The city of Worcester continues to face blowback over the departure of its third chief diversity officer since creating the position six years ago.

Stephanie Williams, the city's most recent chief diversity officer, announced her departure earlier in March after less than a year and a half on the job. Since her departure, critics have argued city leadership has not offered enough support for diversity efforts in the city, which has a population that is about 45% people of color.

On Monday, the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee voted to suspend its work until city leadership starts showing more eagerness to achieve diversity goals.

A day later, during the City Council’s weekly meeting, numerous residents and several councilors called for the city to do more to combat systemic inequality and diversify its staff. The meeting ended with councilors passing an order asking the city manager to hire an independent consultant to review why Worcester’s chief diversity officers keep leaving.

“When something’s not working, the right thing to do is figure out why,” Councilor Thu Nguyen said. “This is not about a person. This is about a structural systemic pattern and a cultural issue.”

In announcing her departure, Williams cited a “disconnect between organizational and institutional impact needed in order for this work to be successful.” She added that her skills would be more useful in an environment where she could have greater impact.

Williams did not elaborate on the details of her decision, and GBH News’ attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful.

The sudden announcement prompted immediate community criticism of Worcester’s leadership. The local group Black Families Together and the Worcester chapter of the NAACP both suggested Williams' departure is part of a pattern in the city, noting the brief stints of Worcester’s previous chief diversity officers.

“How can you tell Black and Brown communities you are serious about diversity, yet not one diversity officer has stayed in the position for two years? As a community we are calling for answers and transparency,” Worcester NAACP President Fred Taylor said in a statement.

Taylor said Williams’ announcement did not surprise him, but rather was the latest disappointment for Worcester’s communities of color. He pointed to the police chief's past statement that racism does not exist in the police department. Taylor also argued the city does not invest enough in repairing streets and clearing trash in predominantly Black and Latino communities.

During the City Council meeting on Tuesday, members of the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee — which advises on diversity and equal opportunities in city hiring — explained their decision to suspend their operations.

Committee Chair Leigh Woodruff said Williams and her predecessor, Suja Chacko, were highly educated people committed to the chief diversity officer position. But Woodruff said no matter how good the candidates for the role are, that won’t make a difference unless there’s “full commitment from city leadership” to the position.

“I and my colleagues started to feel complicit somehow. We felt that if we continue to go through the motions … we were saying everything was OK — that having this committee and the chief diversity officer was enough to deal with the issues in our city,” Woodruff said. “It is not, and it never will be.”

Councilors responded that Worcester has made progress combatting system inequality and discrimination but must do more. As the first non-binary elected official in state history, Nguyen said they have witnessed discrimination firsthand, noting city staff have misgendered them many times since taking office.

“During my orientation here, someone from HR looked at me, sat in front of me and said, ‘I’m glad there’s more women in these positions,”’ Nguyen recounted.

Councilors agreed the city must diversify its staff to better reflect Worcester’s multicultural population. City Manager Edward Augustus said he was committed to eliminating structural racism in Worcester and welcomed the independent review into how the city can make the chief diversity officer position more successful.

Still, Councilor Sarai Rivera had a note of caution. She argued the city tends to focus on combatting systemic inequality when there’s a problem or crisis creating negative publicity. For example, she said the city only started paying attention to health inequities when the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted them.

“Diversity work has to be something that we do all the time,” she said. “This work has to be ongoing, not crisis-based.”