"Diversity in the federal government enhances problem-solving ability by introducing new and diverse ways of thinking and is tied to mission effectiveness," says Doris Sartor.
As the country is in a moment of reckoning for its systemic racism following the death of George Floyd in police custody in May and the resulting nationwide protests, Doris Sartor––president of the organization Blacks in Government––is continuing her work advocating for diversity at federal agencies and drawing attention to racial inequalities.
Sartor began her career in government 38 years ago and now works at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., as chair of the Behavioral Science Department in the Civilian Associate Degree program. She said that the government “is still the employer of choice,” despite less certainty about job security nowadays, as exemplified by the December 2018-January 2019 shutdown.
Sartor joined BIG in 1988 and is currently serving a second term as the organization's president. BIG has been advocating for equal opportunity, working to eliminate racial discrimination in government, and providing support and cultivating professional programs for Black civil servants since 1975. It has about 6,000 members from across the government and partners with many organizations that have similar missions.
“We encourage our members to engage in actions that challenge bias and unfair treatment, such as if you see or observe discrimination or someone’s rights being violated, say something, know your rights and responsibilities and share them with others, and engage with their [home] agencies to provide management/self-awareness training on bias [and fostering a] respectful workplace,” Sartor said.
Government Executive spoke with Sartor about changes in government she’s observed over the years, the importance of diversity in the workplace, recent protests for racial justice, how the federal government can better address health disparities during the novel coronavirus pandemic and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GE: Have BIG’s goals and objectives changed since its inception in 1975?
Sartor: Our goals and objectives stayed the same because they’re still as pertinent today, as you can see, as they were when we were incorporated in 1976.
GE: The federal government is the nation’s largest employer. Why is diversity in the federal workforce important?
Sartor: Diversity in the federal government enhances problem-solving ability by introducing new and diverse ways of thinking and is tied to mission effectiveness. Having an inclusive workforce by recognizing and utilizing the talents of all ensures [that] our federal agencies are adaptable and innovative.
GE: Although federal agencies have made some progress over the years, the federal workforce is still largely male and white. How can agencies alter their recruitment, hiring and retention strategies to increase diversity?
Sartor: Agencies can expand their strategic approach by ensuring recruitment and hiring efforts reach all segments of society by: recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and universities and trade schools; establishing or enhancing intern and career-broadening programs that include minority selection; and leveraging relationships with affinity organizations such as National Blacks In Government and National Coalition for Equity in Public Service… in their recruitment efforts.
A strong mentoring program can assist with retaining a diverse workforce. All employees should have the tools to compete for leadership opportunities. Retaining a diverse workforce [should] also include providing training and developmental opportunities for personal and professional development.
Developing a culture of respect, inclusion and trust is essential to retention. Federal agencies that focus on fairness and create a culture of respect can further retention initiatives.
GE: What are some of the changes you’ve observed over the course of your career regarding the climate for Blacks in government?
Sartor: I remember when I first started, which was  years ago, the government was the place for African Americans to be because this allowed them to get into the middle class.
[But then] last year, we had the partial government shutdown, and the furlough for some of the government employees...and some of them weren't paid. Then at other times, some of them had to go in if they had critical jobs and they were not paid during that time. It was a challenge because that affected middle class African Americans [and] adversely affected federal employees, but especially the African American population because this was considered the way that we could be strong [in the] middle class.
When those things happened, you saw a transition where there was a great concern in the African American community that now we did not have that standing. A lot of the African American employees were concerned about feeding their children. They were concerned about their savings, a new thing put to hand.
So the federal government still has the great benefits of our retirement system, our training system [and] our leave system, but it is not as strong as it was in the past. And I've seen it evolve throughout the 20-something years during my career as a government employee. For me personally, it is still the employer of choice [though].
GE: To the extent you are able, can you talk about any discrimination (whether it be conscious or not) your members face in their jobs working for the federal government?
Sartor: BIG has an active [Affirmative Employment/ Equal Employment Opportunity] program, and our members have stated they are being discriminated against based on race in reference to not being promoted, and not being selected for training and developmental opportunities.
