One moment...

Blogs / Leadership {RE}imagined / LeadershipTalks: Jay Covington on Building an Inclusive City

LeadershipTalks: Jay Covington on Building an Inclusive City

16-120 LeadershipTalk Series_600x600px

This is the first post for LeadershipTalks, a new blog series for local government professionals who work hard to lead their team, lead an idea, and lead their community. Each month, we'll recognize an individual who has achieved great leadership with their staff and/or community and unveil how he or she did it.

In this post of LeadershipTalks, we interviewed Jay Covington, chief administrative officer of Renton, Washington, and recipient of a 2015 Local Government Excellence Award. We discuss the success he had of building an inclusive city, and he shares with us a few of the best tools and technologies he used to get his community there.

Q: You have had major success in building an inclusive city. What did you do to get the full support from council members and top officials?

JC: Renton has always had an almost organic interest in working collaboratively on issues.  That said, the tremendous growth of our minority populations (165 percent from 2000-2010) was a major “wake-up” call to our mostly white staff and elected leadership.  We worked hard to recruit members to our volunteer boards and commissions that reflected our cultural, ethnic and racial diversity.  As vacancies occurred on the City Council, we had interested individuals from those boards and commissions who were willing to serve, who were also minorities.  The community responded by electing those individuals.  Our City Council is now comprised of four of the seven members who are women/minorities. So they fully embraced the addition to our Mission Statement that Renton “build an inclusive, informed City with opportunities for all.”

Beginning in 2013, we created training opportunities for all city employees to: 1) participate in a dialogue about our goal of inclusion; 2) gain an awareness of the historical evolution of institutional racism and how it creates barriers to inclusion; and 3) work together to create an “equity lens” through which we can evaluate our practices and service delivery to improve inclusion.  As our employees’ understanding was increased, many became champions.

Finally, and I think most importantly, I am passionate about creating a more inclusive city, with opportunities for all of our residents—because it is the right thing to do.  I and the senior leadership of the city are totally committed to this goal--because it is the right thing to do.  I think our employees and stake holders in the community can sense that.

There is still much to do for us to achieve our goal, but we have a good start.

Q: What are some of the best tools and technologies you used to build an inclusive city?

JC: We took advantage of the presentation “Race, Are we so Different?”, a project of the American Anthropological Association that included visual exhibits, and hosted seminars; and “Race, the Power of an Illusion” (Produced in 2003 by California Newsreel in partnership with PBS) that includes a three part video documentary about race in society, science and history. Those tools provided the stimulus for candid group discussions about recognizing conscious and unconscious biases.  Using race as the opening to discuss our own cultural and ethnic biases was very helpful.

We have also been very open and candid about the need to improve our understanding of and relationship with the ethnic, cultural and racial groups within our community.  Opening that candid and sincere dialogue has been the genesis of developing trusting relationships that we hope will be mutually beneficial. 

Q: Were there things that worked great or simply did not work at all when implementing any of your programs and services?

JC: We originally organized a “cultural liaison” program, and invited various cultural and ethnic groups to send a representative.  But we soon found that the representatives changed too often—sometimes a different person each meeting—and we weren’t making much progress.  So we worked with each group to appoint a representative for an established term of service, and emphasized the importance of consistent representation. Rather than “Cultural Liaisons”, we changed the name to the “Mayor’s Inclusion Task force”.  The mayor and two Council members attend each meeting.  Now, nearly all of the 23 representatives attend each meeting.  For this group, the prestige of being a member of a task force lead by the mayor is a big deal.

An area that is proving to be a real challenge is finding time within our public school system to introduce students to the job and career opportunities in local government.  We have sponsored job and career fairs, hosted field trips, and other activities, but we are anxious to do much more. 

Q: What is one thing that surprised you most about building an inclusive city?

JC: Listening to the Inclusion Task Force members describe themselves as Renton residents first, and then representatives of their cultural and/or ethnic background.  They want to celebrate their diversity, but only in the context of their citizenship in Renton.  Building on that desire gives us a huge advantage in succeeding.  We can be a diverse community, but still have common goals and aspirations. 

Q: If you had to boil down this entire Q&A into a single piece of advice on leadership and building an inclusive city, what would it be?

JC: As a leader, you must be “all in.”  Your employees, elected officials and the community will see through you if you do not totally believe in and are totally committed to what you are doing.  If you are totally committed, you will find ways for the goal of inclusion to permeate into everything you do.

Want to find out more on how Jay Covington and his staff built an inclusive city? Download a free article here! It includes the City of Renton's priorities, goals, accomplishments, and the key to success.

Leadership Reimagined Subscribe Now

Check out other Leadership {RE}Imagined articles here.


Ronald Bartels

Very well spoken. And I know personally that it's all very direct and happened. Congratulations on putting it so well.
Ron Bartels

Please sign in to comment.

Posted by