Metro

At City Hall, a push for a diverse workforce

Shaun Blugh, 30, has been appointed the City of Boston’s first-ever chief diversity officer.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Shaun Blugh, 30, has been appointed the City of Boston’s first-ever chief diversity officer.

At age 5, Shaun Blugh emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to Brooklyn. He was tapped for a program for promising students of color, giving him entree into the elite world of prep school and beyond.

At age 7, Freda Brasfield rode a bus from her Roxbury home to South Boston on the first day of citywide school desegregation. A crowd hurled taunts and rocks, but she was the daughter of activists who used sit-ins and protests to teach her how to stand up for civil rights.

Now, Blugh and Brasfield share an office at Boston City Hall decorated with her posters of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Together, they constitute the entire staff of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s new Office of Diversity. As they see it, the mission is straightforward:

Advertisement

“To make sure we can open the door for as many people as we can,” Brasfield said.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

That means pushing to diversify City Hall. For decades, the demographics of the municipal workforce have not reflected Boston, a city in which people of color and women each make up more than half the population.

To start their work, Blugh and Brasfield have been digging through 15 years of demographics from payroll data to establish a baseline. They plan to release a report in the coming weeks to show how far City Hall has come — and how much it still needs to change.

They seem like an unlikely duo, Brasfield and Blugh, whose name is pronounced “blue.” He had barely set foot in City Hall before moving to the Back Bay from New York. She is a born-and-bred Bostonian with nearly two decades of experience at Government Center.

But Brasfield and Blugh said their skills complement each other — she has institutional knowledge, and he has the fresh eyes of a newcomer.

Advertisement

“When we make recommendations, it won’t be simply just to nag,” Blugh said, “but hopefully to provide strategic outlook for how City Hall can change and better reflect the demographics of Boston.”

A glimpse at the city’s roughly 15,000 full-time employees underscores their challenge. In a city in which people of color constitute 53 percent of the population, Boston’s municipal workforce remains 61 percent white, according to records released to the Globe under the state’s open records law. Women slightly outnumber men at City Hall, but on average are paid 7 percent less than their male counterparts.

The pay disparity is larger along racial lines. White city workers are paid 10 percent more than black employees and 14 percent more than Hispanics, according to salary data, which did not include overtime and other extra pay. (When it released the records, the Walsh administration told the Globe it could not guarantee the accuracy of the racial and ethnic information because it questioned the method used by the previous administration to collect the data.)

Walsh captured the mayor’s office with the support of black and Latino voters. He fulfilled a campaign promise in December when he appointed Blugh as the city’s first chief diversity officer and made Brasfield his deputy.

Since taking office in January 2013, Walsh has highlighted his effort to diversify the police command staff. The mayor has also assembled a multicultural Cabinet in which more than half the city’s government leaders are people of color.

Advertisement

The new administration has hired nearly 1,100 people, 54 percent of whom are white. But because those new hires represent only a small fraction of the total city payroll, the composition of the workforce overall has remained the same, with whites constituting 61 percent.

The mayor’s control over hiring is limited because of civil service and other restrictions. Advocates pushing for more diversity must be patient, Blugh and Brasfield said, because it will take time to substantially alter the demographics of an organization as large as city government.

“To make a percentage change, you are talking about hundreds of jobs,” Blugh said. “It will take time to see the efforts take place, but you will see that change.”

One strategy is evident: 30 percent of the municipal workforce will hit retirement age in the next five years. The administration must begin building the pipeline now, Blugh said, to recruit and train a diverse pool of candidates.

“The biggest challenge is [to] ensure that diversity is more a reality rather than rhetoric,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “That means it has to be representative at every level in city government.”

Earlier this month, Blugh and Brasfield sat at a meeting of the South End neighborhood safety task force, introducing their new office to local activists and leaders. Blugh described their mission and took questions, which included an inquiry he has heard repeatedly since he moved here.

“Are you from Boston?” asked one man, who did not provide his name to the Globe. “I ask because I was wondering if you are aware of the issues with the Fire Department and the Police Department around the diversity issue.”

Blugh acknowledged he is not a native Bostonian, but said he was familiar with the issues in the police and fire departments, which have both faced federal decrees to diversify their ranks. In their soon-to-be-issued diversity report, Blugh and Brasfield said they plan to address the two main public safety departments, which account for nearly one-third of the city’s payroll and remain overwhelmingly white.

Hiring for both departments is dictated by civil service exams, with preference given to military veterans, which restricts the pool of potential applicants. In the last year, 51 of the 58 employees hired by the Fire Department were white, according to the data. The department is the least diverse of the city’s major departments, with 72 percent white employees.

For Brasfield, community meetings are familiar. The 47-year-old Hyde Park resident started working for the city in the mid-1990s as a construction monitor. Her job was to visit work sites and make sure they were hiring Boston residents, women, and people of color, as required by city law.

Brasfield left to work as a bookkeeper, but one Christmas season she bumped into former mayor Thomas M. Menino at Saks Fifth Avenue shopping for his wife. Menino hired Brasfield again, and she worked 11 years for the city as a neighborhood services coordinator in Mattapan and Dorchester. She is being paid $94,000 a year in her new post.

For Blugh, who is earning $102,000, the key moment came at age 11. He spent 14 months in Prep for Prep, which helps launch gifted students of color from New York into boarding schools across the Northeast. Blugh made the leap to Phillips Academy Andover and onto Georgetown University. He worked at a high-powered Manhattan law firm and tackled diversity issues at a private equity firm.

Then, one of Blugh’s high school classmates reached out with an opportunity. It was Daniel Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff. Boston was looking for the city’s first chief diversity officer. Blugh, 30, jumped at the chance. “It’s not just a numbers game,” Blugh said, adding, “I understand the amount of support I had to get to where I’m at today.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.