State’s new ‘thought leader’ on equity focused on ‘long game:’ Moving Illinois from diversity to equity
Nearly three and a half months after joining Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, Sekile Nzinga will get to put her theory into practice as head of a new office of equity that the governor plans to create Friday through an executive order.
Diversity is not the end point, but the starting line.
That’s what Sekile Nzinga believes.
Nearly three and a half months after joining Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, Nzinga will get to put that theory into practice as head of a new office of equity that the governor plans to create Friday through an executive order.
“I think diversity is our basement, it’s our sub-basement,” Nzinga told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Yes, every place in our world is diverse, and so why wouldn’t our agencies be diverse? So that’s the basement — that’s the minimum standard.”
The finish line is equity.
Named the chief diversity officer in April, Nzinga said she changed her title to chief equity officer because her goal is “to get to equity, to move us off the sub-basement, but recognizing that the sub-basement is where we start.”
Calls for more equity and inclusion intensified after the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Nzinga told the Sun-Times that Pritzker’s administration, as well as others around the country, have “really been responsive to the need to elevate equity as a very key and critical part of their commitment.”
“I think the combination of these [issues] has elevated the critical need to have an arm within the governor’s office dedicated to ensuring that the people of Illinois are cared for in an equitable and fair and just way,” Nzinga said, expressing excitement to “be part of developing that office.”
Nzinga’s new office will be tasked with taking the lead on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, legislation and policy, as well as identifying barriers to equity, for the state and coordinating trainings.
All state employees will be required to participate in annual trainings focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Diversity” is often defined as referring to all the many ways people differ – including, but not limited to, race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. “Equity” is centered around fairness for all those different groups, whether in access, opportunities, advancement or other areas. “Inclusion” involves the welcoming of those differences.
One expert uses a dance as a metaphor to explain the differences.
“Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party,” according to Robert Sellers, the University of Michigan’s chief diversity officer. “Equity means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. Inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.”
Nzinga’s role, among other things, entails supporting “equity-oriented efforts throughout the State to ensure services and resources are available and accessible to all in Illinois” and creating “a sustainable infrastructure and equity-oriented systems, policies, and procedures that operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion within state agencies,” according to language from the executive order provided to the Sun-Times.
The state’s equity officer has also set some goals for herself and her colleagues, with the chief one being to establish a structure for diversity, equity and inclusion that’s “sustainable and, in many ways, goes beyond me because I’m establishing the office.”
Nzinga also wants to grow the number of leaders within state agencies, the governor’s office and on her team who are already focused on equity and inclusion initiatives and recognize those who’ve already been hired to do that work.
“My intention is to coordinate, to convene, to offer guidance, to offer support and think about systems for accountability, and to integrate much of the work that we’re doing so that we can have best practices and shared ways of doing the work across the agencies and also support each other in the work,” Nzinga said.
She also envisions herself as the state’s “thought leader” on equity and inclusion within the governor’s office, partnering with other teams that advise Pritzker to make sure they’re “centering equity in everything that we are doing” and engage with communities and advocacy groups through roundtable discussions.
Nzinga’s previous roles will likely provide her a strong foundation for leading the office. She has previously served as the interim chief diversity officer at Northwestern University as well as the school’s associate provost for diversity and inclusion, and the director of the women’s center at the school.
Equity work is a “long game” and Nzinga said she’s had a “long-standing” commitment to it, both through her work in the classroom and roles she’s taken outside of it. She doesn’t focus on the terminology, but on the work, her record and moving the state forward.
“I believe in strengthening and supporting public systems and public policy and public institutions,” Nzinga said. “The name ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ can fall away as far as I’m concerned — my commitment is to that, and so because that is my commitment before I came to this office, and it will be my commitment after I leave this office, that is where I focus my work on.
“What does it mean to strengthen systems, policies, procedures so that I better serve — and I help agencies and my colleagues better serve — the people of Illinois?”