‘We have to dive headfirst into having a dialogue’: Meet High Point’s new new diversity, equity and inclusion officer

In Black and White

HIGH POINT, N.C. — Jelani Biggs came to the City of High Point in 2019 as human relations manager. He started his new role as the city’s new diversity, equity and inclusion officer in February.

“It’s a new initiative,” Biggs said. “It’s a new program. So the role will evolve. Initially what I’ll be looking at is assessing where the city stands. And that’s both internal and external.”

His job is to develop strategies and programs to facilitate and support diversity, equity, inclusion, cooperation and equality in the city as an organization.

“So in addition, I’m looking at hiring practices, recruiting, inclusive environments within departments. We’ll also be looking at community engagement. I think this role will only be as successful as the partnerships we leverage to create change,” he said.

Mayor Jay Wagner said, “Also we have to look at what we do in contracting with city government. We have to look at whether we’re reaching out to people who have been underserved in the past who have not been given equal opportunity in the past to let them know that we’re there and that we seek to give them equal opportunity going forward.”

Mayor Wagner and city leaders made this a priority early last year. The effort ramped up during last summer’s racial unrest.

“I think there was an acknowledgment in High Point that we have to come together to make our city a better place, and that’s the only way we can do it is by working together,” the mayor said.

“I think often, especially in municipalities, we can get caught up in process. But it’s important to sometimes take a step back and make sure we’re creating an inclusive environment for all our folks,” Biggs said.

Biggs says there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and he knows he can’t solve all of the city’s issues on his own. It’s really going to take a team effort to reach the goal of ongoing dialogue. He says when that happens, everybody wins.

“I think diversity doesn’t have a specific look. But what we are is trying to create a space in which diversity is valued and that we also foster an inclusive and equitable environment,” he said.

He says achieving equity has to be intentional.

“I don’t think we can afford to assume many folks in our community know about the opportunities that exist in the city,” he said. “So part of my role is going to be intentionally engaging folks in the community to make sure they’re aware of these opportunities and encouraging them to engage in these opportunities.”

And it can be uncomfortable.

“So I think in order for us to have certain important conversations, they may not always be easy to have, we have to dive headfirst into having a dialogue. And I see this as an ongoing dialogue,” he said. “This isn’t one specific goal that we’re going to reach and be done.”

“Ultimately it all comes down to how you treat people,” Mayor Wagner added. “As long as we’re treating people well, we’re providing equal opportunity for everyone and we become known for that. I think it will be a great benefit for our city, and I want High Point to be known for that.”

“I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that High Point is growing. What we want to make sure is in the midst of all that growing that everyone is included in that, that we don’t make assumptions that everyone sees growth in the same way, but we hear their voice. And I know the city and the leadership finds that very important,” Biggs concluded.

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