Arcata Fire Dept. could get training to resolve ‘embedded racial inequities’

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE/ARCATA – A “Racial Equity Assessment” commissioned by the Arcata Fire District recommends that staff receive hours of racial equity training and that the district form a committee to craft a statement that would “identify values and priorities related to racial equity.”

At its Jan. 12 meeting, the district’s Board of Directors reviewed the assessment, which was prepared by Stepping Stone Diversity Consulting, a local company. The 11-page report cost about $800 and was paid for by a fund donated by Debbie Davis in memory of her late husband, George Alan Davis, a veteran firefighter who died in 2015. 

The fund is intended for training and projects that improve the fire department, which covers McKinleyville, Arcata, Bayside, Manila and Jacoby Creek.

The assessment was commissioned in July of 2020 after nation-wide protests against racial discrimination and police killings of Black people.

‘Lifelong commitment’

The “Racial Equity Assessment” states, “As the community engages in more open conversations about inequitable opportunities and outcomes, Arcata Fire District (AFD) faces the challenge of incorporating this knowledge into its operations. Leadership has commissioned this brief study of its policies and internal beliefs about race by Stepping Stone Diversity Consulting as a first step in that process.”

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A note near the beginning of the report states that the assessment’s “findings and recommendations reflect a starting point for AFD based on current capacity and resources. Racial equity work is a lifelong commitment to learning about how others experience the world and adapting practices in the pursuit of fairness and justice. As AFD’s capacity develops, recommendations will evolve.”

AFD gets low scores

The assessment included a survey of district staff and volunteers. Out of 33 of them, 16 responded to the survey.

Based on the responses to survey questions, Stepping Stone rated district respondents on their knowledge of the “depth of embedded racial inequities,” their ability to discuss racial inequities, and a variety of other topics.

The company gave district staff and volunteers relatively low ratings based on a scale of one to five, with one being “absent,” two “emerging,” three “developing,” four “partial mastery” and five “mastery.” On the various race-related topics, the district mostly scored a one or a two.

“Clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Stepping Stone co-director Melissa Meiris told the board.

Meiris said such low scores are normal for an organization that is just beginning to discuss racial inequities, adding that there are “opportunities for growth.”

‘Saying the wrong thing’ 

When it comes to staff members discussing racial inequities, Stepping Stone gave them a score of two, or “emerging.”

“A majority of respondents are interested and engaged in learning about how identity impacts societal outcomes,” states the report. “Several respondents expressed comfort engaging in their personal lives and/or with colleagues they believe to be like-minded. Others said that these conversations feel superficial and do not address race in the department. As is quite common, there are clear concerns about ‘saying the wrong thing,’ that conversations about race will expose and/or widen divisions among staff, or that certain groups will be blamed or singled out for past societal injustices. While concerns about conflict are valid and especially important in an industry so reliant on teamwork and trust, conversations about race are not inherently negative when they are carefully considered and facilitated, and can in fact be opportunities for advancing deeper understanding and growth.”

Is this a pressing issue?

According to the report, some AFD staff members consider racial equity an import topic, while others question whether racial equity is a pressing issue in the fire department.

“Several survey responses indicate that respondents understand that failing to have conversation, education, and relationships that consider the role of race in the United States will ultimately make connecting to each other and the community more difficult,” the report states. “For others, this is an emerging issue. AFD should understand that, while most people are not blatantly resistant, a number of staff are unsure that this is a pressing issue, and unclear about how an investment in race and racial inequities will improve AFD’s service to the community.”

8 hours of equity training

The reports recommends that the district create a racial equity committee, which would study the issue and help create a racial equity statement that “will enable AFD to identify values and priorities related to racial equity. This statement should guide internal and external approaches to engagement, making clear AFD’s commitment and parameters.”

Stepping Stone also recommends staff training.

“Stepping Stone recommends either an 8-hour overview training broken into modules, or a model in which trainers will work regularly with a core group to offer a combination of training and coaching for implementation with other staff,” the report states.

The report also states that staff needs to be prepared for “pushback” from members who may not want the training.

“Leadership and facilitators/trainers must be prepared to handle pushback from staff who do not believe this type of education is relevant to their work,” the report states.

Committee OK’d

AFD Vice President Randy Mendosa urged the board to create a racial equity committee. “There’s never been a more important time to do this,” Mendosa said.

The board voted 4-1, with Director Elena David abstaining, to form the committee. 

The committee’s makeup and responsibilities will be further discussed at an upcoming board meeting.


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