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Diversity initiatives within Missouri agencies run into GOP attack on ‘woke’ government

The Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
This Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft tweeted that a job posting for a “diversity, inclusion and belonging leader” was an example of “left-wing indoctrination in the workplace” and the wrong use of taxpayer dollars. State agency leaders say inclusion and belonging programs help retain employees during a severe staffing shortage.

High employee turnover has plagued Missouri’s Department of Social Services for years.

The department’s staffing woes have contributed to a range of problems — from foster children languishing in state care for longer than they should be to disabled residents waiting months to receive federal food benefits to investigators unable to keep up with child abuse and neglect complaints.

Gov. Mike Parson dispatched one of his top lieutenants — his former deputy chief of staff, Robert Knodell — to the agency in 2021 to address the long list of challenges, top among them employee morale and retention. In a November presentation to the governor’s cabinet, Knodell zeroed in on one retention measure he believes has proven especially promising.

The “Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging” group that the department formed in 2020.

According to Knodell’s presentation slides during the cabinet meeting, obtained by The Independent through a Sunshine Law request, more than 400 employees had participated in the focus groups as of November. Those who participated, Knodell said, were much less likely to leave their jobs.

“Turnover for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging focus group participants is LESS THAN HALF the Department-wide turnover rate,” one slide emphasized.

But the program, which one department employee called “groundbreaking,” now faces a new challenge: The GOP’s escalating war against “woke” government.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft tweeted that a job posting for a “diversity, inclusion and belonging leader” within the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was an example of “left-wing indoctrination in the workplace” and the wrong use of taxpayer dollars.

“It’s time to end ‘woke’ in government,” Ashcroft wrote.

Republican lawmakers have chimed in this month as well.

State Rep. Bishop Davidson, R-Republic, went on Facebook to decry inclusion meetings within the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development for “lacking transparency.” State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, advanced a bill out of committee last week that would prohibit public universities from soliciting diversity, equity or inclusion (DEI) statements when hiring.

And the GOP criticism is having an impact. The University of Missouri System announced Friday that its four campuses are scrapping the mention of DEI statements in their job posts, in response to Richey’s bill.

State department leaders are desperately trying to fill thousands of vacant positions in areas such as mental health, social services, corrections and education. These are also the departments that house Missouri’s largest minority workforce, and some agency leaders have found that making these workers feel welcomed in a white-dominated state government actually helps retain them.

Yet hearing the GOP rhetoric against these efforts is discouraging to minority workers, said Natashia Pickens, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 6355.

The union represents Knodell’s employees in the social services agency, as well as those with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“It’s put a lot of fear in workers,” Pickens said. “They’re like, ‘If they get rid of these programs, they’re not going to keep Black people. They’re not going to keep LGBTQ people.’”

Not only do the inclusion programs help workers feel welcomed, Pickens said, but they also give them visibility for promotions — something she said minority employees statewide have long struggled to land.

Ending the programs will further the delays in connecting the state’s most vulnerable populations with food, health care and other services, she said. And while she believes pay increases will help ease staffing shortages, the anti-DEI rhetoric could counteract that.

“Killing those programs is not going to help with retention,” Pickens said. “And what that’s going to do is put more work on the backs of the workers that do remain.”

Natasha Pickens, president of Communications Workers of America Local 6355 that represents the Missouri public sector workers including the Missouri Department of Social Services, spoke at a rally on May 14, 2021, at the DSS headquarters.
Wiley Price
The St. Louis American
Natasha Pickens, president of Communications Workers of America Local 6355 that represents the Missouri public sector workers including the Missouri Department of Social Services, spoke at a rally on May 14, 2021, at the DSS headquarters.

‘A right to belong’

A supervisor in DSS’s Family Support Division told The Independent in an interview that the focus group has been important to creating a sense of belonging among her team of 55 workers. She participated in the program but asked not to be identified publicly for fear of political attacks for her involvement.

“I am sad that people want to politicize it,” said the woman who identifies as white and lives in a Republican-leaning county. “I don’t care what side of the aisle anyone sits on, we should all have the right to feel like we belong.”

Especially through the pandemic, she said she “completely believes” that it is helping DSS with retention because employees feel like “they can be heard.”

“In these focus groups, we’ve had people share everything from a fear of coming back into the office to maybe other things that they’ve gone through,” she said. “And to know that your peers are feeling similar, I think that’s a big help for staff.”

She said the group emphasizes belonging.

“Nobody is telling you to change your beliefs,” she said. “No one’s trying to push their beliefs on you. It’s just about making everybody feel they’re a part of the group. And we all have a right to be different.”

