Human Relations Department fights for justice

L to R: Natoyia Wilson, Thomas Randolph, Naurice Brown, Paul Pierce, Greta Wills, Leidy Quitián Varón (not pictured: Ayanna Hightower)

The Human Relations Department has a clear and straightforward mission: Ensure that all City residents are free to exercise their economic, social and human rights. This mission is achieved by providing quality service, compliance and enforcement in the areas of affirmative action, civil rights, contract compliance, construction workforce, minority, women or disadvantaged business enterprises, small local business enterprise and Section 3.

The range of services offered by Human Relations certainly is highlighted by the Civil Rights investigations conducted by compliance officers. Still, what these folks do travels well beyond that directive.

The weekly radio show -- “Discrimination Report It, Don’t Ignore It” – has gained national attention for its consistently provocative look at topics that impact minorities in the workplace. And the department’s relatively new “For Change Initiative” is making positive strides to streamline the application process for small contractors.

KCMOre recently sat with Phillip Yelder, who has directed the department since 2005, to discuss progress he’s seen develop over the years.

Q. How has the mission changed since 2005?
A. I don’t think the mission has changed so much as how we deliver the message. There’s a phrase that we often use around here that goes: “We always try to work ourselves out of a job.” But it never happens because there’s always an ongoing challenge to answer to make sure that everyone receives equal opportunities to participate in the process.

We still run into challenges with things like bonding, financing and companies using subjective criteria that smaller businesses, especially women and minority-owned businesses, have to overcome. So we always find ourselves with new things to tackle.

Q. How do you inspire your staff and what do you expect from them?
A. I always tell the staff that this is not a job where you’re going to be happy just making a paycheck. It’s those things that go above and beyond the call of duty that makes this work rewarding because you’re providing a service. Oftentimes the people who come through our doors are at their wits’ end, so I look for passionate people willing to go above and beyond to get things done.

I know we’re making real progress in terms of our customer service because the most recent surveys show 95-96 percent of our customers are satisfied, which is significantly higher that the mid 50s that we rated back in 2005.

Q. What challenges do you face now or expect to face down the road?
A. Finding enough projects to go around is always a challenge. If there are fewer dollars available, everyone’s clawing for the same dollars. My job is a lot easier when there are plenty of projects and dollars on the street, so having projects in the queue is always a good thing for the City.

But it’s a balancing act as well because one of the things that taxpayers expect is that Kansas City Missourians will be working on these projects. So we have to make sure that happens without discriminating against people already here in the system.

Q. Why is this department still necessary in 2017?
A. When that question is asked I like to invoke the “But For Argument.” But for this department being in place, the progress we’ve made over the years would vanish because people are not going to do it unless you require them to. We’ve seen this happen in other major cities that had similar programs and goals for contractors. Once those programs went away, the number of minority and women-owned businesses getting contracts went down exponentially. So the government has a compelling interest to remedy discriminatory practices that have gone on for years.

Q. In terms of what this department has achieved, what stands out in your mind?
A. There are several things that stand out for me. When I first started, we had 13 percent to 15 percent spends with minority and women-owned businesses. Now that number has doubled, along with the number of those contractors listed with the City. The dollar value of the contracts has increased and we’ve closed the gap of the number of minority and women-owned businesses being listed on projects but not being used.

We have better verification of compliance because it’s digital now and much easier to track. We have a loan program; bonding is available; training and technical assistance as well. But these are all things that are in place now that were not when I came aboard.

Q. If you had a chance to return to 2005, what’s the one thing you’d like to do now that you know what you know?
A. I’d like to have a strategic game plan going in that’s more long-term than short-term. A lot of my time is spent just putting out fires and dealing with daily problems, so if I could make more time to operate strategically with long-term goals in mind, that’s what I’d do.

For more information about the Human Relations Department and the services available, visit kcmo.gov/humanrelations.