Taking Inclusion to the Next Level in Michigan
Building on years of work to strengthen connections between communities and transportation programs, Michigan’s DOT is now integrating inclusion and equity into its DNA.
By Terri Slaughter, Chief Culture, Equity and Inclusion Officer, and Tony Kratofil, PE, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Engineer | Michigan Department of Transportation
For DOTs across America, the need to revolutionize how we envision, plan and develop transportation infrastructure so it serves all communities equitably, particularly those that have not shared in the benefits – or have even been harmed by – system investments in the past is strong. At MDOT, we had implemented many programs over the years to advance equity through our planning and contracting processes. In the past year, MDOT has committed to taking our equity and inclusion efforts to the next level.
Some of our activities are brand new, and others build upon models that have shown promise in the past. Here are some of the strategies we are pursuing:
1. Focusing first on culture change and engagement
We want to move the needle in a way that will be sustainable over time. It would be a missed opportunity to merely react to what’s happening in society today, only to end up returning to business-as-usual later on. We started by considering how to adapt our internal culture to meet the challenges facing us today and tomorrow. This included using our employee engagement surveys as a way to better understand people’s experiences working in the organization. Then, we created safe platforms for conversations about what’s going on in society and how we can help to address different issues. Our executive team members are among the most engaged and committed in this conversation. This important work is setting the foundation for creating a more inclusive organization, which is essential before progress on increasing diversity can be made. We're intent on ensuring that everyone feels like they belong here and are valued for their contributions. One part is what we call the MDOT House, which is a system-wide process for workforce development, involving employees in setting and achieving performance goals, being clear about our expectations for leaders, engaging in shared learning and improving how we manage succession. It’s about putting people first, since they are the ones who deliver our mission and deliver our transportation programs and services.
2. Making equity and inclusion sustainable by fusing it with core operations
Many diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives create a unit or a small workgroup, and the focus is on creating change by influencing the organization. They work to get executives' attention and buy-in, but even when they succeed, that progress can be lost when leaders change. So, we chose to reorganize to create a new deputy director role – one of only three – that would lead a significant part of the organization. The resulting equity and inclusion “core” encompasses transportation planning, organizational development, business development, economic development and equal employment opportunity. These units are involved in long-range planning, investment decisions, public involvement, DBE programs, workforce development and succession planning, among other things. They influence everything MDOT does. The professionals in these groups, which had formerly operated more independently, are excited to be collaborating within this new, cohesive unit. We believe that this kind of approach will make our inclusion and equity work more sustainable, because it is imbedded in our business model, systems and processes – threaded into our DNA.
3. Innovating in our contracting approach to spark greater opportunity
Like a lot of states, Michigan has a prequalification program for contractors, which helps to shorten the procurement cycle. But, an unintended consequence is that you can't get prequalified without demonstrating MDOT-level experience, but it’s not possible to get such experience without having the prequalification. This conundrum made it hard for small and minority-owned businesses to break into our market. Several years ago, we began to address this issue as part of a $2.5 billion mega project to rebuild part of I-94 that runs through the heart of Detroit. We worked with city officials and neighborhood representatives to re-envision the originally approved project to create a smaller footprint and to better reconnect neighborhoods divided by freeway. As an outgrowth of this, we grouped a number of related bridge projects into packages that were small enough that contractors could compete based on business and financial soundness, without MDOT prequalification. HNTB, our Owners Representative, helped us create a small business initiative that provided training to local contractors, many of which were minority-owned and who brought needed insight and value to the work. Since then, we have tried to integrate such an approach into more projects. The lessons MDOT learned are helping us frame a new statewide Mentor-Protégé program, which will give large contractors extra credit for working with and guiding small and minority-owned contractors, who will be able to attain technical and business skills as they are growing.
