Diversity, equity, inclusivity and accessibility are the top priorities for Sheba Person, the Seattle Regional Office Director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), a position that covers a large portion of Western United States, including California.
“I think it’s really important to look at historic disparities, look at the ways public policies may have unintentionally or intentionally played a role in that and try to rectify that,” said Person. “A big part in that is through DEIA, really about accessibility of our programs.”
She joined CA FWD CEO Micah Weinberg on the latest episode of Fwd Thinkers to discuss the importance of investing federal economic development resources with DEIA in mind. Person is no stranger to CA FWD as she served on the California Stewardship Network while she was executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Person and Weinberg discussed the democratization of economic development. “We will be better off if we bring more people to the table, if we really have a true understanding of who we are trying to support, what is it they need.” She added that economic development should be a bottom-up approach and those participating should be heard and know that something will be done for their communities.
“I know what it’s like to be marginalized. I know what it’s like to be invisible. I know what it’s like to be a member of a community that has been marginalized, particularly as an African American from a rural community in North Carolina,” said Person as she discussed how her lived experience informs her work today. “I also looked around as I was growing up and saw who was making those decisions and those people didn’t look like me. As I said before, representation matters, so for me, I incorporate those different things into my approach. That’s why DEIA is so important to me.”
But to Person, making a DEIA statement is not enough, real action must be taken. “I feel like at EDA, it’s not performative. We saw throughout the ARPA funding — funding that was specific to address those disparities,” said Person. She noted that it included specific funding for traditionally marginalized communities, especially those communities that were hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of her other priorities is working toward demystifying government, which is sometimes a barrier for populations that most need assistance. It is often thought of as too bureaucratic and hard to navigate. She explained, “For me, it’s really important to demystify that, open that black box and meet people where they are, particularly when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion and make sure that we do things in a culturally sensitive way, so people know it’s available and we are attentive to that.”
As a leader, Person takes the same approach on diversity and inclusion through mentoring and ensuring her staff has opportunities to advance. “In government it can be very hierarchical in nature,” she said. “So how do you know that everyone on your team knows they are a valuable part of the team and they have opportunities for career progression and when they look at leadership, the see themselves reflected in that leadership?”