24 Mar Women’s History Month Spotlight on Wilhelmina Parker-Bentum, City of Berkeley Training Officer
“Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business” is the National Women’s History Month 2017 Theme and there is no one more fitting to spotlight than Wilhelmina Parker-Bentum, Training Officer, City of Berkeley.
Over the past year, Parker-Bentum, amongst other initiatives, envisioned the development and implementation of a Diversity & Inclusion training initiative to train every employee from the City of Berkeley, from leadership to front-line workers out in communities. So far 900 employees have gone through the program with the final 450 expected to be completed by April 2017.
The training program, “Leveraging Differences as a Competitive Advantage,” continues in force. It is gradually shifting perceptions, opening avenues for enhanced communication and building a business case for diversity and inclusion.
The City of Berkeley’s Diversity & Inclusion Training Program
As Training Officer of the city of Berkeley, Parker-Bentum undertook the task to develop and launch this training program as part of an ongoing city wide push to enhance diversity and inclusion as organizational core values. The complexity of Berkeley called for a unique approach….one which Parker-Bentum reveled in.
“I’ve always been more of a “glass half full” person,” says Parker-Bentum, when looking at the challenges the City of Berkeley was facing when the training program began.
“Some would say it was a tough time…a hot spot and difficult environment because of so much public attention. We had a good amount of staff and community involvement, including strong messages from the Berkeley NAACP, to tap into the opportunity to reiterate the importance of diversity and inclusion as city wide values,” said Parker-Bentum. “To me that was change synergy at its best; an awesome, “spicy” opportunity to put our resources to building an environment embracing of Diversity & Inclusion via skillful training.”
“Not just training though…you can throw training at a wall to see what sticks; you can listen to the naysayers and spiral into analysis paralysis; or you can try to effect change by leveraging the strengths of what you do have” said Parker-Bentum. “What we had and still have is a community that is vocal, which means passionate. The unions were engaged and we had a City leadership that cared. All three wanted to see something change. We had a critical nexus.
“The contextual approach to developing this training was that we decided to frame it using an engaging collaborative grass roots model…framed and positioned towards access and inclusion. We devised a business model that replicated the spirit of Berkeley: inclusive, intelligent and innovative.
“That required role modeling, transparency and hard work,” said Parker-Bentum. And it meant putting money and resources “where our mouth is. We wanted the voice of the community to select the best possible consultant. We had to mean it that unions would have a voice in selecting the Diversity & Inclusion (D & I) consultant, that staff would have a part in speaking to the curricula and vetting content” said Parker-Bentum.
League of California Cities “Award for the Advancement of Diverse Communities”
“People come up to me and talk about what an impressive job I have done in building, launching and rolling out this training initiative. I redirect them to our City Manager Dee–that is where one would need to go to look for that elusive leadership model…someone who walks the walk, talks the talk and clears the path for others to walk alongside,” said Parker-Bentum. “She is the real deal.”
In February, Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley was honored by the League of California Cities for a variety of groundbreaking Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, including the Citywide Diversity & Inclusion Training program.
“She insisted that all organizational leadership attend the training program, empowering and modeling full inclusion from a variety of levels while also advocating and promoting the importance of Race & Equity best practices. She went to considerable lengths to endorse and reiterate the importance of shoulder to shoulder inclusion.
Selecting the Right Consultant: Executive Diversity Services, Inc.
“We had a critical nexus: the right leadership, the right environment, the right timing and ultimately the right consultant…and that’s what we found in Executive Diversity Services.
“What we wanted in a consulting entity was one that was savvy, bold and courageous enough to work with us. What we found in EDS was so much more. What I discovered about EDS and Elmer is that this is not just a business, it is a passion and a way of life,” said Parker-Bentum.
“I don’t think this kind of sustainable work is possible unless it is fueled and catalyzed by an intrinsic force that believes in diversity and inclusion as right and true; especially not in Berkeley. Elmer at EDS is an amazing person. He’s in it for the ability to effect change. He truly believes in and models these values.
“We wanted the training to be offered to every single staff person,” said Parker-Bentum. “It is easy enough to say that in offices and conference rooms during a 9 to 5 workday. But what about the workers on the sanitation truck who start driving their trucks on their routes at 4 am and their day ends in the yard at 8 am?” That’s where Executive Diversity Services and President Elmer Dixon proved to be a true partner.
“We have to take the training to them,” said Dixon. “Yes, you have to be there a 5 am. We’ll train two shifts. We’ll go where they dump the garbage.” Whatever was needed to see the program succeed, Dixon was ready to roll up his sleeves and dive in.
“As we move forward to completion of Phase 1, the thanks and applause must be shared with the pioneers who pushed to move the needle forward…Our Team, including our City Manager and her leadership team, our union leadership, our community and community leaders and EDS, Inc. I’m just glad I could lead the effort.”
About Wilhelmina Parker-Bentum
From looking at Wilhelmina Parker-Bentum, you might not imagine that she sometimes needs to remind herself to check her “privilege.” An immigrant (now US Citizen) from Accra, Ghana, West Africa, Parker-Bentum hailed from a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian Father…a father who was born into royalty. “I was accustomed to a level of respect and privilege because of my birth, our wealth and status, that I took for granted. In coming to the US, all of a sudden those structures were pulled away,” said Parker-Bentum.
“Now I’m a proud black woman in America.” To Parker-Bentum that meant two things—“loving the skin I am in, but also in terms of attributions applied to me by my new culture.” She recalled shopping for her kids in a Halloween superstore in another community, and being followed around. “At first I didn’t get it,” she said, and then thought “oh that’s right, I’m black.”
Parker-Bentum finds her personal identity aligns perfectly with her work. “Because of my upbringing I have the ability to have empathy for things given on the basis of privilege…understanding things that may be unfair but that are not deliberate,” she says.
“Coming from outside the US, I did not understand the intricacies of oppression. I had to learn and embrace what it might be like from the African-American experience; the wisdom and discernment that it takes to rise up and be strong.”
Parker-Bentum joined the City of Berkeley in May 2015. Her career in the US, however, started much earlier on a different trajectory, working in a variety of leadership roles including in a Fortune 500 organization as an Internal Organizational Development consultant. Her “a ha” moment came at a nexus in her career, a moment when she knew she had to stand up for something she believed in ethically as a woman of color–with negative consequences.
That’s when it “clicked” for her. “For me, I always had an out. I could just go back to Ghana and be well-received and successful.” That fueled her willingness to stand behind causes in which she believed. That also led her to value even more the power of people who don’t always have other options, driving her respect and admiration for the bravery and leadership of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders in the US.
“This process has been a journey,” said Parker-Bentum. “Every day is a day to move forward. Sometimes we may take a step back, but we don’t plan to stagnate. It’s not easy work, but the rewards are infinite”