By Will Fairless
The City of Opelika held the first two of its Diversity and Inclusion Listening Sessions last week. The session for Ward 4 was held on Tuesday, Oct. 13, and the session for Ward 2 was held on Thursday, Oct. 15, both in the Opelika Municipal Courtroom.
Both were moderated by Dr. Arturo Menefee, who is a lifelong resident of Opelika and the Director of Leadership Development for The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development. He received his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from Auburn University.
Menefee will be facilitating the discussions about diversity and inclusion at the remaining three sessions just as he did for these first two. He will then present a report to the city summarizing what he heard from the Opelika community and will give a recommendation for action based on those findings.
“I’m your provocateur tonight,” Menefee said. “I’m gonna ask you some really tough questions and maybe challenge your thought process. None of this is meant to create any kind of confusion or conflict or anything like that, but from my standpoint, those are typically the best discussions that really get at the root of the issue.”
Menefee had all the in-person attendees fill out surveys before beginning the discussions. The surveys will be used as a source of quantitative data to gauge the community’s feeling about diversity and inclusion. It will accompany the qualitative data collected during the rest of the meeting.
Menefee made an argument about why diversity matters. He listed four common benefits of having a more diverse group of people, in any endeavor: there are more skills and talents, new ways of thinking, different experiences and unique cultural backgrounds.
“Research shows that when you have students that are in a diverse environment, those students tend to score higher on tests than students that are not in a diverse environment,” Menefee said.
He asked for the community’s participation and for honest discussion even though it might be difficult.
The community responded enthusiastically, by answering Menefee’s question about whether white privilege exists, for example. One community member said, “Even though I may have struggled in my life because I didn’t have money or because I’m a woman, or because anything else, I have never struggled because of the color of my skin. And that’s what white privilege is to me. I have never struggled because I’m white.”
On the topic of inclusion, specifically of Hispanics and Asians, and race relations, another community member said, “Look at what’s happened to Christianity in our country. To me, that’s a very very important part of what’s happened to our country. Faith in God has deteriorated so much and we’ve gotten away from those truths about, ‘love your neighbor.’”
Leigh Krehling, community relations officer for the City of Opelika, said, “The first two listening sessions went well. It’s been great to hear from people across the city about what is in their hearts and minds when it comes to diversity and inclusion.”
Krehling added that she, like Menefee, is looking forward to taking what is learned from the listening sessions and developing a plan of action for the future of the city.
There are three listening sessions remaining, all held from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Opelika Municipal Courtroom: Ward 1’s is Tuesday, Oct. 27; Ward 3’s is Thursday, Oct. 29; Ward 5’s is Thursday, Nov. 5.