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Anchorage initiative to focus on diversity in government, economy

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 13, 2015

In a bid to put campaign rhetoric into action and policy, the administration of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz says the city is taking steps to boost diversity and inclusiveness in local government and business.

Monday marks the start of a weeklong series of events to tie Anchorage into the national "Welcoming America" campaign to make migrants, refugees and other foreigners comfortable in their new country and city. Anchorage joined the national effort last year under former Mayor Dan Sullivan, and coordinators now include city ombudsman Darrel Hess, the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. and Mara Kimmel, Berkowitz's wife.

Events include an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce forum on a "business case for diversity," a reception at the Anchorage Museum, a celebration at Northway Mall and the first-ever naturalization ceremony hosted by the city.

The national program is aimed at encouraging communities to embrace foreign-born residents socially and economically. But Hess, Kimmel and members of the mayor's staff say "Welcoming Anchorage Week" marks the beginning of an even broader city initiative to look at policies to promote inclusiveness in business and in local government, including on city boards, commissions and advisory groups

"I've been to more and more meetings over the last three or four years where people say, you know, this is great, we celebrate diversity, we have a party, we're really good at that," said Hess, who also serves as a member of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission. "But what about more concrete steps? What about policies, hiring practices, and evolving the business community?"

In a small, more immediate sign of that effort, the city's website, muni.org, launched a new homepage Friday with a Google tool that allows visitors to translate the site into more than 70 different languages. Meanwhile, city spokesman Myer Hutchinson said the Berkowitz administration is putting together plans to expand the diversity of the city workforce, including hiring a specific person to work on increasing diversity among city workers and volunteers.

Kimmel, an immigration attorney and co-founder of the Alaska Institute for Justice, has embraced the Welcoming Anchorage initiative as one of her projects. Like Hess, Kimmel noted in a Friday interview that Anchorage is quick to tout the number of languages spoken in its schools and the diversity of neighborhoods like Mountain View.

"That diversity is a strength. We haven't captured it, we haven't capitalized on it," Kimmel said. "We haven't yet made it so these diverse populations can fully integrate into our community. That's the driving force behind this initiative."

Finding ways to help newcomers set up businesses, and dispelling myths about the economic contributions of immigrants and refugees, will be the focus of the first year of the city's initiative, Kimmel said. She and Hess said there's also hope of developing programs to help people better transition from rural Alaska to Anchorage.

Putting words into action

In a Thursday blog post, conservative commentator Casey Reynolds chided Berkowitz for not putting his own ideas into action by hiring minorities in key political positions, even as the mayor went outside the departments for his appointees, like his police and fire chiefs. Reynolds offered an analysis of new hires in the post, titled "Berkowitz pushes diversity, hires little." (Reynolds' partner, Amy Coffman, is a special assistant to Berkowitz and is involved with the diversity initiative).

In an emailed statement, Hutchinson said the administration is focusing on outreach to expand future applicant pools.

"We are in the process of developing plans that will instruct department heads to build succession plans that include outreach to Anchorage's many diverse communities and highlight employment opportunities within the Municipality," Hutchinson wrote.

He added that the administration is "aggressively distributing information" about boards and commissions at community councils and community events.

Hutchinson said that George Martinez, an educator and community organizer who runs a nonprofit called the Global Block Foundation, will start working at City Hall on Monday to increase outreach for employment and volunteering among different communities. Martinez helped found the community nonviolence group We Are Anchorage and runs a nonprofit focused on urban arts education.

Data indicate a gap exists when it comes to the makeup of city boards and commissions reflecting the rest of Anchorage. Anchorage city code requires a summary of the gender, ethnic identity and disability status of members of city boards and commissions to be provided to the Assembly by the mayor's office the first week of October. Commission members voluntarily provide the information.

There's no record of a 2014 report submitted to the Assembly. In the October 2013 report provided by Sullivan, 217 of 318 active members serving on boards and commissions provided racial and ethnic data.

One hundred and eighty-four people, nearly 85 percent of those who reported race and ethnicity, identified as white; in the 2010 census, whites comprised about 66 percent of the total Anchorage population. Those who identified as Alaska Native or American Indian made up the largest reported minority group, with nine people. For comparison, Alaska Natives made up about 8 percent of the total Anchorage population in 2010.

In addition, out of the 217 reporting members, there were eight African-American members, six Asian/Pacific Islander members and five Hispanic members. Those minority groups made up about 6 percent, 11 percent and 9 percent of the overall Anchorage population, respectively, according to census data. Five other respondents reported as multi-racial or "other."

Seven members identified as disabled. Men outnumbered women on boards and commissions by an almost 2-to-1 ratio, 201 to 117.

Diversity doesn't just include ethnic, racial and gender diversity, Hess said. He'd like to see more young people applying to serve on local boards, which advise on topics ranging from city arts projects to disability access to libraries and veterans affairs. Some are regulatory, such as the city Planning and Zoning Commission.

Handing out applications

At the Northway Mall event on Saturday, stacks of applications for boards and commissions will be available, Hess said. While there are certain qualifications to serve on a city board or commission, Hess said, U.S. citizenship is not among them. He said he sees it as a good way for newcomers to learn about local government.

City departments will also be sending representatives to Northway Mall to talk to event attendees about working for the city, said Amy Coffman, a special assistant to Berkowitz who focuses on diversity. The departments are being asked to have information sheets translated into at least one other language, Coffman said. Russian, Tagalog, Somali, Hmong and Spanish were among the top suggestions.

Meanwhile, 17 people are on track to be naturalized in a Wednesday ceremony in the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library, Hess said. He said the setting has symbolic meaning: with the Assembly dais behind them, those being naturalized could have the opportunity to run for office someday. The League of Women Voters will have a table set up after the ceremony to sign up new citizens to vote.

According to the Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska has the fourth-highest rate of naturalized immigrants of any U.S. state. Many become permanent residents.

The fact that so many stay, Hess said, is a sign of a community that already has taken strides toward being "welcoming." He said the question is how Anchorage government can catch up.

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