Courtney Emmerich, equal employment opportunity manager, and Lupe Santos-Jensen, equal employment opportunity specialist, stand in the dewatered lock chamber at Lock and Dam 4 near Alma, Wisconsin, Feb. 12.
Courtney Emmerich, equal employment opportunity manager, and Lupe Santos-Jensen, equal employment opportunity specialist, stand in the dewatered lock chamber at Lock and Dam 4 near Alma, Wisconsin, Feb. 12. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Special Emphasis Program Committee

The equal employment opportunity, or EEO, office, recently recruited nine representatives and five committee members to serve on the Special Emphasis Program Committee, or SEPC. The SEPC also includes the equal employment opportunity manager, Courtney Emmerich, and special emphasis program manager, Lupe Santos-Jensen.

Each of the nine representatives (see sidebar) will lead a specific program. The representatives will work with the EEO office to provide educational information regarding special observances that are recognized by law or executive order. The representatives will also help to create engaging activities that promote cultural awareness and inclusion across the district, assist with barrier analysis, help with community outreach and assist the district in expanding its list of partnerships with colleges and other institutions to try to recruit a diverse workforce.

“Most importantly, the members of this committee will go back to their work unit and be a working example of inclusion in their work unit and division,” Emmerich said. “The more people across the district that we can utilize to promote diversity in the workplace, the quicker you will see organizational change. We are always striving to make sure we are an organization that acts with MVP (Mission-Value-People) in mind and inclusion is a building block to putting people first. The team is going to focus on action items the district can take to make sure we’re living out the MVP values and fostering an environment of inclusivity.”

Santos-Jensen said, “Diversity is important because it expands on creativity and problem solving. You will come up with more creative results more effectively with a diverse team than a homogenous team where everyone thinks the same. When people feel that their voice is heard and when they are able to voice ideas and concerns, employees are more likely to be happier and higher performing. It increases morale.”

Beyond that, Emmerich said, an equitable and fair hiring process is the law. Federal agencies are encouraged to use strategic hiring activities to attract talented and qualified applications. In addition, Emmerich said, diversity allows us to have a variety of perspectives and adds to our talent and organization.

Diversity, equity and inclusion forum

A year ago, diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, forums were focused on recruitment and there were usually between 20-40 attendants. These days, the DEI forums cover a broader

range of topics and the number of participants is usually well over 100.

The DEI forums take place monthly and topics relate to current events, special observances, employees sharing experiences or DEI-related training. “Our office seeks input from employees on what they want to hear and learn,” Emmerich said. “I envision the special emphasis program committee will also help guide the topics for future meetings.”

Santos-Jensen said that more employees are now open to talking about concerns they have. “The DEI forum allows employees to speak up or write freely and anonymously, so people feel they can share their thoughts without repercussions,” she said.

One of the reasons the DEI forum has been so successful is because of support from leadership. Emmerich said she encouraged leadership to approve funding and create a charge code for the events so employees do not have to use their personal time. Funding was approved in fall 2020. “It demonstrates the agency and leadership commitment to DEI,” she said.

Santos-Jensen said, “I applaud leadership for prioritizing EEO in the People First Plan and integrating DEI into our operations and our everyday workforce.”

Inside the Castle podcasts

It wasn’t long after Emmerich started at the St. Paul District that she was asked to do a social justice podcast as part of the revolutionize civil works team. The podcast series follows special observances that the federal government recognizes such as Women’s History Month. It also covers current events and issues or topics in the organization.

“One of the important things,” Emmerich said, “is that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about this topic without including a person of color who could share their lived experiences on this topic. Memphis District EEO manager Donnell Wright and I had already worked together on a training session for St. Paul District and he eagerly volunteered to co-host the Inside the Castle podcast with me.”

The podcasts are unscripted, Emmerich said, with just a few questions beforehand to guide the conversation. The conversations can get lengthy and are often edited down.

Emmerich said the podcasts are important because as the EEO manager, it’s her job to prevent discrimination and the best way to accomplish that is to educate the workforce about various protected bases to be proactive in preventing discriminatory behaviors in the workplace.

Equal employment opportunity office

As the EEO officer, Emmerich said it’s her duty to ensure that DEI remains a priority. “We need to ensure that we have buy-in from the top of the organization to throughout the district to ensure we are proactively working to prevent discrimination and continue to create a workplace where everyone feels included, respected and valued.”

Emmerich said her job is to make sure leaders are thinking about EEO when making decisions that could affect the whole of the organization and making sure that decisions are equitable.

She stressed that EEO is also an advisory service available to anyone. “The office processes complaints and requests for reasonable accommodations, but we also have this component where we are working to create cultural awareness and promote inclusive activities. We want people to feel comfortable coming into our office to talk to us in any situation.”