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)

A City Council initiative to promote equity and equality in Springfield may have been sparked by local and national protests following George Floyd’s wrongful death at the hands of police in 2020, but its future life will depend on buy-in from citizens and businesses.

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. Its 9-0 adoption through a Springfield City Council resolution on April 18 was a symbolic step, but the legacy of the initiative will be determined in months and years to come.

The document is written with five crucial commitments to:

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

Pastor Saehee Duran, of the Assemblies of God-backed Life360 Church, and Doug Neff, chairman and CEO of the Commerce Bank branches in southwest Missouri, served as the two co-chairpersons of the commission that started with 15 members and eventually drafted the document the City Council adopted in April.

“Our charge was to develop a guiding principle to improve equitable access and to opportunities recognizing the inherent dignity, value and worth of each individual,” Neff said.

The committee set a vision statement about creating and promoting a community where differences are valued and celebrated, and where everyone has the “opportunity to prosper.”

“We also have some action-based recommendations,” Duran said, suggesting the City Council members to look through the full report. “You have an additional document with you that we as our team came up with together, and these were some things that even though this was not our major task, through our conversations and discussions, we felt like it was value-added to the city.”

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure spoke up and said he felt the document’s authors represented a cross-section of Springfield’s population.

“The membership was intentionally broad, and there were no public sector representatives on there, other than the staff support,” McClure said. “It consisted of business leaders, faith leaders, education leaders, not-for-profit leaders, and so I think this gives us the breadth that we were looking for.”

Customized to fit Springfield

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.

“We are looking at these guiding principles as our North Star, if you will, that we would internally in the city see how this could be implemented — of course, after your guidance and your instruction — and also in the community how we can also co-lead this effort,” Suleyman told the City Council.

Suleyman stressed the items found in the report are written and customized to fit Springfield.

“This is a Springfield community model,” Suleyman said.

Springfield Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality members

Co-chair Pastor Saehee Duran 
Co-chair Doug Neff 
Rita Baron 
Rabbi Barbara Block
Rev. Adrienne Denson Ewell 
Christian Lewis 
Christa Moss 
John Oke-Thomas
Mike Powers 
Francine Pratt 
Pastor Bob Roberts 
Robin Robeson 
Jeff Schrag 
Carol Taylor 
Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate 

Councilwoman Heather Hardinger sees the committee’s report and the 9-0 council vote as an initial step, but not as a conclusion.

“I think it’s really important that we not only have a committee to provide feedback as our community continues to adapt to these changes, but that we’re also tracking our progress over time so we know where we started and where we’re going,” Hardinger said.

Hardinger gave the example of the indicators in the biennial Springfield Community Focus Report, which examines issues and structures in Springfield and Greene County and assigns “blue ribbons,” or areas and events that are favorable, and “red flags,” potential roadblocks or areas of concern that could lead to adversity. The blue ribbons and red flags are then used to plan out what can be done over a two-year span in order to make Springfield a better place to be.

“I think that in order to move our community forward and take action, we have to have a plan,” Hardinger said.

Broad and overarching themes

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.

Different groups who use the principles will have different performance indicators to measure how they are handling issues of diversity

“Systemizing this effort will vary and be more customized according to each effort,” Suleyman said. “We are in a phase where we are brainstorming ideas on how this is going to be implemented knowing that this is not going to be — I’m going to use the term ‘Kumbaya’ song — alone. It’s going to be measured.”

Impact on plans and priorities

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said the work of the Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality is high-level in scope and meant to be broad in its language. Gage advised the City Council that the five pillars in the equity and equality document can be applied to the Springfield City Council priorities for the 2023 fiscal year, and in Forward SGF, a 20-year comprehensive plan for Springfield that will be considered and adopted this summer.

“Longer term, perhaps, as we think about the comprehensive plan from a community perspective, what does this mean for you? You still have plenty of time to decide if there is a place with this guidance that you have here from a broader community messaging perspective, and basically sort of setting the tone for your community,” Gage said.

