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Woodbury pursues workplace diversity

Julie Ohs and her husband used to have a nickname for Woodbury when they first moved here 20 years ago.

“We used to call it Whitebury,” Ohs said, recalling her husband’s term for the once-racially homogenous city, and how he, an African American, used to draw long looks from others here.

That has since changed, Ohs and others described during a City Council workshop last week that discussed the city’s efforts to reflect a diverse community in the city’s operations.

Woodbury formed a “Diversity and Inclusions” committee that includes three non-white police officers along with other city staff to look at ways to recruit diverse employees, have a positive working environment and encourage various demographics to get engaged.

In 1990, Woodbury was 95 percent white, according to Census Bureau data. That number dropped to 90 percent in 2000 and 81 percent in 2010.

“That majority percentage will continue to shrink as we become more diverse,” said assistant to the city administrator Mary Van Milligen, who’s leading the committee.

As the trend continues, residents’ needs change, city officials agreed. It’s the duty of public servants to re-evaluate services and ensure the city is meeting the needs of residents.

And it starts with hiring, City Administrator Clint Gridley said – a challenging task that Woodbury and other government entities have been facing.

“This is one of the toughest issues of all,” he said. “It’s just difficult to do.”

The committee is putting more emphasis on recruiting police officers and public safety personnel from a diverse group of candidates, seeing as they interact with the public on a more regular basis. Photos of officers who represent a wide array of demographics are being used in recruiting and application materials.

Additionally, police officers recently attended a training titled “Muslims, Somalis and Law Enforcement: Building Effective Relationships” to try and close the knowledge gap, Van Milligen said.

Woodbury City Council Member Paul Rebholz, a public finance investment banker, said the private sector is about 15 years ahead of the public sector on recruiting and including a more diverse group of employees.

“Our business is going to be a success when it represents the customer,” he said.

One of the challenges is figuring out where different racial ethnicities are looking for jobs, Van Milligen said. Diverse communities understand and access information in different ways, she said.

Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said the city has been working to get racially diverse residents involved in advisory committees such as Planning Commission and Environmental Advisory Commission, but not all cultures know how to get involved.

“These are people that somehow got engaged, they find it beneficial,” she said. “Maybe they can help.”

Gridley said the biggest challenge continues to be the applications that come through the door.

Woodbury is competing with major companies in the Twin Cities like 3M, General Mills and Cargill, Rebholz said, who continue to move ahead of government entities in recruitment efforts.

And it doesn’t help that Woodbury may still be perceived as “Whitebury,” Ohs said.

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee will continue work on the initiative in 2015 with employee training on the inclusion aspect, engaging Woodbury’s diverse community and fostering retention of diversity in the workplace.

“Hopefully our efforts will show in the next couple of years,” Van Milligen said. “But admittedly it’s a slow process.”

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.