NORWALK, Conn. —Norwalk’s first DEI Officer has been hired and will start work Nov. 1.
LaToya Fernandez served as the director of a Restorative Justice project in Hartford for nine months before accepting the Norwalk job in October, according to her LinkedIn page. Previous work includes a 16-month contract with the City of San Jose, Calif.
“She brings with her a wealth of experience,” Mayor Harry Rilling said at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. “This is something that it did take a little bit longer than we expected, to get the DEI officer on board. But there are a variety of reasons for that.”
Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) suggested a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Officer in February, when a report developed by Bridgeport-based consulting agency Led By Us was released. Led By Us was hired in March 2021 to lead an equity initiative inspired by the murder of George Floyd but the firm was let go the following August, capping an initiative start thought to be “disappointing” by some.
Rilling first announced the equity initiative in June 2020, promising a Equity and Justice for All Commission. “I envision this as being a permanent standing committee in the city to constantly evaluate situations and equity and injustices,” he said.
Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels announced Fernandez’ hiring at the Oct. 19 Council Community Services Committee meeting.
Ayers said, “I’m having mixed emotions – I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to jump, I want to have a moment of Jubilee. … This is a time where we’re moving from effort to action as a city.”
She added, “The work that this person is going to do will be felt for generations.”
The DEI Officer is a “keystone part” of the Equity and Justice for All Initiative and now Council members can work on an ordinance to create the expected Equity and Justice for All Commission, said Chairwoman Dominique Johnson (D-At Large), adding that the work will probably begin in December.
Daniels said more than 38 applications came in for the job and the three finalists were “all amazing with different unique skill sets and experiences.” The top choices “were presented to the Mayor and then we are excited to have LaToya.”
“LaToya has a deep knowledge of community engagement, just her awareness of working with people, her love for people,” Daniels said. “She’s worked in juvenile justice as well as a track record of bringing a diverse groups of people together, especially in these most sensitive times that we’ve all have experienced over the past several years.”
Fernandez has done extensive work in San Jose, working with the Mayor’s Office “empowering youth, working with marginalized communities,” Daniels said. She will be dedicated to making Norwalk a “welcoming city for all people.”
Fernandez, on her LinkedIn page, said her new position as Chief Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officer is “That Equity work I was born to do!”
She is the CEO-Founder of YouthHype.org, her page states. Her San Jose work, in multiple capacities, took place in 2021 through May on a City-level and before that, she focused on Restorative Justice at Downtown College Prep for nearly three years. She began her career with nearly five years as an English teacher at Rocketship Public Schools.
During the Floyd protests, Fernandez “was called upon to lead re imagine public safety and policing, re imagine juvenile justice, and re imagine equitable transportation working directly with the Mayor’s office and other local officials,” LinkedIn states.
Fernandez graduated from Newbury College in Brookline, Mass., with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications, San Jose Spotlight states. “She helped create a Black Lives Matter mural downtown and brought youth into her discussion with the mayor about creating banners at City Hall.”
In 2018, she earned a certificate in the history of the Supreme Court/law and policy and in 2019, she attended the Asian Pacific Islander and people of color leadership institute, according to her LinkedIn page. In 2020, she earned a Harvard University certificate for women in educational leadership.
Her hiring is “great news for us on so many reasons,” said Council member Greg Burnett (D-At Large) on Oct. 19. “… We’re bringing focus to diversity, equity inclusion here in Norwalk. Not that we didn’t have the focus, but we have even more of a focused approach by having an individual to lead the effort as a key focus of their job responsibility.”
He asked Daniels what Fernandez might be expected to accomplish in her first 90 days on the job.
“I just want to make sure that we manage our expectations,” Daniels replied. “Having myself been a new employee to the city of Norwalk, 90 days is not a long time. It takes time to meet people.”
Outreach will be important to let Norwalkers know “that we delivered on this promise while it took some time,” Daniels said. Obviously, Fernandez will need to learn how Norwalk works and “from my opinion, want to respect this is one person, and just have to do to be very clear on what the expectations are, and what is possible with one person for a city our size.”
Ayers said everyone should work together to lighten Fernandez’ load. Daniels agreed that “the success of this work is relational” and “we can support her to build those relationships.”
On Tuesday, Ayers said, “I want to just remind everybody is that we have valleys to cross, hills to climb, and oceans to swim through. But that doesn’t mean that we are not committed to the work.”
She said, “We must understand that the position of a DEI is not a band aid. But it is a person to help us forge through and organize and address the needs of the work that needs to happen on a daily basis. We need to extend grace, we need to understand that we need to partner not critique. We need to lift up and we need to have an open mindset going forward so that the work that has to be done can be done with a collective mindset.”
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Information added, 10:30 p.m.