GE: In the wake of the recent nationwide protests, what are you encouraging your members to do to address race in the workplace?
Sartor: We encourage our members to engage in actions that challenge bias and unfair treatment, such as if you see or observe discrimination or someone’s rights being violated, say something, know your rights and responsibilities and share them with others, and engage with their [home] agencies to provide management/self-awareness training on bias [and fostering a] respectful workplace.
We also encourage our members to become educated on workplace issues by attending training webinars offered by BIG, such as presentations on the different avenues to address workplace disputes, and updates on real-life cases and lessons learned. Our members are also asked to take advantage of the current [Affirmative Employment/ Equal Employment Opportunity] program activities BIG offers, such as our Agency Compliance and Review initiative and Racism and Disparate Treatment Forum.
GE: Has the Trump administration done enough to address the fact that Black people and other communities of color are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus?
Sartor: Blacks In Government went on record with more than 16 other Black policy-making organizations requesting that the national leadership do the following:
- [Put] coronavirus testing sites in all communities where Black and disadvantaged people are concentrated;
- Provide special attention and personal protection equipment to these communities immediately, especially nursing homes, law enforcement agencies, emergency response units and jails;
- Legislate national health care opportunities for all Americans;
- Expand Medicaid in all 50 states, especially [in] Alabama; and,
- Start up psychological counseling facilities to be prepared for the long-term future fallout that is certain to occur as a result of the pandemic.
These things must be done now—even if it requires local and federal national guard units—to slow the amount of suffering and deaths that are occurring in America, especially in Black communities across this nation.
GE: Following the pandemic and the protests that highlighted the systemic racism in the United States, what would you like to see the federal government do?
Sartor: Systemic racism is reflected in disparities in many forms: employment, health care, education, police brutality, criminal justice, employment and many other factors. We need legislative action and we need to make sure we vote to put people in office who are responsive to our issues [and] those that will speak up against systemic racism in all of its forms.
I would like the federal government to:
- Create national standards on police use of force such as prohibiting use of chokeholds … [and] examine police accountability and community relations among law enforcement.
- Increase funding in all areas that marginalize African Americans (such as health care, education, unemployment, criminal justice, etc.).
- Pass legislation to reform the discrimination complaints process in the federal sector to increase accountability.
- Eliminate voter suppression [and] provide federal funding to ensure voting rights protection.
GE: Have you had any mentors throughout your career?
Sartor: I’ve had some exceptional mentors. I would probably say that my current supervisor’s supervisor [Barry Waite] was one of my mentors. I have worked with him for over 20 years and he stood up an Air Force associate degree program at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama. It's a two-year associate degree program that allows civilians to get a two-year degree at no cost to them. He has allowed me to have career growth opportunities [and] is what I call an exceptional manager and supervisor because he's the type of manager to understand diversity and also understands making sure that you are prepared for the position...He has also supported my position as president of National Blacks in Government and seeks my recommendations and suggestions in reference to diversity and inclusion in the Air Force.
Another one is Johnny Ford. He is the founder of the World Conference of Mayors…and he was also the prior mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama. He is still going strong in the Civil Rights arena. He was also one of the founders of the National Policy Alliance.
He has taken the lead in moving the collaboration of 60 policy-making organizations [with which BIG partners] to always address the critical issues in the African American community [such as the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, systematic racism and reforming the criminal justice system].
GE: What advice would you give to young Blacks just starting their careers in government?
Sartor: I would first tell them to become a part of Blacks in Government. We have several new programs. We have “future leaders of America's government” programs for undergraduate college students. And we work with them to mentor them and guide them into the government. I would also advise them to find a mentor.
And I would also make sure that they stay informed [and] that they read. And that they research the agency or the organization that they want to be a part of to make sure it has the culture that they're interested in being a part of; a culture of inclusion, a culture of diversity.
[They can] benefit from all the things that we can assist them with and bring back to us [the challenges.]