Equity and Inclusion Should be an ‘Add-in’ Not an ‘Add-on’

Ash Center Director for Equity and Inclusion LaChaun Banks on the intersection of civic policy, research, and the Center’s own approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Written by LaChaun Banks, Ash Center Director for Equity and Inclusion
Chair, Ash Center Steering Committee on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

ver the years, I have had the good fortune to work in some of the most rural and even depressed areas of the country. Working in economic development and helping to create “good” jobs for people in struggling communities and circumstances, I have seen firsthand how certain public policies can hurt an area more than help it, even with the best intentions. These experiences sparked my passion for exploring truly equitable and inclusive policies — how they are made, what constitutes them, and whom they really impact.

Working in economic development through a university, I recognized early on the need for research to be translated accurately into practitioner language. I have also seen how people who contribute a lot to their community do not have a seat at the table when it comes to policy decisions or even decisions on basic needs, such as infrastructure. Inclusion, equity, and diversifying have always been passions of mine because I have seen how they can change a community.

The beginning of summer 2020 was a challenging time for our country. Not only were we living through a global pandemic, but the world was seeing firsthand, in a way it had not before, the mistreatment and murder of African Americans by police. Over the years, so many people of color have lost their lives at the hand of law enforcement, but thanks to new technology, it was now being captured and shared. In response, the University and Harvard Kennedy School issued a statement condemning these actions and racism more broadly as not acceptable nor what we want from our country. The University created many programs and initiatives in response to this crisis, and the work of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at HKS took on new urgency.

“Equity, inclusion, and diversity are not just feel-good moral imperatives. In fact, there is ample research proving that when you are equitable, intentionally inclusive, and make an effort to be diverse, the entire community and economy perform better.”

Following this wake-up call for the Ash Center, HKS, the University, the state, and the country, the Ash Center decided to respond by putting equity and inclusion at the forefront of their activities. Soon after the killing of George Floyd, the Ash Center held listening and learning sessions and made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority by creating spaces for folks to understand, at a deeper level, the differences in our own community at Ash as well as how to navigate those differences.

Since last summer, I have worked with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative’s staff and faculty, along with practitioners, to create a City Leader Guide on Equitable Development. This guide has provided a foundation for my work with mayors across the country, deploying and implementing equitable policies and practices. Working alongside students across the University, we have been able to see an impact in cities that are changing the trajectory of their programming, ensuring projects are looked at through a lens of equity.

In working with local and regional governments I have often seen their focus on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion go in waves. When there is a high tide, local governments care about being equitable, but as soon as a different crisis hits, they are unable to focus on those ‘additional’ programs and initiatives. My premise has always been that if equity and inclusion were a part of their core principles, and treated as an ‘add-in’ not an ‘add-on,’ then those crises would look different. Equity, inclusion, and diversity are not just feel-good moral imperatives. In fact, there is ample research proving that when you are equitable, intentionally inclusive, and make an effort to be diverse, the entire community and economy perform better.

The summer of 2020 was a crucial time in American history, another high tide during which the country was willing to actually listen to what marginalized people of color have been saying all along. I knew it was time to meet with leadership and propose a new way of tackling these inclusion and equity challenges — a way that would require true commitment from leadership and the Center. So, in a leap of faith, I asked if the Ash Center would be interested in creating a leadership role focused on incorporating equity and inclusion into all aspects of our programming, recruitment, events, and overall operations.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ash Center leadership was already considering such a role, and I felt honored and grateful when they appointed me to lead the effort. Pulling from my previous experience as a practitioner, my education in business and government, and my experience as a Black woman in this country, I hit the ground running. My first task was to chair a center-wide steering committee and get these efforts off the ground. The committee, consisting of staff, faculty, and select students, worked tirelessly over the next few weeks. Everyone was dedicated to defining our mission and values and creating an infrastructure to support leadership in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Our next task was to conduct a mini-internal audit, where we utilized faculty, staff, and committee expertise to survey the Ash community about their concerns and challenges. We also discussed how to assure everyone that we would address their concerns without making them feel singled out or worried about retaliation. This endeavor took weeks but yielded over 90% participation.

Since January of this year, our efforts on diversity, inclusion, and equity have resulted in the creation of new programs, a strategy for how to engage faculty as well as staff, overall accountability measures, and baseline metrics to understand whether we are succeeding in creating a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplace.

Going forward, we are focused on sustaining these efforts and creating the infrastructure to embed them in the fabric of the Ash Center’s identity. That way, anyone who is a part of our community, and even those considering joining us, will know our values.

About the Author

LaChaun J. Banks serves as the Ash Center’s first ever Director for Equity and Inclusion. She is a seasoned professional in economic development, strategic planning, and merging private enterprise with government and academia for overall shared prosperity. At Ash, she works to advance the practices, policies and networks needed to diversify the Center’s community; inform its organizational culture and resource allocation; and help move the organization toward shared understanding, language, and values around diversity, equity and inclusion.

LaChaun also works with the Center’s Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative where she manages the deployment and adoption of the newly launched City Leader Guide for Equitable Economic Development. The guide, which LaChaun co-authored, helps city leaders assess and better understand their current practices and state with respect to equitable development, and provides analytic tools to lead improvement by asking the right questions, looking at the right data, and considering promising practices in other cities.

Before this role, LaChaun was the Associate Director for Practitioner Communities with the Ash Center’s Innovations in Government Program. She managed a network of the 45 largest cities and urban markets in the United States. In this role she worked with senior municipal officers, including Mayors, Chiefs of Staff, Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Equity Officers, Chief Data Officers and others. LaChaun initiated, analyzed and disseminated critical research relevant to policy issues facing cities, while providing them with tools and resources to combat those challenges. During her tenure at Harvard, she has provided expert support in cities efforts to create new programming around homelessness, 5G technology, politics in the media, and equitable economic development. Banks is a frequent guest lecturer, ensuring that her research and practitioner work are shared throughout the academic community. She has guest lectured at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke’s Executive Leadership Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Extension School, Ohio University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among others.

LaChaun earned a BA in International Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a concentration in global economics, trade, and development. She later earned her MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. In addition, LaChaun studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, studying Asian business and management, and Chinese government and politics.

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

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