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Forum Exposes Tensions And Mistrust Fort Worth's Diversity Director Will Face

Fort Worth's diversity and inclusion officer candidates
Christopher Connelly
Fort Worth's diversity and inclusion officer candidates (from the left). Christina Brooks, Stephen Francis, Stancia Jenkins, Mishon Landry, Shani Barrax Moore and Ty Stimpson.

The City of Fort Worth is looking to hire a Diversity and Inclusion Director, and it moved one step forward in the process this week. Six finalists got a chance to pitch themselves to residents Monday, and the forum exposed tensions and mistrust that the winning candidate will face.

The city funded a new Diversity and Inclusion Department in its 2020 budget, allocating nearly a $1 million for its operations. The new director will lead a department designed "promote basic human rights and facilitate harmonious relationships among Fort Worth’s diverse population," and will support the operations of the city's Human Relations Commission.

At the forum, the candidates fielded questions about how they would address questions of equity, inclusion and access in Fort Worth. Most of the candidates have done similar work at universities, governments and in the private sector.

The candidates are:

  • Christina Brooks, the diversity and inclusion officer and LGBTQ liaison for the city of South Bend, Indiana.
  • Stephen Francis, a lawyer who was the first chief diversity and inclusion officer for Columbus, Ohio.
  • Mishon Landry, who runs a consulting firm focused on leadership and inclusion based in Fort Worth.
  • Shani Barrax Moore, the University of North Texas director of diversity and inclusion – a position she once held at Tarrant County College.
  • Stancia Jenkins, who leads diversity, access and inclusion efforts at the University of Nebraska.
  • Ty Stimpson, assistant criminal district attorney in the Tarrant County DA's office who led the criminal justice subcommittee of Fort Worth's Task Force on Race and Culture.

The Diversity and Inclusion Director position was one of 22 recommendations laid out by the city's Task Force on Race and Culture, which worked for more than a year studying the Fort Worth's racial disparities and worked to craft a plan to improve conditions. The city council adopted the recommendations and has begun implementing some of them.

The task force was formed after the arrest of Jackie Craig, a black woman who was tackled and arrested by a white officer after she called the police for help in a dispute with her neighbor.

The Oct. 12 fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was killed inside her home by a white Fort Worth police officer, added a sense of urgency to the task force's recommendations. That officer has resigned, and the Tarrant County District Attorney is seeking an indictment for murder.

At the forum, the job candidates faced questions about how they would build trust with the community, and were challenged to explain how they would help residents feel safe. They were also asked how they would spur change within city institutions that many residents felt had long ignored their needs.

"Now I want you to tell me how you can come in here and think you’re going to make a change when all these people before you haven't," said Larry Young, who described himself as a longtime Fort Worth resident and activist.

Christina Brooks said her work on diversity and inclusion is driven by an upbringing in which she was "raised with an idea of what it means to be underrepresented, and to be voiceless." She also described efforts to build residents' trust in South Bend police officers after an officer killed a young man earlier this year, by facilitating conversations between men of color and police officers to talk openly about their experiences.

Brooks said she'd focus on educating Fort Worth officers to engage with people of color as human beings, and not just people of color. She also said police need to understand that just like they feel every day is a life or death situation, people in the community feel that way too.

Christina Brooks answered questions at the October forum for Fort Worth's diversity and inclusion director candidates.
Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Christina Brooks and Stephen Francis at Monday's forum for Fort Worth's diversity and inclusion director candidates.

Stephen Francis drew applause by declaring that addressing diversity and inclusion costs money and needs to be adequately funded, "and until we equate diversity with value, we won’t be successful," Francis said. He said he'd also look at police training, especially after the Jefferson shooting, to identify deficits and recommend solutions.

Francis also recounted his efforts to teach young residents of Columbus, Ohio, to prioritize safety when interacting with officers.

"Our slogan was: Don't resist, submit, stay alive," Francis said. "We don't want you to litigate on the street because you'll be dead. We want you to litigate after you go home alive. I'm a lawyer. I can give you the law later on, but don't try to litigate on the streets with the police officers because that’s a recipe for disaster."

That drew a response from fellow candidate Ty Stimpson, who said, "I think we're past the point to where we need to teach our black sons how to interact with police officers — why can't police officers know how to interact with our communities?"

Stimpson also pointed to police training as a possible area for improvement and said solutions "can't be lip service" and must produce tangible results.

Discussion at the forum went well beyond policing, touching on education, employment, health and other topics.

Stancia Jenkins told the crowd that change has to be systemic, if Fort Worth is to become the inclusive city it says it wants to be.

"Really, it cannot be a one-off. There has to be systems, policies in place, a setting up of a climate that's inclusive. A city government that's reflective, a police force that is reflective, so you can make a change from the inside out," Jenkins said.

Shani Barrax Moore said she’s learned that making institutional change takes putting equity front and center across departments.

"If you are not practicing active, intentional inclusion and equity, then you are, in effect, practicing active, and maybe unintentional, passive exclusion," Moore said.

Mishon Landry said addressing health disparities would be a key focus if she were to become the city's first Diversity and Inclusion Director, and she pledged to work on policies to address "food deserts" and improve access to healthcare. A Fort Worth native, she said she doesn't like the fact that people in her community don't feel safe.

"It’s my city. I want to make it better," Landry said. "I want to make it more diverse, I want to make it more inclusive. I want to make it more welcoming and more equitable for everyone."

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke will make the final hiring decision, which he said could come as early as this week.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.