The City of Newton starts a search Thursday for a consultant to tackle the question of how to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, into the city’s government.

“If someone walks into City Hall, do they see themselves represented in the various offices within City Hall?” said Hattie Kerwin Derrick, Newton’s Director of Community Engagement and Inclusion. “Those are things that you have to look at. If I walk up to a counter, am I going to feel welcomed?”

Kerwin Derrick said city officials want to increase diversity in the city’s workforce, and to expand the number of city contracts that go to businesses run by people of color. The city also wants to review how people with disabilities and older residents are served.

Newton’s move is part of an increasing interest in DEI from communities in Massachusetts, who are hoping to address thorny issues of discrimination and inequity.

Geoff Beckwith, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), estimates there are already roughly 20 distinct DEI positions among the state’s 341 cities and towns. There’s also a newly formed coalition of local DEI officials,

“We know that this is critical and important work that will build more resilient and thriving communities,” Beckwith said. “Especially as there has just been this awakening after the killing of George Floyd, and the whole challenge of exactly what does it mean to close racial gaps and to provide equity in our communities.”

The MMA is part of the National League of Cities, and Beckwith said this summer his organization worked with the League to bring a three-part series on DEI resources, training and education to the state. Hundreds of local officials from the seven northeast states attended, including over 150 local municipal officials.

He said among the challenges of institutionalizing diversity officers in local government is that it’s new to many municipalities, though he said his members are eager to figure out how to create those positions and integrate them more fully into local government.

In Newton, about 30% of the nearly 89,000 residents are people of color. Kerwin Derrick said she’s lived in the city for almost 20 years. She’s Black and has both a biological biracial daughter with her wife, and an adopted son who’s white.

She said her experience with her family in the city was part of the reason she became involved in local equity work.

“I used to chair the Human Rights Commission,” said Kerwin Derrick, “and I became involved in that because people would say, when I had David, who's blond hair, blue eyes, ‘Oh, you're the nanny.’ And I'm like, ‘No, I am not the nanny, I'm his mom.’ And so, I want to ensure that all residents aren't treated like that.”

The Town of Arlington was, to some extent, ahead of the curve: they started interviews for a DEI Director in the summer of 2019. Jill Harvey filled that role.

Almost a quarter of Arlington’s roughly 45,000 residents are non-white. Harvey said many people, including people who don’t speak English, often aren’t heard or don’t have input into larger decisions in town government.

“When I joined as an employee, I was befuddled at how the actual government worked,” Harvey said. “The fact that there was still a town meeting and there were 250-something folks who represent their precincts. I didn't realize that a town of that size would still use that style of government. And so I don't think that everyone who lives there knows that or understands that.”

Harvey, who is biracial, co-founded the Massachusetts DEI Coalition, made up so far of around 15 of her DEI colleagues from other cities and towns. Some of those positions have been around for 10 years, she said, others for two weeks. She said, more often than not, DEI officials are people of color.

“And more often in a space that's predominantly white,” Harvey said, “and being able to navigate, not only the challenges of that, but also that there's no blueprint for this work — there's no perfect way to do it, because every community is different. ... You have to see what works, what doesn't, and keep pushing. So it's definitely hard. But I'm really also excited that I get to kind of build this up and make it something from scratch.”