After getting off to a controversial start, the Leesburg Diversity Commission is working to make itself a household name.
The Town Council’s vote in 2015 to form the commission was one of the most contentious in recent years. It stemmed from a task force report that showed the town’s employment base did not mirror the growing diversity of its population, and the group recommended the town create a diversity commission. The objectives and purview of the commission were questioned and, even once its formation was approved, controversy followed when some questioned the group’s own racial makeup.
But almost two years later, it’s easy to forget the panel’s dramatic beginnings.
The commission has cast a broad net, from translating town brochures for Leesburg’s growing Spanish-speaking community, to helping publicize transportation options for residents, and adding events to its robust social calendar.
The six commissioners certainly keep themselves busy. Just last month, the group partnered with the Economic Development Commission to launch an online survey of all town businesses, with the goal of identifying how the town can help businesses grow and thrive.
“The neat thing is we had a blank canvas,” when the commission started, Chairman Enrique Gonzalez said. “It was a matter of what are we here to do. What’s going to be our direction?”
One thing commissioners were advised to stay away from was weighing in on town HR and employee matters, as some council members were fearful that legal troubles could arise from involving an appointed body in those decisions.
Although it has not dipped its toes into the HR world, the commission is wielding some influence. Perhaps one of its most meaningful actions stemmed from 2015’s historic winter storm. A commissioner noticed that the heavily-trafficked sidewalks along areas of Plaza Street, Edwards Ferry Road, and Fort Evans Road, were not being shoveled, even days after the storm had passed. This created a safety concern for residents, many of whom did not have cars and used the sidewalks to get to work or to shops. A new ordinance provision was proposed, and adopted by the council, to levy fines on property owners who fail to shovel out sidewalks in those highly foot-trafficked areas of town.
“We stood in front of the council and they actually did something,” Commissioner Oliver Peters said.
Peters is one of four original members of the commission, along with Gonzalez, Chang Liu, and Linda McCray. Although the commission endeavors to make itself highly visible in the community, one of its major challenges is letting people know they exist, he said.
“We’re still grappling with that,” Peters said.
Gonzalez said he believes the commission should be viewed as a go-to resource within Leesburg.
“One of our goals is to establish ourselves as a place to go when you have a question on anything that has to do with the town, diversity, whatever,” he said.
McCray takes it a step further.
“We’re not representing one group, we’re representing the community,” she said. “We’re trying to bridge the gap that exists and let our community know we are here to work together to make our community better. That’s the heart of what we do.”
An important part of that is letting town residents know “what their taxes are paying for,” in terms of available services and resources, she said.
McCray said she sees the commission as a type of “think tank.”
“Many groups come to us wanting to spread the word about a project targeting a specific demographic or trying to promote a particular event,” she said. “Ultimately, our goal is to inform and empower residents. I think it’s just going to take work and the right players and the right energy to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Some town council members still struggle with the panel’s purview. Both Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox and Councilman Ron Campbell said they would like to see the council specifically directing the Diversity Commission—and all town boards and commissions across the board—to work on objectives the council would like to tackle.
“We came up with a list of priorities at the [January council] retreat. The next logical step for me would’ve been to determine which commissions relate to which objectives. Then share that with them to get them working on things so there’s some synergy and syncing. That’s what’s lacking now,” Campbell said.
He said an across-the-board review of all town boards and commissions is needed to determine the best way to use them, if they are purposeful, and if the town needs all of the panels it has.
On the Diversity Commission specifically, Campbell is asking its members to identify community members whose work should be celebrated in town proclamations. He points to the county Board of Supervisors meeting, where individuals are recognized during proclamations from everything from Black History Month to Women’s History Month and more.
With assigned responsibilities and objectives to work on, the Diversity Commission can and is an asset to the town, he said.
“It’s a focused community involvement that I think is important, particularly when you don’t have those voices represented by staff or council members,” Campbell said. “Having a Diversity Commission is an organized way to get feedback on important issues and important citizen groups to the town.”
Although Campbell was not a council member in 2015, and thus did not cast a vote on its formation, Fox was the lone dissenter on the group’s formation. The vice mayor notes that she wasn’t, and still is not, against having a Diversity Commission, but just had misgivings about the suggestion that the group should be called on to weigh in on town hiring.
Fox says she appreciates how active the commission has been in community events, but also questions whether the group’s mission is in line with what the council would like to see it achieve.
“If I had my druthers, I would say give them more responsibility for things the council would like to accomplish,” she said. But with the correct purview, she believes the commission can be beneficial.
“It is a great outreach arm for the town into the community. Our community is changing, it is diverse. If there’s any issues we’re not understanding because of language or a cultural barrier I want to understand those things,” she said. “I think the Diversity Commission can be instrumental in that.”