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“I’m culture shifting.” City of Appleton DEI Director Timber Smith continues long legacy

Timber Smith. Photo supplied.

While many companies and government agencies have implemented diversity, equity and inclusion at the executive level in recent years, it’s nothing new to the City of Appleton.

Timber Smith is the eighth Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the city, which initially filled a need for a liaison between the Hmong refugee community and the police department in 1997.

Over more than 25 years, though, the position has evolved to serve as a resource for anyone who needs to address issues around diversity, equity and belonging.

“My position is to elevate everyone else who’s trying to do the work, and grow them or remove barriers for them or serve as a connector to the other resources out there,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It’s a nice centralized place where people can start when they don’t know where to … I work with the private sector, I work with the public sector, I work with education, I work with nonprofit and then the part that people forget in my role, that’s really the most important thing – I work for the city. I have my own city team that I work with, 650 employees who are serving the residents of Appleton.”

He noted that no two days on his calendar are the same, and every day brings a variety of challenges and opportunities. For example, on a recent day he met with Thedacare about how they can better engage the community, Johnson Bank about how they can utilize colleague workgroups to increase their employees’ sense of belonging, and the nonprofit organizations Diverse and Resilient about creating a stronger relationship with local police.

Smith said Appleton’s early commitment makes his job a lot easier.

“There’s a culture that has been built. I’m not culture building, I’m culture shifting,” he said. “One thing I don’t have to do that I’ve watched my counterparts and my colleagues have to do is explain their job all the time.”

He said it’s not just the city government, but the entire community that’s committed.

“I think the one thing about this community in particular is that (diversity is) understood,” he said. “(Companies and organizataions) reach out to me, and they’re asking, how do we do this? How do we diversify our boards and our committees? Where can I get trainers for these topics? How do we partner? And how do we get our employees to be more engaged? How do we recruit and retain diverse talent? I get all these questions, and I get them from all different kinds of sectors and businesses and they’re sincere. They want to do this stuff.”

Other local governments are all in, too, Smith said.

“Look at the school district, which has an entire diversity team. Not a person, but a team of individuals within its school system addressing this, because 37% of their students are students of color and 40% of their students at the elementary level are students of color. That’s significant. And they know that these numbers aren’t gonna ever go backwards.They had these teams in place more than a decade ago.”

Still, there’s always been resistance to change, especially recently as political polarization has emboldened white people to push back against efforts to diversify the community. Smith said more engagement and more information can help. He said it’s often not communicated well enough that diversity benefits everyone – and it’s not just about race.

“Diversity is you too. It’s your identity too,” he said. “You take those medications, that’s an identity. You have mobility issues, that’s an identity. You like to hunt and fish, that’s an identity. Those identities aren’t any different than the other cultural or marginalized community focused socioeconomic identities. They all need nurturing. They all need sowing.”

Smith also acknowledged that some DEI programs haven’t achieved all that they could, especially in the private sector.

“I think (some private companies) tried to implement DEI like it was another business objective.You just can’t,” he said. “What you’re measuring is not the same, what it looks like isn’t the same. This is about actual people. This is about empathy. The focus at the end of the day is when you’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, you’re trying to build cultures of empathy, where people understand other people, and therefore treat them with dignity and respect in these spaces.”

Smith, originally from Milwaukee, came to Oshkosh for college 30 years ago and never left, mostly because he appreciated the smaller-city lifestyle. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UW-O.

In addition to his day job at the city of Appleton, Smith hosts The KOSH, a weekly podcast where he interviews Oshkosh community leaders – which often leads to connections, he said.

Listen to our CEO Henry Sanders on The KOSH:

“The people that listen to The KOSH are really engaged in the community,” he said. “They’re listening to what each other does and saying, okay, I need to meet that person. And then all of a sudden, something amazing happens, a partnership or something. And it’s just kind of fantastic.”

Smith said ultimately his job is to create a community where people feel they belong, and his work to this point has led him to understand four pillars create that sense: trust, engagement, resources and representation.

He noted that trust goes both ways.

“You trust the city, but does the city trust you?” he said.

Those four pillars are “the fundamental basis of DEI,” he said. “If we’re always operating towards one of those pillars, then we’re really doing the work.”