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How An Inclusive Work Environment Attracts and Retains Tech Workers

An inclusive IT staff helps Detroit close workforce gaps and bridge the digital divide.

A tech staff that represents various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds can help agencies develop solutions that target equity goals such as closing the digital divide, according to Christine Burkette, the newly appointed digital equity director of Detroit, Michigan. 

Appointed to the post March 13, Burkette is charged with closing the digital divide “from the inside out,” city officials said. As part of the Department of Information Technology, she will create and implement a community-led digital equity strategy, using a data driven approach. 

Burkette has the background to deliver. She previously worked as the chief information officer at the Detroit Public Schools Community District and founded the Promising Integration Consulting Firm, the only women- and Black-owned IT consulting firm in Michigan. In her new role, Burkette aims to leverage the diversity of her tech and data teams to ensure the needs of all community members are addressed. 

Technology and data solutions suggested by nonminority individuals may solve issues relevant to their own communities, but the needs of minority populations are different, she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the American Association of Retired Persons gave tablets to Michigan residents who qualified for Medicaid in effort to improve connectivity. The devices were programmed for English, however, which quickly proved to be a challenge for non-English speakers in the community, Burkette said. 

A staff that is representative of the community’s population can identify potential pain points for marginalized populations that others may not be aware of. “When [my team] starts … designing something, we look at it through the lens of probably 10 different ethnic groups and about five to six different age groups,” she said. 

To encourage staff to share their different perspectives, Burkette said she maps ideas out on her office walls and maintains an open-door policy so that other team members can add sticky notes with their ideas on them. “It takes all of us to write this plan,” she said. 

To get new employees through the door and keep them there, agencies should focus on sharpening staff’s communication and tech skills, Burkette said. Agencies that foster diversity, equity and inclusion may be more appealing to potential tech hires who can bring ideas to the table, she added. 

Fostering a culture that builds employee confidence is another way agencies can appeal to workers. “I believe in giving everybody an opportunity to pitch their idea, but guess what? Once you pitch it, you have to give me the plan that goes with it,” Burkette said. 

Creating a diverse workforce can start with community outreach initiatives that help residents to build their technical skills. For example, Burkette will also collaborate with Detroit’s Connect 313 Fund program, which provides tech hubs across the city and offers residents IT training, devices and internet access. Burkette aims to establish more locations to supplement Detroit’s effort to mitigate the digital divide.

“When you go out into the community, you will be shocked and surprised [by] who’s interested in entering the IT workforce,” Burkette said.

This article was changed April 3 to clarify the function of the Connect 313 tech hubs.