It’s a new position for the City and a bit of a blank slate. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator Cherie Jzar (pronounced sha-REE juh-ZAR) says she’s in “scanning mode.” Since Jan. 4, she’s been working on the second floor of City Hall. She says her first 90 days are being spent discovering what diversity, equity and inclusion look like for the City, both internally and externally.
“I am in a period of discovery to really understand the needs of every single department,” she says. “And they won’t all be the same.”
Jzar defines diversity, equity and inclusion as the City’s commitment to community. She points out the many ways Gastonia’s residents and employees are diverse, such as gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, age, religion, sexual orientation, family structure, national origin, socio-economic status, preferred language, disabilities, and more. “The work of a person like me is to make sure that everything the City does, such as policies, hiring, procurement and delivering services, is inclusive for everybody in the community,” she says.
About 50% of Jzar’s work will be external, focused on serving City customers and coordinating with community partners. The remaining half will be internal, focused on diversity and inclusion issues affecting the City’s diverse workforce. “Are there barriers that keep employees from bringing their ‘full selves’ to work?” she asks. “We should be intentional about creating a better work environment and about creating better service delivery to our residents.”
Jzar is using a methodical approach, honed by her education and 18 years of experience as a certified community planner. She says an essential part of planning are the social aspects of city development and human development. That includes heavy emphasis on gathering information, analyzing it, developing a process and implementing that process.
Returning to Gastonia
Born in Savannah, Georgia, but raised as an “Army brat,” Jzar has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Georgia Southern University and a master’s degree in urban studies from Savannah State University. She is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and chaired the Diversity Task Force of the American Planning Association – North Carolina chapter.
Jzar worked for the City of Gastonia’s Planning Department from 2006-2012, using her maiden name of Collins. She assisted with Gastonia’s All-America City application in 2010 and was part of the delegation that made the presentation in Kansas City. “I helped frame the reason why we were an All-America City, and we won. It was an awesome experience,” Jzar says.
She also worked on annexation and historic district projects in Gastonia and did extensive demographic work for the City’s comprehensive plan, which emphasized the importance of redeveloping historic sites, specifically Loray Mill.
Most recently, Jzar worked as the City of Concord’s Community Outreach Coordinator, leading that city’s Neighborhood Program and a variety of citizen-engagement efforts.
Jzar and her husband have five children, from 22 to 3 years old. They converted their backyard into what she calls a “biology lab,” containing a 2,500-square-foot garden for vegetables and herbs, five bee hives and six chickens. The Jzar family enjoys the fresh honey, eggs, veggies and herbal teas, and sometimes sells any extras. She describes gardening as therapeutic.
Race and much more
Companies like Apple, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Google, Pandora and Pinterest have launched DEI programs in recent years. Gaston County hired its first Equity and Inclusion Director in 2020. From Asheville to Wilmington, city and county governments are making DEI a priority to foster workplace innovation, enhance trust and cultivate a welcoming community.
In 2018, Gastonia City management and City Council began developing a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. “We’re trying to make sure we are considering diversity, equity and inclusion in all of our decision-making,” says Mayor Walker Reid. “We need to make sure we’re being fair to everyone.” The strategy is to build a culture of understanding that embraces the differences, needs and struggles of individuals and groups so that the City can better serve its residents.
Jzar says that City leaders’ actions a couple of years ago were a proactive step to recognize Gastonia’s changing demographics. “I think that vision that the City Council had two years ago to embark on this journey was very timely,” she says. She notes that Gastonia’s commitment to address diversity, equity and inclusion came before 2020’s headlines about racial equality. “Things have happened recently that brought (race-related) issues to top-of-mind,” Jzar says. “But as an organization, we don’t want to follow the breaking news.”
Although race and ethnicity are often at the forefront of diversity discussions, Jzar says the City is using a broad definition of DEI. “A sole focus on race is not the approach we plan to take, because we would leave out other important aspects,” she says. She mentions differences in age, faith, gender, and sexual orientation as examples of other types of diversity in our community and in the City’s workforce. “Race might pop up as the one most top-of-mind-priority that coworkers are talking about and want to address. Or we might discover that it is religion,” she says. Jzar wants to cast a wide DEI net to understand people’s many diversities, differences and affinities.
As an example of DEI, she says Parks and Recreation has to take into account the barriers for someone who’s over 60 years of age, or barriers for young people who don’t drive. She says a City commitment to DEI might include providing information in a different language. Or hosting a meeting at a different time of day. Or making sure that a person with visual or mobility impairments can access City information or attend a City event.
According to Jzar, it’s not enough to acknowledge that diversity exists. Ensuring equity and inclusion often requires action. “We need to be very intentional about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And what impact, positive or negative, it’s having,” she says. “And then we need to be committed to change.” The action likely will include ongoing training for City managers and all levels of staff on topics like unconscious bias. It might include developing or updating some City policies to create equitable and inclusive experiences for everyone. An internal committee of City employees, especially frontline staff, may help identify opportunities for improvement.
Salty french fries and DEI
The City already has nondiscrimination policies, is an Equal Opportunity Employer and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jzar says DEI is about following the many applicable laws but also about influencing the internal culture. As an example, she describes a hypothetical restaurant that serves salty french fries. Customers with high blood pressure should not order the fries because of the high sodium levels. “It’s not against Food and Drug Administration rules to put salt on your fries, but you want to meet the needs of your customers,” Jzar says. “So maybe you offer the option of fries with no added salt. You evolve to meet the needs of your customers.”
Jzar emphasizes there is no one-size-fits-all formula for DEI. “This work is not one-and-done. It’s ongoing. It will take time,” she says.
To Jzar, commitment to community goes beyond scanning and analysis. It goes beyond enacting policies and processes. It even goes beyond training, advising and collaborating. Commitment to community must be deeply rooted in the City of Gastonia’s core values, bearing fruit in employees’ daily interactions with coworkers and customers. Jzar says a compelling commitment to community must become part of the City’s culture. “We want to promote a culture of inclusiveness,” she says, “where we break down any barriers that might exist for someone.”