The effort also helps her team understand the perspectives and needs of their diverse clients as well, she said.

Despite pushback from Republican elected officials, Knodell said in a statement to The Independent that the department is committed to the initiative.

The department has also adopted training on diversity, inclusion, and belonging — over 3,000 employees “completed portions of the curriculum” in fiscal 2022, per Knodell’s presentation — as well as adopting a “heritage calendar highlighting focus area of belonging and inclusion,” and a “day of remembrance” to mark staff lost since 2020.

“Groupthink, strategic missteps and bloated bureaucracy are the results of organizations that fail to inclusively consider needs of customers and staff,” Knodell said, “or misuse initiatives to advance an ideological agenda.”

Pickens said she’s confused about what Republican leaders mean when they use the term “woke” in relation to these efforts.

“I have no idea what they mean by it,” she said.

State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, speaks during House debate on April 12, 2021.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, speaks during House debate on April 12, 2021.

Ban on DEI statements

The House’s special committee on government accountability recently approved a bill that seeks to bar public universities from giving preferential treatment based on DEI statements.

Richey, the bill sponsor, said he consulted the Cicero Institute, a Texas-based conservative think tank, when crafting the bill. But his definition of “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging” is his own, he said.

The bill defines it as “any administrative, ideological, or programmatic effort or perspective that requires applicants to promote or support the idea that disparities are necessarily tied to oppression, involves collective guilt ideologies, and emphasizes the importance of activism and structural reforms based upon intersectional, divisive, or political identities.”

Richey said no one is against diversity, but accused DEI initiatives of being politically charged.

“We all understand that the terms individually of diversity, equity, and inclusion can mean a whole host of things depending on the context — most of which none of us in this room would have a problem with,” he said last week. “However, when you put them together programmatically, and the way in which they have been in our current landscape, that’s when you begin to see ideology taking over that is very divisive.”

Last week, the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development responded to an anonymous letter released by someone claiming to be a department employee complaining that voluntary diversity meetings for staff members weren’t recorded and were part of the “woke” agenda.

The letter was posted online by Davidson, who echoed a similar sentiment as Richey, saying the “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion,” and “belonging,” together are politically charged and politically motivated.

The department responded to Davidson in a letter, stating that the discussions and best practices shared in diversity sessions help better position team members to meet those needs of “hard-to-reach populations.”

“To reach marginalized populations, a better understanding of the hardships and barriers they may experience is imperative,” Leroy Wade, interim commissioner of the higher education and workforce department, said in a letter to Davidson.

Davidson could not be reached for comment.

Not time to throw in the towel

Diversity officers are not new to Missouri government.

The state’s Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) has been around since 1994 to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.

“Diversity drives innovation,” Chris Moreland, spokesman for the Office of Administration, the agency that oversees the OEO, said in a statement to The Independent. “All team members should feel that their contributions and opinions are valued. In turn, by striving to foster an environment where our team members feel respected and valued, the state can attract and retain top talent in our workforce.”

The office produces reports on its minority workforce annually, and there has been a slight decrease since 2020. The Kansas City Star reported last week that many state agencies are far less racially and ethnically diverse than the state as a whole.

It’s a pattern that the OEO has documented for the past two decades, since the office began its annual reports. Those reports also show that Missouri has only met its minority participation goal for state contracts four times in the last 30 years.

And while the state has long struggled to move the needle on increasing workforce diversity, Pickens says now is definitely not the time to throw in the towel.

“Before the pandemic, work was hard,” Pickens said. “But since the pandemic, the job responsibilities have changed. The way we do the work has changed. It’s a very different environment.”

The programs are helping the workers come together to cope with the difficult past few years of the pandemic and become stronger, she said.

“Anything that will help boost morale and make folks feel good about coming into work,” Pickens said, “I don’t think is a waste of taxpayer money.”

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said diversity and inclusion are coming under GOP attacks as the next phase of a constant and shifting culture war waged purely for political gain.

After scoring points by targeting transgender kids with legislation taking away access to gender-affirming care, Rizzo said, Republicans appear ready for a new boogeyman.

“They’ve already moved on to the diversity stuff,” he said. “You can already see, it’s coming from Washington and they’re starting to target diversity positions in government or even in business. The fear mongering doesn’t stop.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent. The Independent's Jason Hancock contributed reporting.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.
Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and is a Report for America corps member.
Annelise Hanshaw covers education for the Missouri Independent — a beat she has held on both the East and West Coast prior to joining the Missouri Independent staff. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.
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