The Case for Affirming Diversity: Reflective Recruitment That Represents the Community Served

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Joseph Pulvermacher

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Fitchburg Fire Department (FFD)’s membership today is not diverse. In other words, FFD remains whiter than the population it serves. The problem is that Fitchburg’s initiatives to find motivated, diverse firefighter candidates and inspire reflective recruitment have experienced limited success. This thesis sought to answer the following questions: What can be done to identify current barriers that discourage or hamper reflective recruitment in FFD? Furthermore, what can be done to overcome recruitment obstacles?

The research identified that FFD’s data collection for reflective recruitment needs improvement. Specifically, FFD has not gained actionable insights into the number of people attending community outreach events because involvement from targeted neighborhoods or select populations goes unreported, and the department does not evaluate participation to recognize progress or needed improvements. In 2021, FFD will be upgrading its records management system (RMS) and will evaluate the platform’s capability of reporting outreach and reflective recruitment activities. Having a well‑designed RMS in place will allow FFD to measure community involvement and the attendance of diverse populations.

This thesis relied on the participation of a focus group composed of Fitchburg-area civic leaders who shared a historical perspective, discussed operational and systematic bias, and supported FFD in developing recruitment solutions through the advancement of outreach and community networks. The group recommended in-station and out-of-station activities that would serve underrepresented populations. The activity planning involved short-, medium-, and long-term recruitment outreach and recruitment goals over a two-year timeline, identifying potential school programs, racially centric groups, and current FFD membership that could positively influence prospective firefighter candidates. In accordance with recommendations from the International City/County Management Association and the Center for Public Safety Excellence, the focus group recognized that professional standards need not be compromised in the pursuit of a more representative workforce—promoting inclusivity in education will lead to the probability of employment through talent-based initiatives.[1]

An unintended outcome of this research involved using a form of affirmative action (AA), which FFD’s recruitment strategy tried to avoid. AA case law is regularly challenged in court, constantly changing due to legal decisions, and inconsistently enforced by a variety of state and federal courts.[2] Because critics perceive AA as a “race not merit” equity tool, the true efficacy of AA is lost in the distraction of a reverse-discrimination argument.[3] While the focus group agreed that no one wants to hire a firefighter that is not talented, group members redirected the conversation to include certain components of AA. Ultimately, they wanted to better understand how talent is defined and where a fire department finds talent. The focus group concluded that when FFD considers equal opportunity employment and AA, all talented candidates are considered in the recruitment process, and all have “a seat at the table.”

I asked focus group members about barriers associated with recruitment and for feedback on why they thought FFD has had limited success in recruiting diversity. The participants posed the following questions: What kind of active recruitment is happening in neighborhoods where the underrepresented populations live? How many direct contacts are made with potential candidates? How do you know they are interested? Or better yet, how do you know they are not interested? In the end, the focus group found that recruitment relies on community trust—trust involves an active effort from FFD to find and engage diverse populations. Moreover, intentional acts of inclusion stimulate occupational and organizational interest—inclusion influences career paths.[4] The reflective recruitment programs identified in this research require partnerships, advocacy, and engagement. If FFD aims to recruit a workforce that resembles the community served, inclusivity will depend on targeted neighborhood outreach. One focus group member reinforced this point by stating, “The trick is in the try. Do everything possible to affirm your interest in a well-represented, diverse fire department.”

I was encouraged to think of this situation through a hypothetical example. Imagine being at an event where you feel like the odd-person-out. You are skeptical to get involved because you think that all eyes are on you and that people are questioning your motives. Until someone comes over, shakes your hand, introduces himself and others, and shares the project at hand, do you feel welcome? Do you feel comfortable? Are you ready to take the first step? Now, imagine a kid standing on the front apron of the fire station, scared to take the first step because she is unsure whether she will be welcome. If a firefighter steps out of the station, smiles, shakes her hand, and provides an introduction, is that kid going to feel more comfortable? When FFD’s culture affirms diversity and its members appreciate the value of in-group influence during development, recruitment, and training, FFD will be a stronger fire department—because of the things that make us different.

[1] Center for Public Safety Excellence, 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services (Chantilly, VA: Center for Public Safety Excellence, 2020), 11.

[2] Kathleen Martinez, “More History of Affirmative Action Policies from the 1960s,” American Association for Access, Equality and Diversity, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.aaaed.org/‌aaaed/History_of_Affirmative_Action.asp.

[3] Carl Cohen and James Sterba, Affirmative Action and Racial Preference: A Debate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 199–200.

[4] Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran, Subtle Acts of Exclusion (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020), 155.

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