Spotlight on Service: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion with Jillian Harvey

Meet Jillian Harvey, the powerhouse Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Division Director for the town of Arlington, Massachusetts. Jill leads various initiatives to foster inclusivity and equity through her role as co-founder and chair of the Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition and President of the Mystic Valley Area NAACP Branch. We caught up with her in July to hear her story.

How did you get into this work? What motivated you to enter the field?

Equity has always been at the core of my work. I entered the DEI space during undergrad when I took on leadership roles with the Black Student Union and as Secretary of Diversity in student government at UMass Amherst. When I started grad school, I had a not-so-pleasant first day when a well-facilitated Diversity and Inclusion orientation workshop went sideways. At first, I thought I made a huge mistake, but I saw it as an opportunity to have a positive impact. I expressed my concerns, got involved, and was eventually hired by my program to work on DEI initiatives. Upon graduation, I was excited to make a larger impact in advocating for positive change and creating a more equitable and inclusive environment.

What are your key priorities and responsibilities on your plate today?

As DEI Director, I oversee three commissions in town that serve to help community members feel heard and seen, being Human Rights, Disability, and LGBTQIA+ Rainbow. I assist with incidents of hate or bias and discrimination, which unfortunately happen more often than people realize. Amongst many other things, my division is responsible for working with all town departments to improve access to the services we provide and ensure that our town is welcoming and everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

My two biggest priorities today are stepping up accessible language to accommodate people of all ages and abilities, those with cognitive disabilities, low literacy skills, or who speak languages other than English, and focusing on HR practices, such as hiring, training, and compensation to foster a more inclusive employee culture.

What's your professional superpower?

I’m resilient, spunky, and full of pizazz; even on the worst of days, the best of days, or the most tired of days, something keeps pushing me forward. Receiving heartfelt messages from community members and employees thanking me for my work reminds me that every little effort counts and positively impacts our community.

What keeps you up at night when it comes to the work you do?

In DEI work, turnover is often a challenge. Since I founded the coalition in 2021, I have gone through two co-chairs and have been the constant as people in new positions join almost every week. Since DEI is a relatively new role, it’s a great opportunity to make it one's own. However, a huge challenge persists that everyone has their own idea of what DEI is, where the focus should be, and what the person in the role should be doing. It is imperative for town and city leadership to clarify what they see for the role and to understand that one person cannot realistically do all of what a community and employees expect.

Many folks in a DEI role are often a person of color in a predominantly white space. In a role that has not existed before, it’s easy to say yes to everything and take your work home due to your identity and lived experience. Giving yourself time to deal with things happening locally, nationally, and globally will impact how you show up to work.

I also perpetually think about new ways to address incidents, enduring complex challenges in the background, and how to ensure others who rely on me continue to succeed. For instance, an incident occurred a couple of years before I started my job in 2019 that polarized the community and shifted relations with the police department. I’ve been continuously working towards rebuilding that trust and those relationships. This matter surfaces even in contexts where it shouldn't, like last night, when a question arose about our involvement in an event reflecting support for the police. The reality is we have to align with the police because we’re a town entity, and everyone has to work together. Failure to do so would mean missing opportunities to engage with the people we genuinely want to connect with. In the community I serve, there are many well-intentioned individuals, but a gap exists between their intentions and actual impact. Often, they believe they're making substantial progress and advocating for others, but they neglect to invite those very individuals to advocate for themselves at the table. This disconnection frustrates me the most.

What are the biggest topics and hurdles you will focus on? What do you hope to see in the future in your field over the next few years?

Right now and what will continue to be pressing issues in the near future are language access and attacks on our rights. The recent Supreme Court rulings and actions individual states are taking are going to impact equity work, which is so desperately needed.

In the next few years for DEI in municipal government, I would love to see more resources to support this work. This means not just hiring a person to "fix" things, but providing administrative support and a budget to have proper programming and training. I also hope that leaders who support the work continue to do so, but will also make it clear to others that DEI work is everyone's responsibility.

What is something you’ve worked on that you’re proud of?

I am proud to have started and sustained a coalition that is valuable for folks entering the work, and for folks who have been around for a few years. I’m also proud of serving my community during the 2020-2021 period of unrest, and meeting folks halfway with different programming and support. Equity work doesn’t happen overnight, but I am proud to have laid a foundation that will last beyond my career.

What value do you see in learning from your peers?

I know that personally, without peers to lean on and ask questions to, without the coalition and the opportunity to connect with my peers, I would not still be in my job today. I completely value lived experience and asking questions. Beneficial tools and approaches can be shared and tweaked amongst different communities and DEI folks across the state. The commonwealth is special in that every town and city operates independently, which makes it difficult without uniform standards compared to other departments. Roundtable makes it possible to foster that critical peer-to-peer network.

How is Roundtable helpful to you?

Roundtable has been an incredible time-saver and supportive platform as I expand the scope of my work to adjust to changing dynamics across town departments. My email frequently gets backed up. Keeping things in a different space where everyone in the coalition can easily post a question, share and access resources and upcoming events, and store documents in an organized manner has been so helpful. Especially compared to our recent difficult transition to Outlook, Roundtable is easy to use and follow.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to / is about to enter your field?

Figure out what type of community you want to be in. Especially in Massachusetts, towns function and move differently than cities. Understand there will be different levels of frustration, and have a general understanding of government because it is often complicated and hard to navigate. Next, value your boundaries and time for yourself at the start.