Councilman Andy Lear said he feels the five pillars will have effects on Springfield, but it will take buy-in from people who aren’t directly involved in local government.

“I see this in two parts, one is internal, which we have more control over, I guess, in terms of how we as a city, as an employer, as an entity take this and make it actionable,” Lear said.

Lear said he sees two key parts to the initiatives the committee put forward: the first is what can be done in-house, inside the confines of city government, and the second is how the initiatives will play out when they travel outside the walls of Historic City Hall.

“We have so many other entities out there: employers, the community at large, school systems, everything that comprises a community,” Lear said. “We can’t do it, obviously, in a vacuum.” 

Springfield also has the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, which Zone 1 Councilwoman Monica Horton asked about. The Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights is tasked with a mission “to promote understanding and respect among all citizens and provides the community recourse for discriminatory acts.” 

The Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights investigates cases where discrimination is alleged, and mediates settlements between the involved parties. Suleyman is the commission’s staff adviser.

“This is going to be on our agenda, and this is exactly the question that’s going to be on their table,” Suleyman said.

George Floyd’s death sparked the action

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. In Springfield, protests occurred May 30-31, 2020. Protestors in Springfield marched in streets and blocked traffic at Glenstone Avenue and Battlefield Road.

The first paragraph of the resolution for the Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality report minces no words about its response to the events of May 2020, declaring, “the actions on May 25, 2020, by police officers in Minneapolis that caused the death of George Floyd were intolerable and caused Springfield city leaders to reflect upon the dignity of all persons, the value of life and especially our responsibility as a local government.”

McClure said the responses to the report will start in government, but he hopes they will spread throughout the city.

“My vision is that, assuming that council would accept this, that we not only apply this to our activities as a city, but that we make it available to a wide spectrum of various entities and institutions around the city, because the idea was to adopt pillars that would guide our community,” McClure said.

Suleyman brought career experience leading diversity, equity and inclusion work for a variety of organizations when he came to Springfield, including work in the public sector and with non-profit groups. He was the director of equity for Dubuque Community Schools in Dubuque, Iowa.

At the time of Suleyman’s hiring, Gage said the diversity, equality and inclusion leadership position is critical in taking the local government’s initiatives to a level where Springfield’s leaders can develop and implement strategies and education programs throughout the city and all of its local government organizations.

“This is not intended to be a position that dives in and solves all our diversity and inclusion challenges in our community,” Gage explained in a statement issued in May 2021. “However, this position will give the municipality the ability to strengthen our collaboration with community-wide organizations in concert with the city departments that already work in this space. As the local representative government, the city of Springfield is held to a higher standard as a beacon and guiding organization. The trust we have previously built with our citizens is meaningful.  As all communities do, however, we have more work to do.”

5 pillars on Equity and Equality

The Springfield Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality Report contains five pillars that reflect a “commitment to improving inclusive and equitable access to opportunities, recognizing the inherent dignity, value, and worth of each individual in our community.”

Dialogue and Understanding 

“We are committed to…” 

• Seeking and listening to diverse thoughts respectfully 

• Fostering a culture of mutual learning through continual dialogue and education 

Cultural Consciousness  

“We are committed to…” 

• Developing awareness of our own existing biases 

• Understanding, valuing, and respecting diversity 

Advocacy and Partnerships 

“We are committed to…” 

• Cultivating inclusive partnerships to increase intentional and effective collaboration 

• Welcoming diverse voices and advocating for the underrepresented and the disenfranchised 

Structural and Systemic Barriers 

“We are committed to…” 

• Identifying and removing diversity, equity, and inclusion barriers 

• Refining policies and implementing practices to protect the rights of every member of our community 

Personal and Organizational Accountability 

“We are committed to…” 

• Inspiring, modeling, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion excellence 

• Honoring individuals and organizations that demonstrate accountability for fostering an inclusive community

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