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Naperville has always prided itself on being a welcoming city. That was certainly true for me when I first arrived here 15 years ago, but then again, I’m a middle-aged white woman. After all these years, I’m only now learning it wasn’t necessarily the same for everyone.
Geneace Williams is the city of Naperville’s first manager of diversity, equity and inclusion. She was appointed in February 2021 after the city decided it was time to recognize the needs of our changing population.
“There are members of the community who have not always felt as welcomed. As things happened in the nation, in Naperville, not everyone had the same sense of being welcomed,” Williams told me.
“The idea of (diversity, equity and inclusion) is how to get where more people feel welcomed. Naperville has changed in its composition. It is a lot more diverse now. The more diverse a place is, the more questions are raised.”
According to the city website, the 2020 census showed that 69.8% of our population is white, 20.5% Asian, 6.7% Hispanic or Latino and 4.2% Black; all numbers that have risen in the past ten years.
Williams believes her background as an attorney, business advisor and counselor have prepared her well for the job. She has spent more than two decades helping clients develop legal and business strategies and is trained in conflict resolution and crisis management. She holds a law degree and doctorate, with ethics as one of her main areas of inquiry, as well as an ordained minister.
“When I first came here, my idea was divided into three areas, which I call the three Ls,” she said. “Listening, Learning and Leveraging. I spent the first six to eight months listening. I had general knowledge not specific, so I had to meet people. I met in excess of 100 persons.
“I looked and listened to council meetings. I got to know people and organizations. I got to learn what people were like. You can’t do this without building relationships. From these relationships I could move to step two – learning.”
Williams is working both with city employees and others who work and do business around town. She’s done an in-home survey for city employees and is putting together what she has learned so she can dig deeper. She says she’s currently working between steps two and three.
“Leverage means taking action,” she said. “One of things I’ve done so far is create a youth inclusion ambassador group. It’s a high school and college student mission to continue inclusion and model it in the community. We also have a banner program, which can currently be seen around Naperville and we’re working on an event for later this year.”
Although Williams doesn’t live in the city, she says she spends so much time here she feels like a surrogate Napervillian.
“I never thought about (diversity, equity and inclusion) before coming here to work but having spoken to so many people working here, I see so many want to better the community,” she said. “I hope it means a great community because people here want to make it even better.”
Williams believes it’s up to everyone in the community to make Naperville more inclusive.
“I think everybody has a role to play,” she said. “Think how you encounter people if you have a business or an organization. It’s up to all of us to keep it top of our minds and do it with humility and empathy, so we don’t see people in any way other than people. We work for others who are different to us. All of us have a role to play in making the community better than it is.”
So far the work is going well.
“I’ve not met any specific obstacle but any time you are doing this kind of work there are those who are allies and those who don’t agree,” Williams said. “All my encounters have been positive. All people who have reached out to me are interested in the joy of the work. Some organizations like Naperville Neighbors United and the Chamber are doing it already. I’m on the DEI committee of DuPage Children’s Museum for their visitors. It is so great and wonderful what some of these organizations can do.”
Williams’ work is all about collaboration.
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“I work with others because not a one-person role,” she said. ” I work with emerging leaders internally and will work with other organizations. Anyone can reach out to me via email. You can find out more about DEI on our web page and I’m always happy to hear from members of the community because this work will take all of us.
“The work doesn’t get easier because there’s always something to do. I’m hoping more and more persons will come on board because many hands make light work. Together, we’ll be able to accomplish more than any one organization could.”
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved to Naperville from England in 2007.