New Roles for Association Pros
Equity and Accessibility

Equity at the Core of Everything

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Diversity leaders are often asked to do their jobs without having direct oversight of staff and programs that are critical to the success of a DEI strategy. But that’s not the case at the National Recreation and Park Association where Vice President of Education and Chief Equity Officer Autumn Saxton-Ross is tasked with bringing an equity lens to all member-facing areas.

In 2020, the National Recreation and Park Association hired Autumn Saxton-Ross as its first-ever vice president of education and chief equity officer. She oversees NRPA’s outward-facing membership areas, including member relations, certification and accreditation, customer service, professional development, and the annual conference.

“My job is to lovingly poke and prod at these membership programs to consider changes to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Saxton-Ross said.

As NRPA was developing its most recent strategic plan, it became clear to leadership that they needed someone at the helm who could develop tools, professional development, and networking opportunities that would address a barrier to meeting its mission.

“That barrier is inequitable park and recreation systems, spaces, and programs,” said Kristine Stratton, president and CEO of NRPA.

NRPA created the vice president of education and chief equity officer role and intentionally moved the education, membership, and credentialing teams into one portfolio to embed an equity lens into NRPA’s core programs.

“I think difference meets on the playground,” Saxton-Ross said. “I’m in Washington, DC, and any playground you go to, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a different language or see a different culture celebrating an event. We want to help change communities and municipalities through our professionals.”

Grouping DEI initiatives and education under one umbrella gives associations the opportunity to apply an equity lens to all outward-facing programs. Over time, that will have an impact within the organization and then extend out to members and their communities.

“You want to build DEI into your whole organization and require that your leadership team share ownership.”—Kristine Stratton, NRPA
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A New Narrative

According to Stratton, equity officers often are expected to advance goals through influence alone.

“They are often formed without a core program portfolio or direct oversight of activities that are core to the organization or business,” she said. “These leaders are left to try to advance difficult system changes through the art of influence or persuasion. Instead, you want to build DEI into your whole organization and require that your leadership team share ownership.”

She wanted NRPA’s equity leader to have the ability to direct the work, to deploy resources, and to manage teams that advance the association’s equity goals. According to Saxton-Ross, this strategy has allowed her to move NRPA through its equity journey faster.

“We want to make sure our members see themselves in everything we do,” Saxton-Ross said. “Our goal is to provide members with the tools and skills to wrestle with differences, rather than avoid them or stay stuck in how things used to be.”

Setting Strategy

In 2021, NRPA launched a survey to better understand the state of DEI work across the field, the professionals leading the work, and the opportunities NRPA had to support members. The results highlighted four themes: targeted support for smaller agencies, building member capacity and competency in DEI, best practices and peer networks, and trusted resources.

“The themes provided a foundation that sets the strategy for how we support DEI in the field,” Saxton-Ross said. “The approach that resulted, the Equity in Practice program, redefined how we advance equity.”

The Equity in Practice initiative includes a number of tools to help NRPA members promote equity in their communities and agencies, including a resource library, peer networks, monthly online learning events, and a certificate program.

“Through our work, we’ve seen an increase in participation and awareness of equity, inclusion, and access learning and practices,” Stratton said. “There’s also the launch of our first Equity in Practice program cohort, and progress on how well we are reflecting the diversity of our membership among our educators, speakers, and volunteer leaders.”

Saxton-Ross says the DEI resources that NRPA is providing to members will help put them in a better position to embrace differences within their communities and agencies.

“I’m excited to be part of an organization that recognizes that we need to focus on people if we want to see any change,” she said.

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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