All people must be treated with dignity and respect, commented consultant Alexandra Robinson as she commenced the panel discussion last month at STN EXPO Reno.
How do you drive an inclusive culture, she continued, asking the all-female panelists for their perspectives. Several common themes were ensuring that all employees are recognized and listened to, with everyone’s opinion considered. When creating transportation teams, having a good representation of the people you are serving is also essential.
Rosalyn Vann-Jackson, the chief support services officer for Broken Arrow Public Schools in Oklahoma, said her operation takes the theme a step further. She noted that being transparent is important and to avoid making assumptions about people’s needs. She advised attendees to focus on similarities between staff members while also appreciating the differences. She said industry professionals need to get rid of their presumptions of what inclusion means.
Sandy Dillman, the director of transportation at Tomball Independent School District in Texas, said leaders must make sure everyone on the team understands every aspect of their job function. This ensures that they do not feel excluded due to not fully understanding their role, she explained.
“I’ve had drivers or attendants that don’t understand how kids feel, and that they don’t believe what the child believes,” she relayed. “But it’s their job to make sure the child feels comfortable to be there and feels safe.”
Meanwhile, Teresa Fleming, the interim deputy chief operating officer for transportation at the School District of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, explained that one of her continuous goals is creating a more inclusive team.
Robinson noted that many people think equity is synonymous with equality, but they are two different words with two different meanings, she explained. Equity is providing the best possible resources to others. She noted that equity must be proven, especially when transporting students with disabilities. Equality, meanwhile, means everyone is on the same plane in terms of status, rights and opportunities.
Fleming added that one way her district focuses on equity is through the adoption of electric vehicles. The district recently added five electric school buses to its operations. Philadelphia also operates propane-powered school buses.
Dillman added that every student is eligible for transportation at Tomball ISD. Plus, she said that her department is understanding when parents express concern about students boarding a bus with all-male staff (driver and attendant) or vice versa. She said her operation makes it a priority, especially with special needs routes that have an assigned attendant, to staff a male and a female employee on the bus.
Dillman noted that another key step is communicating to the parents and the community that the driver is qualified, trained properly, and background checked.
Meanwhile, Vann-Jackson added that Broken Arrow Public School makes it a point to physically go to neighborhoods that have no ability to access transportation services and those without internet connection or phone lines.
Robinson added that many times equity comes with seniority in transportation operations. For instance, drivers who have been there the longest can pick their routes. However, she cautioned that sometimes the students on the route need a different driver, for example, one who is fluent in American sign language. She advised offering training to drivers so their skills can meet the demands or requirements of the route before bidding. She reminded attendees that it also provides equity to the students.
Vann-Jackson explained that inclusion is the how, equity is the who and diversity is the what. When providing service to students no matter their religion, ethnicity, gender, or disabilities, transportation operations should also have a diversity of opinions.
Robinson posed the following question: “What do you come to the table with?” She explained that everyone has their own biases based on their upbringing and culture. For example, are you a loud talker or someone who uses bad language? A lot of what people bring to the table is reflective of their upbringing including their experiences in the education system, she explained.
“If you have people that say, ‘I have to deal with …,’ that’s probably an issue,” she said, adding that personal vocabulary can also be offensive.
Keep in mind the diversity that you bring, Robinson continued, adding that people do not know what they don’t know. She noted that based on her name and appearance, one could make assumptions about her. But she reminded the audience that the people you are working with are still people, and it’s important to peel back their layers.
Fleming said one of her strategies is hiring people that resemble the students being transported, whether male or female or those with similar cultural backgrounds.
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Each woman on the panel recalled a moment in their career when their personal diversity was questioned. For instance, Robinson said, that being one of the only women in charge in her career, she was surrounded by middle-aged males. She noted that every time she asked a question to those in higher positions than her, the person would turn to the man nearest her on her team and answer it. Never looking Robinson in the eyes.
Jackson recalled a male who would ask women a different question during job interviews than he would ask males for the same position. She recalled he would ask the women if they were of childbearing age, which elicited gasps from the audience.
Fleming noted that she started in the industry seven years ago, and the first conference she attended was the National Association of Pupil Transportation. Being Muslim, she was the only attendee wearing a hijab, which made her feel uncomfortable and shy. She said she sat in the back of the room and rarely spoke. However, she noted that it was her self-worth that she had to find and celebrate that helped her overcome her feelings.
Robinson noted that when coming into a new organization, many people arrive with preset tolerance levels. She also added that based on the company one keeps, they will be judged. “As an employee, I was being judged based on who I was surrounding myself with,” she recalled.
Despite having trauma in our own lives, we need to stay away from those situations that are not inclusive in nature, despite our own opinions, Vann-Jackson said.
Dillman added that most of the time, doing the right thing can seem to be the hardest thing in the world to do. Fleming added that all leaders should do the right thing. If someone hears an employee talking about something that is not inclusive to everyone, they need to say something and/or report it.
“Everyone needs to feel good in the morning when they come to work,” Fleming added, noting the importance of having a welcoming environment for employees. She added that organizations should have equity statements.
And even though that statement might be written down, Vann-Jackson encouraged the audience to address it and review it.
“We want a good culture, we want everyone to feel welcome,” she concluded.