Town Manager Jim Malloy has appointed Hemali Shah to serve as Lexington’s second-ever Chief Equity Officer. Shah, a social worker who previously worked for Lexington’s Human Services Department, began her new role Oct. 31; the position had been vacant since former Chief Equity Officer Martha Duffield departed in July.
The Chief Equity Officer, a position in the Town Manager’s office, spearheads an array of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for the Town. These include developing strategies for hiring and retaining diverse candidates; identifying trainings related to inclusivity and anti-racism for Town staff and volunteers; and engaging residents in “on-going, meaningful dialogue about social and racial equity and inclusion,” Malloy and Deputy Town Manager Kelly Axtell wrote in a Nov. 17 press release announcing Shah’s appointment.
In an interview with LexObserver, Shah said that applying for the Chief Equity Officer position had not occurred to her until the Town Manager’s Office recruited her. But Shah was excited immediately, thinking “Oh my God, this is a great fit; I know the community, I’ve been here a really long time; I have…long built relationships with various different cultural groups.”
In an email, Malloy wrote that “We had a couple of external candidates and were not satisfied with the pool, [so] we decided to look internally for who may be a good fit to grow into the position.” After recruiting Shah, she stood out in interviews, he explained: “She impressed the panels far more than the external candidate and with her familiarity with the community she was a great choice for the Town.”
During Shah’s eight years working for Lexington’s Human Services Department, first as the Senior Services Program Coordinator and later as Senior Services Director, she prioritized creating new ways to make seniors with all identities feel welcome. When Shah began working for the Town in 2015, “there wasn’t really a lot of diversity in our senior programming,” she said. Shah focused on changing that especially by “inviting and welcoming in our Asian seniors, which is the next biggest population in town.”
With this goal in mind, Shah established an Indian Seniors of Lexington group, which grew from about 10 members in 2016 to nearly 40 by the time she began her new role. This kind of group, she said, could strike a balance – creating a space for intimate connection among seniors with a shared identity, but also connecting these seniors with the broader community, since the group organizes an annual Diwali celebration where they invite other residents to enjoy and learn about the culture.
“What ends up happening in a lot of communities and towns is that a lot of cultural groups become siloed,” Shah said. In her new role, Shah wants to “figure out how to bridge the gaps between the community groups” on a broader scale, perhaps by hosting an annual community-wide event, she said.
“I feel really passionate about engaged communities,” Shah said. “And feeling like you belong, regardless of where you may look like [or] what your abilities are.”
Even as she sought to welcome seniors with diverse backgrounds, Shah sometimes experienced having her own identity questioned. Shah was born in the Boston area, but lived in India for five years as a child, so English is not her first language. When she began coordinating Senior Services in Lexington, older adults often asked her “where are you from?” When she responded that she was born in Boston and grew up in Waltham, some would press her on where she was “really” from and compliment her English upon learning her parents were from India.
“That really bothered me when I first came here, that I stood out that way,” Shah said. But “this community has grown in a lot of ways over the last eight years,” she added; in addition to seeing Town staff grow more diverse, she’s noticed a change in how younger seniors “see the world” that has led to more open-minded, nuanced questions about her identity.
By listening, building relationships and welcoming challenging conversations, Shah hopes to support even more growth among Town staff and residents as Chief Equity Officer. “I think we’re living in a world where we often sort of shield ourselves from really thinking about racism, or sexism, or ageism, or all the isms that…exist,” she said. “It’s really important as an individual to be aware of who you are and how your biases play a role in the work that you do.”
For Shah, meaningfully supporting Town staff and residents in her new role starts with listening. From Town management and staff, Shah wants to understand “where they see this work being valuable; how would it help them grow as a professional in Lexington, as well [as] in the work that they do?”
Duffield, Shah’s predecessor, established regular meetings with Lexington Police Chief Mike McLean in the wake of nationwide reckoning about policing and racial justice. Shah plans to continue biweekly meetings with McLean, as well as monthly ‘coffee and conversation’ with the Police Department where community members can meet and have dialogue with officers. “It’s important for the community to see the police for who they are; they’re human beings,” Shah said.
Shah also plans to prioritize building positive relationships with Lexington’s many community groups. She’ll continue meeting with an advisory group Duffield established, the Strategic Equity Advisory Team (SEAT), in the new year, which includes several community group leaders.
In the longer term, hiring diverse candidates is a top goal for the Town Manager’s office and the Select Board. Shah said this is “really challenging right now, just given the economy, and…the competition that local government has with [the] corporate world.”
Beyond Lexington, Shah has seen from regional and national organizations that other communities are just as new to defining and implementing the role of Chief Equity Officer.
“The challenge that I face is the challenge that everyone in this position across the country faces,” Shah said. “We’re creating this; we’re beginning from the bottom and working our way up to create a systematic change that addresses all the inequalities, all the lack of belonging that our residents feel or our staff feels.”
Shah credited Duffield with laying key groundwork for her to build on by collecting data about staff diversity and building relationships throughout the Town. “Coming into it as a second person is really helpful because she’s created a pathway to a certain extent,” Shah said. “But it’s still a one-woman island where you’re trying to figure out all of these things.”
Despite the challenges inherent to her new role, Shah said she felt supported by the Town Manager’s office and Town staff.
“It’s a tough road ahead,” Shah said. “But I think just having the support of the staff here who believe in the work is…going to help me do my work that much better.”
To Shah, the most formidable challenge ahead of her is “changing mindsets.” But if or when she moves on from this role, Shah hopes that “I’m leaving with having changed people – residents as well as my colleagues and peers – just to think a little bit differently about how we see people on the other side.”
This is very interesting to me, especially as I did multicultural programming as a school social worker before retirement. It’s great to have this position in town! And that local talent was sought.
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