Taj Suleyman
Taj Suleyman speaks to the Springfield City Council April 18, 2022. Suleyman is the Springfield director of diversity, equity and inclusion. (Screenshot taken from Springfield City Council)

When it comes to celebrating and promoting its diversity, Springfield continues to follow its “north star.”

It’s been about nine months since the Springfield City Council voted to enact a set of guidelines to shape diversity, equity and inclusion in city government. The guidelines affect more than 2,000 people who work for the city, from full-time employees down to part-time seasonal staffers.

At a briefing Jan. 24, Zone 1 Councilwoman Monica Horton summed up the slow and sometimes scary notion of taking a long, hard look inward, and also taking a look around at the other people who make up a community.

“This type of work is slow, because it’s based off of people’s willingness to engage and to learn different things and to think differently about processes and how systems have been progressing,” Horton said.

The Springfield Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality Report is a set of five principles that resulted from about a year’s worth of work by more than 15 people. April 18, 2022, the Springfield City Council made a 9-0 vote on a resolution to adopt five commitments:

  • Dialogue and understanding
  • Cultural consciousness
  • Advocacy and partnerships
  • Identification and removal of structural and systemic barriers
  • Personal accountability and organizational accountability

Taj Suleyman came to Springfield in May 2021, when he was hired as the city’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion. One of his first and most important jobs was to advise the committee that wrote the Equity and Equality Report. Since the vote in April, his focus has been promoting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives tailored to Springfield, and building trust with the people who will influence empathy and equality in Springfield.

Taj Suleyman, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the City of Springfield, welcomed and recognized city employees at the 2022 Springfield Prayer Breakfast. (Photo by David Stoeffler)

“If we are talking about public service, how are we making sure that everybody is taking interest and also everybody is being served equitably, if you will, in this process?” Suleyman said.

Suleyman said his office is working to perform data-driven work. It’s not enough to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion and to train city employees about concepts. His aim is to be able to demonstrate the value of the guiding principles and the training and opportunities that result from them. Ideally, good outcomes will be celebrated with the community.

Across Springfield, Suleyman said, well more than 78 different languages are spoken in non-English speaking and multilingual households. The estimate may be more than 90 different languages as Springfield grows. U.S. Census data shows 3.3 percent of Springfield’s population is foreign-born, and people in 5.5 percent of Springfield’s households speak languages other than English.

“Behind every language, there is a culture, and behind every culture, we can learn about how to implement mindfulness, empathy in a way to complement the golden rules with platinum rules,” Suleyman said. “Treat others the way you like to be treated.”

Diversity surrounding Lake Springfield and beyond

Suleyman said when it comes to looking at how Springfield’s government is using the guidance document for diversity, equity and inclusion, the checks go past evaluating whether or not the city is complying with policies.

“We’re looking also at the commitment and proactive part, so as we’re learning more about diversity, we’re understanding that there is a big range of addressing the diverse representations and implementing this comprehensive plan,” Suleyman said.

As Springfield plans for growth and development, Suleyman used a million-dollar study of Lake Springfield and the James River Power Station site as a real-life example of a place where DEI efforts are happening. He said the city is working with the American Indian Center of Springfield and the Southwest Missouri Indian Center, “linking those bridges,” to the history of indigenous life in Southwest Missouri.

“We know historically there are areas in Lake Springfield that are known there are mounds, and there are some remains of the Native American tribes in that area,” Suleyman said. “As we are engaging the community members about the future of Lake Springfield, we are making sure also intentionally that this community is part — one of the main parts — of this engagement process.”

The goals for the study are to deliver a set of recommendations for development that sustains water quality on the James River, develops jobs that are resilient to economic changes, enhances transportation and trails around the lake, creates recreation opportunities and engages a diverse population in making the lake a destination that is inclusive for all.

Even in 2023, Suleyman said there is more to learn about the makeup of Springfield’s Native American population.

“We’re finding out that there are actually representatives of all the nations and all the tribes across the country that actually live in our community,” Suleyman said. “That’s something that we have been working intentionally and engaging these communities, these organizations — not only with our Lake Springfield, but also understanding the projects and the events, the community events that they have and our representation.”

Ozarks culture can be tough to crack

Councilwoman Heather Hardinger works for CoxHealth, and regularly meets with employees who come to Springfield and Missouri from other parts of the world.

“One of the pieces of feedback that we have been receiving is it’s really hard to assimilate into the culture of the Ozarks, and our culture,” Hardinger said. “Folks have kind of a challenging time connecting, finding resources and finding a place where they belong, which I think is a really important aspect of DEI.”

Springfield City Council member Heather Hardinger at the Chamber’s State of the State event. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Suleyman said that the principles the committee set down are meant to be very broad and very high-level. They would have different applications across the more than 20 departments that make up Springfield city government, and could have wider application in other public entities and private sector businesses and organizations.

Springfield’s human resources department launched a diversity internship program in 2013, which Suleyman said is going to be rebranded to be “our segue, our pipeline,” to hiring a more diverse array of employees in the future.

When DEI meets HR

New hires in the city of Springfield learn about the city government’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Suleyman said he also can become involved in situations where a conflict between employees of different backgrounds results in involvement from the Springfield Human Resources Department.

“If we have an issue that takes place around race or disability, or around gender within the team — now, I could go and get my stick and say, ‘Well, this is what you need and this is the punishment,’ or I can say, ‘This is a great opportunity,’” Suleyman said.

If the opportunity presents itself, Suleyman said he can mediate a conflict between two people, but then also address a larger issue in a particular department or in Springfield at large. Supervisors in Springfield’s 20 different government departments can examine what their roles, responsibilities and procedures are if they notice microaggressions happening. It’s all a work in progress, Suleyman said.

The DEI program is still a pilot project. City Manager Jason Gage said the conversations around diversity as they relate to supervisors and employees are being developed.

“All of the tools aren’t yet in place because we need to continue to educate,” Gage said. “Part of the education is to even be aware if we’ve said something that would be considered a microaggression, and I think that’s part of the evolution of the training across the organization.”

Gage said more training helps employees realize when something that is said or an action rises to the level that a formal complaint is necessary.

The Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality formed in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and by the protests that followed throughout the United States and the world.

Suleyman said that the principles the committee set down are meant to be very broad and very high-level. They would have different applications across the more than 20 departments that make up Springfield city government, and could have wider application in other public entities and private sector businesses and organizations.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger