Mayor wants city leadership to reflect growing diversity

Published: Jan. 31, 2022 at 7:35 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - As Sioux Falls’ population grows rapidly, so does the number of minorities and immigrants moving here.

According to the 2020 census, the black, Asian, and Hispanic population of Sioux Falls has nearly doubled in the last decade, and Mayor Paul TenHaken told Dakota News Now recently that he wants the city’s leadership to reflect that.

“Roughly 40 percent of the kids in the Sioux Falls School District are of diverse backgrounds,” TenHaken said after speaking at a ceremony on Jan. 17, when he declared that day Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in the City of Sioux Falls.

“As of about 20 years ago, it was about half that much. So, we see this diversity coming up through the school system. Now, we’re seeing it on the workforce in Sioux Falls as a whole. So, that’s why our practices and celebrating events like this are important as we become a more diverse city.”

And TenHaken wants minority groups to have more voices in management.

“Representation matters,” TenHaken said. “So, as this community gets more diverse in a variety of different ways, people need to see leadership positions filled by people of all different backgrounds so they can aspire to the same thing.”

Five of the 12 people on his city executive team are either minority or female. TenHaken has directly hired four of those five individuals during his four years in office.

One of them is Dr. Charles Chima, appointed in April as public health director, one of the city’s most visible roles.

Chima has a master’s degree of epidemiology from the University of London and public health degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. He has developed and managed population health programs in Mississippi and led large-scale initiatives for chronic disease prevention and control in Texas and Mississippi.

A major part of Chima’s job is communicating to the masses via city press conferences and on public service announcements. But Chima says his background as a physician in Nigeria - when he went door-to-door and house-to-house with a backpack full of vaccines for polio and other diseases - has factored as he tries to help stop the spread of covid in Sioux Falls on a more personal, one-on-one level with citizens.

“We have volunteers who are in some neighborhoods as we speak, actually knocking on doors, looking for people who are willing to have a conversation about vaccines and just generally doing covid messaging,” Chima said.

“So, there are lessons we can learn about other cultures on how we can apply it locally in terms of bridging this barrier and public messaging about the pandemic.”

But while this unique-to-Sioux Falls background does help his work, Chima emphasizes, “we know we’re doing diversity and inclusion right when it’s not a topic of conversation (and) when we can focus on the job, and about people’s skills and training and ability to get a job done, and not about what they look like or their skin color or background.”

As one of the many thousands of recent minorities who have moved to Sioux Falls in the last several years, Chima has found the people of the city - which is still 80 percent white - “very hospitable. My family and I have really enjoyed my time here.

“Personally, I think the community is growing increasingly diverse. With the multicultural center and other institutions in the community, I think there are resources to recognize we are growing in diversity and continuing to move in the direction of being welcoming to people from different backgrounds.”

Another part of TenHaken’s push to make diversity represented is his Mayor’s Youth Council, which is made of 13 high school juniors and seniors from different schools, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and different races. The mayor said the group helps guide the city in the different policies its leaders make.

Public and private schools are represented on the council, as well as home-schooled students. Meetings are held monthly, in addition to other activities and a “community project,” according to the city’s website.

“I try to preach a lot in the community that we are 99 percent alike and we’re 1 percent unalike,” TenHaken said. “If we continue to focus on all these ways that we’re alike as a community, all these things we want to do together as a community, ways we can work together, that’s really the message that Dr. King pushed.

“That’s the message I think we have to push at the local level: Continue to find equality and equity in the different services we’re delivering, the different programs we’re delivering, and how people can feel welcomed and appreciated here in Sioux Falls.”

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