It struck Jibri Poe, as Lynchburg City Council sat in session Tuesday debating funding for a new diversity, equity and inclusion strategist position, that the conversation was happening at the same time as the verdict in George Floyd’s murder was read in Minneapolis.
While the high-profile case found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter, Poe remembers being a child and watching TV coverage in 1992 of the Rodney King case — another Black man who faced violence at the hands of police, but whose assailants were acquitted.
Poe, a network analyst in the information technology department for the city of Lynchburg, is a member of Action for Change, an internal committee formed more than a decade ago by the city to support equity and inclusiveness within the organization.
Poe is a new addition to the committee, which grew its numbers following the civil and social unrest of last summer, in what Assistant City Manager John Hughes said was the beginning of Lynchburg’s expanded focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We want to make sure that it’s not just a moment,” Poe said, and an effort to create a more inclusive environment, both within the city government and beyond, is more than a “fad” in the wake of inciting incidents, like that of Floyd’s murder.
Ultimately, on Tuesday, council voted 4-2 to approve the $100,000 included in the fiscal year 2022 budget to create a full-time diversity, equity and inclusion strategist position, as well as provide funding for DEI-focused training and citywide initiatives.
Interim City Manager Reid Wodicka called this a first step toward building a stronger climate of inclusion. With the support of the Action for Change committee, the DEI strategist will provide program oversight, a strategic plan to address internal issues and help build relationships within the city, crafting a framework to advance diversity efforts.
Wodicka said this was not about hiring quotas, hiring or promoting unqualified individuals, or one-time training, but rather “about a cultural change that makes this a place even better than what we already are.”
An hourlong discussion was centered on DEI at the Tuesday meeting, with Ward IV Councilman Chris Faraldi and Ward III Councilman Helgeson opposing the new position and funding and ultimately voting against it.
At-Large Councilman Randy Nelson was not present at the meeting.
Helgeson questioned the necessity of the position and said it seemed as though those duties should be handled by existing human resources staff. He said diverting money to this position should not be a priority while there are other city needs that must be addressed and said a one-time training may be a better use of resources.
“I’ve never heard any problems, personally, from folks in the city that there is a blatant lack of inclusion or lack of value,” Helgeson said. He said, at this time, he did not think it was prudent to be adding the position.
In an interview Wednesday with The News & Advance, Poe said DEI is lacking within city government, as well as in Lynchburg as a whole. Beginning to address those issues head on, he said, is the first step to creating meaningful change.
Poe said people who do not see the issue within the city government — such as Helgeson, who said he has never been approached about it — oftentimes are trapped within their own bubbles.
“What I would say to him, with all due respect, is maybe instead of waiting for someone to come to you, maybe you need to get out and actually go and talk to some other people in some other groups,” Poe said. “You will probably see a different perspective.”
He named “generational curses,” on both sides, such as a lack of education or opportunity that perpetuates poverty, or social and cultural privilege that curses people to live with blinders on.
“It becomes a vicious cycle, and we really want to break the cycle of those curses, for a lack of a better word, that have been plaguing our community for hundreds of years,” Poe said.
He also noted, as did Hughes, that HR has its hands full and a specialized position is necessary to address DEI in the workplace.
At the council meeting, Ward II Councilman Sterling Wilder spoke strongly in favor of the funding and said putting support behind this “strategic goal” is essential to communicate to employees and constituents that increased diversity and equity is a council priority.
“Sometimes, you might not have the lens to see outside of your area, outside of your box, because you haven’t been [looking] through the same lens as another person,” Wilder said.
Wilder said walking into any room — a classroom, a board meeting, the council chambers, a house of worship — he asks himself, “Does anybody here look like me?”
“Does this reflect myself and this community?” Wilder said. “We have to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, that everyone has a voice.”
Faraldi expressed doubts about the position and said he was not convinced as to its necessity or the amount of funding and day-to-day duties of the role.
“I want to be sure that the position is truly doing what I’m being told it’s supposed to be doing, and not anything to the contrary,” he said.
He worried the strategist position ultimately would interfere with the “individual liberties” of government employees and wondered if instead the city should explore third-party initiatives or focus more on specific training. He was unsure a single position would solve the problems at hand.
At-large Councilwoman Treney Tweedy said all communities are home to systemic and historic biases, and Lynchburg is no exception.
“We can point to many things that have occurred in this city that have caused our neighborhoods, our citizens, divisiveness,” Tweedy said. “We are trying to bring things together, and I think we have to start with our staff.”
With more funding and a targeted approach to expanding DEI efforts, Poe said he’s ready to get to work.
“We talk about change, and different things of that nature,” he said, “I really want to pick up the torch and keep the momentum for those that came before me.”