Rowlett Municipal Building (© 2018 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Battle erupts in Rowlett over renaming city’s DEI Commission

CAROLINE SAVOIE | Contributing Writer

Rowlett City Council Members are trying to rename the Rowlett Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, with one member calling the name toxic and divisive. But at least one Rowlett resident believes the renaming is just the first step to destroy the commission.

Kellie McKee said she thinks the council also intends to defund any DEI events and eventually dismantle the commission altogether. McKee said while the council is trying to maintain the guise of this being a routine update of the Rowlett Boards and Commissions handbook, the “timing comes conspicuously close to the last election where they gained the last vote they needed to begin imposing their far right wing agenda with backing of groups like Christians Engaged and Restoration America.”

On Feb. 19, at a Rowlett City Council work session, a council subcommittee proposed standardization of boards and commissions. The council did a complete review of the boards and commissions handbook, reviewed the handbooks from Garland and Mesquite, discussed recommended changes and proposed new rules and processes. The council said it will incorporate feedback and present a revised handbook to be adopted at another council meeting.

The council subcommittee proposed changing the legal name from “Diversity Commission” to other names that do not include the word “equity,” and one council member, Jonathan Reaves, said the connotation of the board’s name is a “trigger word.” He said it carries a partisan connotation, even though “diversity is a strength.”

Mayor Pro Tem Debra Shinder said the council is not trying to diminish any board, but is instead trying to help the boards get more support in the community.
Shinder said, based on comments from community members, people are turned off by the name.

“There are some people in the community who would like to abolish this board completely, and I don’t want that,” she said. “I want to eliminate the divisiveness, which is what companies and cities are doing now all over the country. If you do a web search, you find out that corporations are changing this to something that is more inclusive of more members of the community.”

She said Garland, McKinney, Rockwall and Mesquite don’t have a DEI commission; they have multicultural boards and community engagement boards perform similar functions, but “don’t have that trigger word that divides the community.”

Elise Bowers, a subcommittee member who reviewed the handbook, said she has always supported their mission to foster good relationships in the community, and she supports their mission statement. She suggested changing the legal name to “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Board.”

“Any time that you listen to other people and keep an open mind, you are going to be better informed,” she said. “I’ve personally benefited from the board. I’ve learned new things.”

Another council member, Michael Schupp of Place 5, said DEI “branding” is toxic and divisive, doing the opposite of what the board should do. He suggested “Diversity Advisory Board” as the new name.

Local Rowlett GOP leadership released a statement titled “To unite our city, DEI must DIE”

“​DEI has been turning into just another liberal smoke and mirrors campaign where advocates claim the objective is for advancing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In practice a more accurate meaning of DEI could be Division, Evil, and Insanity,” Steve McDaniel, chairman of precinct 3967, said. “Our city has no business using our tax dollars to take sides on moral and other social issues.”

Susan Urrutia, chair of RDEIC, said the recommendations by the city council would hurt the commission’s ability to serve Rowlett.

Diana Moore, who also serves on the commission, explained that it was first named the Diversity Commission, but “We decided to add the word ‘inclusion’ to the name in our first meeting,” she said. “In June of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic that exposed major health inequities, and in the wake of the murder of

George Floyd that put a spotlight on ongoing racial inequities, the mayor at the time proposed that we consider adding equity to the name.”

“We believe that the additions of equity and inclusion are important and vital to the role we have in serving our diverse community and making Rowlett the place to live, work and play,” Moore said.

Jacqueline Vitosh, vice-chair of RDEIC, said she’s watched the events grow and provide enjoyment to Rowlett residents. “It does take me some time for me to understand where the disconnect is, because diversity is always important because it fosters innovation, creativity and a broader range of perspectives,” she said. “We need to meet together with an open mind. We don’t always have to agree, but we do have to respect each other in order for us to understand our differences.”

Inclusion, she said, is about wanting everyone to feel valued, respected and empowered, while equity focuses on “providing resources and opportunities to ensure that everyone has the support they need to thrive and succeed.”

“Diversity is being asked to the dance,” Vitosh said. “Inclusion is being asked to dance, and equity is being sure that everyone has enough space on the floor to dance,” she said.

Council will be discussing the proposed changes during the work session on April 1 at 6 p.m., and they will vote on those changes on April 2 at 7p.m., at Rowlett City Hall.

McKee said a number of local supporters of DEI will be there to voice their opinions.