Ten months after the latest update of the City of Worcester’s affirmative action plan, signs show city employment diversifying and increasingly reflecting the population it serves.

“We have seen incremental progress not only in the amount of people of color but also in succession planning” regarding retirement and either promoting from within or external hiring, said Suja Chacko, Chief Diversity Officer for the city.

The progress reported by city officials builds on four-plus decades of affirmative action policy, but a more recent push to reflect residents among 016 zip codes is effectuating change. In fact, city data shows a nearly-4-percent increase overall in employment of people of color since 2012 – a rise from 188 to 289. Fourteen of 21 city departments, per city data, have increased diversity between 2012 and 2019.

City departments which have seen the greatest year-over-year percent growth are human resources, workforce development, and auditing.

The crux of the plan’s future, said Ms. Chacko is support. “From a business mindset, you can have the numbers, but are you inclusive,” she stated. Less data-driven results are also apparent in such efforts as women- and LGBTQ-focused affinity groups; translation of official documents; and an internal audit of recruitment, retention, and hiring.

For City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., diversity and inclusion is about reflecting the city’s populace. A successful diversity and inclusion strategy, founded in affirmative action, is when “anybody who lives in Worcester can see themselves as a police officer, a firefighter, or a commissioner.”

In years past, said Mr. Augustus, two factors creating what often looked like a homogenized workforce: a decentralized human resources presence and nepotism.

While the second-largest city in New England, Worcester residents know the city can feel familiar among multi-generation families, long-standing communities, or personal networks.

“I don’t know if it’s cronyism or if I’m being polyannish, but it’s human nature,” he said. “It’s natural to want to give somebody a head’s up [and] I don’t see that as being nefarious.”

However, he added, “if the formal system isn’t counterbalancing that by doing opportunity fairs at the diverse churches and organizations in the community, you’re never going to counterbalance it.”

Today, while commendable, said Mr. Augustus, nepotism cannot play a role in hiring.

“People are used to doing things they’ve always done and are comfortable with doing things a certain way, … but what we’re trying to do is to take as much of the subjectivity out of the process,” he said.

He hopes the city’s efforts to focus on affirmative action, diversity, and reaching out to previously-underserved sectors via a boots-on-the-ground presence in cultural organizations will result in a larger volume of applications for city jobs from a broader spectrum of residents.

“When more people apply you’re going to find that woman candidate, that minority candidate, or that LGBTQ candidate,” he said, “but a lot of times they don’t know about that opportunity.”

Ms. Chacko wants to amplify awareness. A Houston native, she said certain neighborhoods, including Main South, remind her of the Texas city in the 1980s and encourage her for the future.

Working with Ghanaian churches, the Southeast Asian Coalition, the YWCA, and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce among other local organizations, she and her team work to disseminate the message about city employment throughout all communities.

She is careful, however, to partner with such organizations rather than double their efforts.

Envisioning an increasingly diverse city population, Mr. Augustus reiterated the importance of a strong, balanced affirmative action plan. He said: “Cities that succeed and thrive are cities that embrace diversity, that are open and welcoming.”

And in order to achieve that success, the entire workforce system needs to uphold the goals of the affirmative action plan, said Ms. Chacko. “I may be charged with spearheading it,” she added, but “we are all beholden to diversity and inclusion.”


Emily Gowdey-Backus is the director of communications at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached via email. To read the entirety of the November 2019 edition of the Chamber Exchange, visit the newspaper archive.