with your programming. We can’t wait any longer. We must take meaningful action, and there are ample opportunities to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion within your parks and recreation departments. There’s a space for internal and external DEI engagement because internally, there needs to be equity-oriented decision-making. Externally, DEI events and engagement can impact citizens previously not active with your department.
Internally, having a DEI policy can make a world of difference in ensuring that hiring practices help identify future team members from various backgrounds. Data plays an important role in helping successful DEI strategies become realities. Collecting voluntary demographic data on staff, volunteers, and attendees can help you strategize what the necessary future actions might be for your department to add more diverse staff and volunteers as additional positions become available. Having a dedicated team member coordinate DEI research, policy, and implementation can allow the process to have the necessary focus to become a success.
In addition to having employees working on developing internal practices for DEI, parks and recreation departments should hold and mandate internal training on DEI for team members to consistently learn and maintain cultural competency that can improve communication with citizens. Opening up these training classes to volunteers allows for consistency of inclusive language, respectful interactions, and a commitment to understanding throughout the extended team.
Finally, internal DEI efforts should consist of working with diverse contractors with the community. Intentionally seeking out contractors from diverse backgrounds can often provide support to underrepresented populations. In addition, supporting local contractors can create new local business relationships and remind the community that, as an agency, you will maintain a commitment to equity and inclusion and invest back into your community.
Parks and recreation departments often play a crucial role in bringing the community together for events and providing services. Often, programming can be educational or communal. Having intention in reaching out to community groups and strategically targeting engagement for underrepresented and ethnically diverse populations can help remind folks that the purpose of parks and recreation departments is to serve, support, and uplift the community. Having a DEI policy that focuses on public engagement is important because it allows a department to reflect and learn about the community’s needs. In addition, meeting members of the community where they are can expand the capabilities of your department’s impact.
External DEI engagement can also consist of campaigns that remind the community of the safety of your spaces and the commitment to reflecting its diverse makeup. Showcasing local artists and displaying messages of inclusivity in your facilities are two easy ways to showcase your commitment to inclusion.
Honoring the diversity in our communities isn’t something we should hesitate to lead. Instead, we should embrace the differences in our community and offer support in helping our citizens feel engagement, inclusion, and belonging. We can’t wait any longer to lead in this space, and as parks and recreation departments, we have a platform to bring people together. So start planning to build out a DEI policy internally and externally today and foster a more inclusive community tomorrow.