Huron-Clinton Metroparks gets serious about diversity in hiring

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As the Huron-Clinton Metroparks looks  to be recognized as one of the premier parks systems in the State of Michigan and the nation, its leadership has determined that taking steps toward hiring a more diverse workforce is a necessary step to get there.

In a recent media release that HCMA states that it “understands that [its] internal landscape currently lacks diversity,” and that it is “looking to cast a wider net and draw a diverse pool of highly qualified applicants for full-time positions that are currently open.” Open positions within HCMA currently include police sergeants, officers, maintenance workers, and interpretive specialists.

This stance appears to be a departure from practices in the years prior to the hire of Amy McMillan, director of Huron-Clinton Metroparks since April 2018. Before McMillan’s tenure, Huron-Clinton Metroparks was the center of news coverage and legal complaints spotlighting the troublesome administration of former parks police chief turned parks director George Phifer, who is still the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former parks employee. That suit also alleged a hostile response to the complainant from interim management after Phifer resigned his post.

Artina Sadler, the first-ever Chief of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion for Huron-Clinton Metroparks who started in March 2019, told Planet Detroit that racial unrest across the nation in 2020 has made the issue more urgent.

“We were trying to do this work before all of the events of 2020,” Sadler said. “But what has happened since COVID and this most recent eruption — a word I use reluctantly because we’ve seen [excessive use of police] abuses, racial mistreatment and murders happening forever — the conditions have ramped things up. Instead of having to convince people that racism is a thing, it’s in their faces.”

Artina Sadler Photo by Nick Hagen.

Sadler said that key park leadership, specifically McMillan and Huron-Clinton Metroparks police chief Michael Reese are “extraordinarily on board” with the plans for DEI which aim to create a culture of inclusion reflected across multiple areas of measurement at all 13 parks in the Huron-Clinton Metroparks system, including employees, park attendees, and programming.  

“We have big dreams for our parks. But we know that we can’t reach them without our people — all of our people — being represented, without them giving their input, and without them participating fully in what they pay for,” Sadler said. “That’s how we got to where we are right now.”

Where HCMA is right now is voluntarily publishing updates on discrimination complaints filed at the park level, publicly sharing the parks’ DEI plan, and moving forward with intentionally changing the way that the parks system recruits candidates to apply for open positions. To date, 96% of the park system’s workforce is white. 

“Full transparency—full-time jobs do not become available very often at the Metroparks. They’re like gold because people come to the Metroparks and they stay forever because they love working here,” Sadler said.  “But with the jobs that are open, [we are] making sure we do not just look internally for candidates. We’re looking broadly.”

That includes looking in new places. HCMA sent job notices out to organizations like La Prensa, the Michigan Chronicle and Real Time Media, the Jewish News, Arab American News, the Chaldean News, the Dearborn Press, the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, local churches, community groups and block clubs — places it has never reached out to in the past. 

That effort is showing promise. “The last time we posted a sergeant’s position, we got three applicants. This time we posted the job, we got ninety-eight,” said Sadler. 

Sadler asserts that this is the new norm for the parks system, adding that the intent of their efforts is not to simply start hiring Black people. 

“We’re going to hire the best people,” she said. “To do that, we have to make sure that more people enter into the applicant pool, giving us more options on who we’re hiring. I’m convinced that when we do that, we will hire more people of color and more women in traditionally male-dominated roles.”

Sadler has also been key to forming programming partnerships between Huron-Clinton Metroparks and area nonprofits with missions to increase the numbers of Black people actively engaging with the natural environment. One such partnership is with Black to the Land, a group reconnecting Black and Brown individuals and families to nature and outdoor work in Detroit. 

According to Black to the Land board member and co-founder Antonio Cosme, Sadler worked with the organization to secure grant funds that would provide resources for its members to participate in activities at the Metroparks. 

Cosme shared that, in his experience, the invitation to partner has been genuine and Sadler in particular has been easy to work with —  notable, he said, because Black people have historically reported feeling unwelcome, unsafe and excluded from the parks and the outdoors.

Antonio Cosme. Photo by Leta Harrison.

People of color face many challenges in accessing the natural areas and outdoor recreation in Metro Detroit, Cosme said.

“Transportation is one of them. All of the metro parks are 35 minutes to an hour away from Detroit. At any given time, a huge percentage of Detroiters don’t have access to a car,” he said.“Then, Detroit is incredibly racially segregated. So, in order to get to all these parks, you’ve got to drive through majority white communities, which means you’re at risk of passing by cops in cities such as Warren or Dearborn, which have long and recent histories as sundown towns. On top of that, we’ve seen an abundance of random white people deputize themselves as arbiters of rules and regulations. That’s not to mention the class element that decides who gets to experience these places because they have the time and resources for leisure activity.”

Both Cosme and Sadler are optimistic about the likelihood of positive outcomes with the Metroparks new focus on DEI. Sadler acknowledges that she’s heard some grumbles internally about her hire, but doesn’t let them deter her. A few of those same people have later come to tell her while they weren’t initially pleased to have her on board, they appreciate her work now that they better understand why it matters. 

“It’s fine,” Sadler says. “I’ve been doing this work for over twenty years and knew that coming here would be hard. DEI work is hard work. It’s ongoing and never ceasing.”


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