Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Lawrence’s first director of equity and inclusion started on his path with one simple question

photo by: contributed photo

Dr. Farris Muhammad

The racial inequities that many in the U.S. seek to remedy first confronted Farris Muhammad when he was a child growing up on the east side of Detroit.

Even though he lived in a Black neighborhood, Muhammad said that as early as 5 years old he started to notice that the people in charge in his community, be it a shop owner, police officer, judge or social worker, tended not to look like him. And from those observations, as well as how Black people were treated by those in charge as they navigated life, his questions first arose. For him, the question of “why?” — common among young children — centered on one thing.

“Early on it created the curiosity and inquiry of why?” Muhammad said. “Why is it people who look like me are often not in positions of power?”

From there, he said, his questions grew into a desire to learn more and to see people who looked like him reflected in positive ways. Muhammad, who is the fifth of nine children, was the first in his family to attend college. His own personal educational and career path was one way he worked toward that end, and his being hired as the director of equity and inclusion for the City of Lawrence has been the culmination.

Muhammad earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwood University in Midland, Mich.; a master’s of business administration from Eastern Michigan University; and a doctorate in education administration and policy from the University of Georgia. He also holds a graduate certificate in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Research from the University of Georgia.

Muhammad said to work toward his childhood desire, which as an adult he could later describe as equity, he started down several paths in his professional life. Those included being a tutor, the director of the Multicultural Family Center with the city of Dubuque, Iowa, and an adjunct sociology professor. But ultimately, Muhammad said he decided that where he could be most effective was in public policy, and specifically city policy. Most recently, he was the chief diversity and inclusion officer with the city of Peoria, Ill.

City Manager Craig Owens announced last month that Muhammad would be Lawrence’s first director of equity and inclusion. Muhammad made the move to Lawrence over the weekend and will start his position this week. Regarding why he wanted to come to Lawrence, Muhammad said a lot of the research that he focused on in graduate school centered on Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling stemming from a Topeka case that struck down racial segregation in schools. He said the region’s long journey toward being a progressive area resonated with him. And in Lawrence, he said he saw a city that was taking initiative to address equity issues.

“I’m often just excited in general about people who embark upon this work,” Muhammad said. “When cities or states or counties start launching this kind of work, it’s inspiring.”

The city’s description of the position states that it will be in the city manager’s office and that duties will be broad in scope, impacting employees, operations, programs, services and partnerships. According to the description, duties will include developing and advancing equity goals; improving and evaluating city policies and programs based on equity outcomes; and facilitating conversations for staff and stakeholders related to diversity, equity and inclusion, among other duties.

There are also some specific projects or initiatives that Muhammad will be involved with. Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay said in an email to the Journal-World that the city anticipates that Muhammad will be among the staff working with the city-commissioned consulting firm that will study police department operations, and that he will also work with equity impact advisers on the local COVID-19 response and recovery team. But Toomay said Muhammad’s primary role would be helping craft strategies to achieve goals identified in the city’s recently adopted strategic plan, which includes a focus on equity, and that other initiatives could be identified as he gets to know the organization and the community better.

“He will serve as the lead for a cross-departmental team working to infuse equity and inclusion into the culture of our organization,” Toomay said.

Muhammad said that for him, the ultimate goal of bringing equity throughout the city included the organization itself and the city as a service provider, including the police department, fire department, public works department and city programs. As far as specific areas of focus, he said those would depend on what feedback he hears from the community and what areas community members consider to be of most importance.

Owens sought the City Commission’s approval to create the new position in March, and discussion of issues related to equity and racial disparities have continued to occur at City Hall since then. In May, the death of George Floyd after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes sparked both national and local racial justice protests, heightened attention on police brutality and systemic racism, and prompted the city to pursue the study to reconsider the role of police.

When asked about becoming the city’s first director of equity and inclusion amid that context, Muhammad said that given his experience growing up and his time working with different demographics of people, he hoped he could help bridge gaps in understanding among the different viewpoints and experiences in the community.

“Because at the end of the day, I think everybody wants the same thing,” Muhammad said. “Everybody wants to live in a safe community.”

Muhammad will begin his position with the city on Monday.


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