4. Cultivating diverse talent for MDOT and the industry
One of MDOT’s signature initiatives is the Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program, which was created eight years ago under the leadership of Paul Ajegba, now our State Transportation Director, to help overcome some of the systemic barriers in our industry by reaching out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities that had not previously been engaged in our recruitment practices. Each summer, the program brings diverse engineering students to Michigan for a 10-week summer internship to work with our teams and learn about our business and organization. The intent is that ultimately these interns will join the MDOT team once they’ve graduated. This program, which started with four interns, attracted nearly 60 interns last summer, and was expanded in cooperation with ACEC/Michigan to place interns with our consultant partners as well. We keep setting our recruitment goal higher every year, even during this pandemic. Importantly, interns aren’t the only people transformed by this program: MDOT employees gain direct experience with interns, learn from them and teach them, and more clearly see how diversity and inclusion add unique value to our organization.
5. Harnessing data to drive conversations, commitments and results
In the transportation sector, where a project management approach prevails, it’s natural to question whether you can set meaningful metrics for things like diversity and inclusion. But, the reality is that we can and must. Good intentions can only reach full potential if we set and achieve measurable outcomes. We recognize that we’re creating next-level transportation systems that must perform in an increasingly complex environment. This requires setting goals, measuring progress and accepting accountability for results, with both an internal and external focus. We need to get better data to drive decision-making around how to be inclusive, and how to deal with equity issues. Good data lets the organization have productive conversations about change from a basis of facts, rather than assumptions or emotions. Data confirms when you’re moving in the right direction, such as with our expansion from four to 60 diverse interns in just a few years. Those metrics serve as proof we can achieve aggressive goals, and they form a growing number of success stories we share inside and outside of our organization.
As another example, the COVID-19 pandemic placed an increased emphasis on our ongoing work to improve practices and tools for virtual public involvement. Our concurrent emphasis on equity and inclusion informs and shapes MDOT’s public involvement process. The virtual tools we are now employing are helping us reach a broader stakeholder community. These tools also provide better data about the communities with whom we are connecting and more importantly those who we aren’t reaching so we can craft strategies to engage all people, especially those often disadvantaged or disenfranchised.
We are proud of our progress, but realize that there is much more work to do. In particular, we must ensure that the infrastructure we create is better attuned to community needs, and to ensuring greater inclusion and equity in every aspect going forward. Like many other DOTs around the country, we’re making it a priority to restore our credibility among communities who have been adversely impacted by infrastructure projects in the past.
We've got a steep climb to rebuild the trust and level of engagement and sense of enfranchisement with these communities, but we're working on it, and that's a critical part of demonstrating our commitment. Years from now we want to look back at this time as a major opportunity to create a more equitable transportation system and organization, and know we seized that opportunity.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Terri Slaughter is Chief Culture, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the Michigan Department of Transportation, where she directly oversees the Bureau of Transportation Planning, the Office of Organizational Development, the Office of Business Development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Office and the Office of Economic Development. Ms. Slaughter joined MDOT from the Youth Development, Education and Retention Strategy Group (YDER), a group she founded and led, which helped youth development organizations and colleges and universities create scalable diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. Before that, she was chief diversity officer at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. Ms. Slaughter holds a master’s degree in student affairs administration and a bachelor’s degree in English, both from Michigan State University.
Tony Kratofil, PE, is Chief Operations Officer and Chief Engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation. As a member of the director’s executive team, he provides leadership and support for planning, designing, operating and maintaining all aspects of a comprehensive, integrated surface transportation system. Mr. Kratofil has been an advocate for encouraging inclusion and diversity in the transportation industry and MDOT’s projects and programs. In 2010, he launched the Partnership for Diversity and Opportunity in Transportation, an initiative to bring together stakeholders from across Metro Detroit to explore ways to collaborate and enhance pathways for individuals and minority-owned business to become more involved in infrastructure projects. He was recognized by the Race Relations & Diversity Task Force on their 2012 Diversity Champion Honor Roll, received the AASHTO/FHWA Civil Rights Leadership award in 2012, the Myrt R. Hagood Leadership in Construction award in 2013 from the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, and was acknowledged by the Michigan Chapter of the Council of Minority Transportation Officials with their 2017 Pioneer Award and 2018 Special Recognition Award. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in administration from Central Michigan University.