Chief Equity Officer Martha Duffield '08MBA Finds Meaning in Public Service
What led you to your MBA at Simmons?
I was working in civil engineering, a male-dominated field, and I knew it wasn't a fit for me. I wanted to explore other options, and being around a bunch of powerful women was really enticing.
Tell us about your current role as Chief Equity Officer for Lexington, MA.
I split my role into two buckets: internal and external. Internally I work with our senior leadership on shared and department specific goals around equity. Shared initiatives include normalizing the language used around DEI, reviewing and updating existing systems and practices and building transparency in our actions and reporting. An example of this would be with our recruiting and hiring. For this work, I actively partner with Human Resources to ensure we are posting jobs in diverse locations, rewriting job descriptions to be more inviting and less restrictive and reviewing hiring processes to reduce bias.
I also work directly with departments on specific initiatives such as building community with the police, understanding how our dollars are being spent with procurement, and ensuring we are supporting small and women-owned or minority-owned businesses with our economic development office, just to name a few.
Externally, I work directly with our residents in Lexington. I am the staff liaison for the Lexington Human Rights Committee and the Commission on Disability, and I chair the Strategic Equity Advisory Team (SEAT), an external advisory body that consists of members of over 15 of our community and cultural organizations. In addition to working with my community, I support and participate in the larger network of DEI officers in municipalities in Massachusetts (through the MA DEI Coalition) and the Equity Officers Institute (hosted by the ICMA).
What led you to this role?
As a transracial adoptee in the field of civil engineering, I was always well aware of how race and gender impacted my perceived value in the workplace. As a result, I participated in diversity and inclusion initiatives whenever possible. That said, I was not always as courageous as I needed to be and became more vocal as I grew in my career and confidence. There is a growth that occurs as one moves from trying to assimilate your differences to embracing them, and then speaking out against the external forces trying to silence them.
After the murder of George Floyd, my children were old enough where I was able to dedicate significant time and energy to become a community leader in this work. I became the President of Burlington Against Racism (BAR) and the co-Chair of the Burlington Equity Coalition (BEC). BAR was instrumental to the process of hiring Burlington's first Director of DEI in the public schools, while BEC focuses on civic engagement and hosting/ supporting/ elevating local cultural events.
At the same time, businesses, non-profits and government entities were increasing investment into DEI roles to address systemic racism. Combining my municipal experience with community activism, I was selected as the Town of Lexington's inaugural Chief Equity Officer.
What do you find most rewarding about this work?
In this position, I feel like I'm contributing in a meaningful way to the community as a public official. These positions keep our towns and cities running and many people don't even know these opportunities exist. One of our goals in Lexington is to promote our job opportunities to more people, not just for our own community but for the public service profession as a whole.
Another rewarding part of this work is connecting with the residents and solving problems. My Strategic Equity Advisory Team has been an opportunity for me to build relationships with our community and cultural organizations who add to the vibrancy of our community and can face unique challenges. A current initiative we are in the middle of is "Coffee with the Chief," an opportunity for various members of our community to get one-on-one or group time with our Police Chief to share their ideas, concerns, and stories. Many of our constituents are first generation immigrants, and these conversations have allowed people to share their experiences directly with the police department, as well as cultural expectations and ideas around policing. Fostering these relationships has been instrumental to continue our shared understanding and expectations of what 21st century policing looks like as the demographics and expectations of our community continues to evolve.
One problem I am currently working on is how to encourage underrepresented voices in government without increasing the burden on those same people.It's great that our 90+ boards and committees want to have input and perspectives from our many cultural and affinity organizations, and it's a lot to expect from these individuals and organizations. Currently, I am trying to streamline the process, with my advisory team as a hub; everyone can share their requests and concerns with the team, who reach out to different groups and organizations and gather feedback.
How did your studies at Simmons prepare you to be a leader in your field?
My professors taught us about change management and leadership which includes understanding how to influence people and building consensus in order to move in the same direction. The process of obtaining my MBA really pushed me to do things I didn't feel were my strengths. In-class participation, writing and presentation were about 90% of the work. I'm not a natural at public speaking, so the experience helped me build more confidence by practicing these skills. One time, a CEO of a company came to watch our presentations, and I was so nervous that I skipped a whole slide! Earning a Simmons MBA also required a lot of writing, which was unfortunate for me, since I wasn't confident in my writing skills (that was part of the attraction to engineering!) However, in 2020 I utilized my improved writing confidence and skills to publish an article in the Washington Post. It's really cool to do things that you didn't think you could have ever done.
Any advice for Simmons students?
Keep in touch with your classmates if you can! I still keep in touch with many of the women I met during the pursuit of my degree. It was/is such an impressive group of intelligent, thoughtful, and kind humans and I have such fond memories of that time in my life. It was refreshing to reframe and break the stereotype that women leaders are cutthroat and tear each other down. It's simply not true. While we definitely all wanted to get A's, we weren't competitive against each other, we supported one another and lifted each other up.
Also, when thinking about making a difference, people aren't aware of the impact you can have in local government. It's not glamorous and it doesn't pay particularly well, but you can work towards a pension, and your work can have a big local impact. This is an exciting time to be in public service. Change was forced upon us with the pandemic, and as a result we have had to be more agile than in the past. This has opened the door to ideas, projects, and investments in change that hadn't been prioritized before. Public service needs value-based empathetic leaders to ensure we are meeting the needs of our current and evolving communities. Please consider local government for your next career!