Chao Mwatela’s passion for equity began several years ago when teaching K-12. She saw firsthand the disparities between white students and students of color. An educator told her that was just the way it was. But Mwatela knew otherwise.
“I grew up in Kenya, in a place where things were not determined by one’s color of skin,” says Mwatela, who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 19 years old. “I knew that whatever I saw in the classroom was just evidence of everything else happening outside of the classroom, such as access to food and health care.”
Mwatela previously served as the multicultural academic advisor at Rochester Community and Technical College and won the Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Award in 2019 for her extensive work in implementing diversity and inclusion programming and initiatives to build an equitable environment for all students.
Mwatela realized that focusing on the campus experience was not enough, as some students came to school hungry and others were homeless or taking care of aging parents. She realized that the broad spectrum of issues impacting equity, inclusion and diversity required a holistic approach.
So when the diversity, equity and inclusion director role opened up with the City of Rochester, she applied and was hired.
“It is exciting that the city really saw the need to have someone in that role,” Mwatela says. “Rochester is a unique community with a large number of visitors who come to our community for healing, not just physical healing but also social and mental healing. Everyone needs to feel welcome and included.”
The City of Rochester has 14.1% foreign-born residents. There are 18.7% residents for whom English is not their first language, 26.8% Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and 12.4% people who have a disability.
“Thinking about socioeconomic diversity, if you look at Rochester, the poverty rate is 7.4%, which compared to 13.4% for the rest of the country does not seem as big of a number,” Mwatela says. “However, by looking at race and ethnicity, 40% of Black community residents are living in poverty. That’s a huge disparity. That is also true for homeownership disparity, for educational disparity. That is not just Rochester, but the state of Minnesota. We have one of the greatest disparities in the country.”
Mwatela believes there is a need to change the system approach, to look into policies and practices that have caused these disparities. “When I joined the city in 2021, I first needed to understand and learn,” says Mwatela. “I audited the equity and inclusion work done in the past, the programs and policies in place, the beliefs that my teammates (City of Rochester employees) held and felt and the services they provide.”
Based on her findings, Mwatela made recommendations to the city council to focus on three goals this coming year: diversifying city employees, building a diversity professional development plan for city employees, and building relationships with communities.
Each department has created their own action plan as well. “For instance, the engagement of a librarian might look very different from that of a firefighter,” says Mwatela.
Mwatela can already see the changes departments made, from using inclusive language in their application forms to placing job postings in more diversified areas. “Creating with people and solving with people is key,” she says. “It will change the way we deliver our services to our communities equitably. I am optimistic about the work that the City of Rochester is doing because we are all doing it.” In her first year as director, she helped the City of Rochester win a $1 million Bloomberg award for women of color in construction.
One of the best pieces of advice Mwatela received and shares with people is: “Listen to something. Take a stand and feel passionately about it. Then go learn all about it from the opposite view, from a totally different perspective. This can be hard, but by listening and learning, we can have a real connection.”
For more information on the City of Rochester’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, visit rochestermn.gov/about/diversity-equity-inclusion and click on “Continuing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Work in the menu on the left.