Fort Worth

Can diversity, inclusion chief heal Fort Worth? Here’s how candidates made their case

The feeling that Fort Worth needs to take major steps to address racial disparity was palpable at Morningside Elementary School, where candidates hoping to be the city’s first diversity and inclusion director fielded dozens of questions.

The candidates, representing diverse backgrounds from academia and municipal government to the private sector and criminal justice, took questions from a panel and Fort Worth residents for two hours Monday in the school’s auditorium. The crowd, at least 160 strong, focused largely on how the candidates would heal racial division in the city and make tangible change.

Residents often mentioned Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman who was fatally shot by a white police officer. Many who asked questions said they had been fighting for equity for decades and had serious doubts the city was genuine in its effort to improve. The crowd gave rounds of applause for answers they liked, but could heard murmuring when they disagreed with one of the job candidates. More than once, speakers sparred with candidates while asking questions.

The Diversity and Inclusion director will head a human relations-style department in the city manager’s office tasked with tackling diversity issues across the city.

The candidates are:

Christina Brooks, diversity and inclusion officer and LGBTQ liaison for South Bend, Indiana.

Stephen Francis, former chief diversity and inclusion officer for Columbus, Ohio.

Stancia Jenkins, assistant vice president for diversity at the University of Nebraska.

Mishon Landry, a diversity-focused consultant and former ADP human resources manager.

Shani Barrax Moore, director of diversity and inclusion at the University of North Texas.

Ty Stimpson, assistant criminal district attorney with the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office.

If hired, all of the candidates said they would not be able to change Fort Worth on their own. Each stressed teamwork and accountability.

Answering a question about mending trust between the police and residents, Brooks said she began a program where beat police officers and men of color shared stories about their personal experiences. South Bend has been divided by the shooting of Eric Logan, an unarmed black man, by a white officer. She said her program humanized both groups in each other’s eyes.

“I made it my business to try to not just look at the residual effects of trauma but get to the root of the trauma,” she said.

Moore, who oversaw an inclusion study at UNT and during her time as chief diversity officer for Tarrant County College, said she has experience negotiating with bureaucrats who might see making changes regarding equity as unnecessary.

“If you’re not practicing active and intentional inclusion and equity, then you are in effect practicing active and maybe unintentional passive exclusion,” she said.

Jenkins, who worked for the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the city of Kansas City, Missouri, before going to the University of Nebraska, said training people about inclusion should focus on the benefits.

“Equity for everyone else does not mean less rights for you,” she said.

Stimpson, who served on the city’s Race and Culture Task Force as chairman of the criminal justice committee, was asked if he would serve the residents of Fort Worth or the city council. He pointed to the task force’s recommendations for police oversight as a sign he would do what the community wanted. A police oversight committee and monitor have been met with pushback from some.

He said he put his reputation on the line approving the recommendation and understands the city.

“There’s not a part of Fort Worth where I’m not spending my time,” he said.

Answering a question about how he would ensure the community received priority over those in Fort Worth who may not want to see change, Francis, who has worked on diversity issues in the corporate world, said people can either get on board with equity or move on.

“You’re either with us or not,” he said.

Landry, who attended University of Dallas Graduate School of Business Management but was the only candidate without a post-graduate degree, said she prioritized her family over education. She said her lack of a post-graduate degree should not be a concern.

“I believe, quite honestly, it’s made me work twice as hard.”

The position received significant interest, with 320 people applying. Talent search and management firm Mackenzie Eason and Associates worked with the city to cut that number to 15 semifinalists. That number was further reduced to six based on experience and fit for the job description, a city spokesperson said.

The candidates fielded questions from co-chairs of the Race and Culture Task Force: Lillie Biggins, Rabbi Andrew Bloom, Rosa Navejar and Bob Ray Sanders. Estrus Tucker moderated audience questions.

Sanders, a co-chairman of the Race and Culture Task Force, said the position was crucial for healing racial division in the city and ensuring city services, from bond projects to police officers, represented citizens equitably.

The task force envisioned the position, and a 14-person department, as having a broad scope of powers. Sanders called it a “beefing up” of the human relations department with the ability to analyze the city budget for disparities and influence fair hiring practices, including within the police and fire departments.

“We want to make sure our citizens are treated equitably,” he said.

There had been push-back on the position, Sanders said, from some who felt Fort Worth didn’t need to address inequity head on.

“There was a sentiment that despite what we’ve gone through over the past two years or so everything is all right or we can make it all right with what we’ve got,” he said. “We’ve done it for so long with the ‘Fort Worth Way’ but we can’t continue that.”

City tension

Racial tension in Fort Worth received national attention in late 2016 with the arrest of Jacqueline Craig.

Craig had called police to resolve a dispute with a neighbor but was arrested with her two daughters in December 2016. The confrontation that ensued was captured on a viral video, which sparked outrage and complaints of excessive force.

Anxiety has continued.

Residents critical of the city’s move to charge admission at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden said the costs targeted minority and low-income residents.

A study released earlier this year from the National League of Cities found that black and Hispanic people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested and assessed fines, while white officers are more likely to use force. The city, while admitting some changes needed to occur, criticized the study for using incomplete data.

Following a rash of officer-involved shootings this summer, tension soared when Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, was fatally shot by white officer Aaron Dean in her home as he investigated a call about an open door at her house. Dean resigned from the Fort Worth Police Department and has been charged with murder.

Residents decrying aggressive police tactics have voiced concerns about racial divisions in the city through protests at City Hall for two weeks and during the grand opening of Dickies Arena. Marchers also gathered at City Hall on Sunday and signs reading “God is Black” were posted on about 50 churches, all predominantly white, across the city.

Systemic racism

Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, a co-founder of United Fort Worth, which has advocated for greater police oversight and more equitable policy, said the diversity and inclusion director would have a tough job but one that’s vital for substantial reform. He said he was glad to see the city moving forward with hiring someone but was disappointed none of the candidates represent the Latinx population. Hispanics and Latinos will likely make up the majority of Fort Worth citizens after the 2020 Census.

He pointed to original plans for the candidate forum as an example of the city’s problem.

At first, the forum was to be held at the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex, the headquarters for both the police and fire departments, and those who wanted to ask questions were told to do so online.

This would result in little public discourse, Rodriguez said, because black and undocumented residents would likely shy away from attending a meeting at the police headquarters, especially given the recent officer-involved shootings.

“It really makes it seem like the city doesn’t get it,” he said. “They do not understand how to make voices heard.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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