Opportunity Town: The City's New Director of Equal Opportunity Chats One Month into the Job

Cleveland's Office of Equal Opportunity was created in 1977 to ensure that minority- and female-owned businesses were given a fair shake when it came to city construction contracts. Last month, Mayor Frank Jackson swore in Dr. Melissa K. Burrows to direct the office. She arrives at City Hall by way of Case Western Reserve University, where she worked in the office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity. She's taking the reins from former Director Natoya Walker-Minor, who's broadening her own work with the city as the Chief of Public Affairs.

Sam Allard: So one month in, Dr. Burrows. How's the new job?

Dr. Melissa Burrows: It's good. I'm learning a lot. I'm trying to create efficiencies, learning about cities and city culture and experiencing something new.

SA: How does working for a city compare to working for a university?

Dr. MB: At Case, I was more in an administrative capacity. Specifically, I worked with staff members as it related to sexual misconduct and discrimination. Overall, the position was general policy enforcement, and more importantly, assistance with those policies. I see my work here as similar in that it's assisting contractors and subcontractors related to ways they can be included overall. (Dr. Burrows was not directly involved in the sexual misconduct case of former Law School Dean Lawrence Mitchell.)

SA: What drew you to this position?

Dr. MB: Definitely working with contractors and having a new experience working with city government.

SA: Any major goals for 2015?

Dr. MB: A couple of primary goals, yes: One of them is looking at a 10-year review as it relates to the Cleveland Residency Employment Law

SA: That's the one that stipulates that major contractors have a certain percentage of Cleveland residents on the workforce, right?

Natoya Walker-Minor: Yes, 20 percent. In 2004, when Frank Jackson was City Council president and former councilwoman Fannie Lewis chaired the affirmative action and construction diversity community, together they spearheaded and wrote the Cleveland Residency Employment Law, aka the Fannie Lewis law. It's been in effect now for 10 years. Dr. Burrows and her team will be exploring what the options are in a 10-year review. We're examining the law: What worked? What hasn't? What needs to be examined?

SA: Do contractors and subcontractors have a way of networking and stuff to facilitate greater utilization?

Dr. MB: We have a contractors meeting in December, a quarterly meeting, so that the contractors can learn more about doing business with the city and more about each other as well. It's Dec. 8 in the City Hall Rotunda.

SA: I feel like Councilman Zack Reed is always talking about this. Where are the areas of greatest disparity in city contracts?

NWM: In 2012, there was a disparity study completed. It's a document that validates our authority to have race-gender-neutral and race-gender programs. When councilman Reed or others bring up the question of utilization or lack thereof, as I mentioned, OEO makes sure that there's a good faith effort at utilization. There is a difference between employment and enterprise. The good faith effort is looked at in terms of the enterprise. Was there an opportunity to use a minority or female-owned business to do X task? However, all contracts, even those greater than $50,000, may not be able to achieve the employment. If that happens, they have to validate that and get authority through this office.

SA: What's the geographic reach?

NWM: Our disparity study expanded our reach to be Cuyahoga County and the six contiguous counties. For Cleveland small businesses, the reach is Cuyahoga County. One of the reasons we recruited Melissa is that my work has transitioned to not only include the municipal response but also the private sector response toward equity and inclusion, so the work that GCP has done has really been around promoting Community Benefits Agreements.

SA: Which means?

NWM: When we use that language, we use it as a private sector tool toward equity and opportunity on private-sector funded projects. Why? Because within municipal government we already have that as codified ordinances, which is why OEO exists.

SA: Has there been willingness in the private sector to embrace policies like this?

NWM: I think so. We've been working diligently for the last three to four years toward that. It's not easy, but there are changes that are happening for the good, there's definitely momentum for the incorporation of Community Benefit Agreements in private sector contracts that would enable minority/female businesses to work with those jobs. Our CBA work has been specifically around construction.

SA: Any notable champions you can mention in the private sector?

NWM: Well... so, University Hospitals' Vision 2010 work, while not under the auspices of the CBA, essentially had one built into it. We weren't using that language back then, in '06 or '07, but that's essentially what they did. That project gave us the insight to know that we could do it.

SA: Do you work at all with city employees? I'm curious, for instance, about the racial disparity between our law enforcement personnel and the Cleveland citizenry.

NWM: OEO doesn't look at employment citywide.

SA: What about vocational apprenticeships? You do construction, but what about manufacturing opportunities? Or ensuring that young folks have equal opportunities to get their feet in the door?

NWM: We're working on that, definitely. We're trying to get Max Hayes recognized by the Ohio State Apprentice Council. We're on the cusp, but not quite there.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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