Interview for Peyk by Shahri Estakhry
Top row, left to right: Vincent Kattoula, Denbigh Dickson, Moe Zarabi (Vice President), Nassrin Samii.
Seated, left to right: Mandana Beheshti, Sara Agahi (President), Tamara Murphy (Treasurer), Leila Attar. Not pictured: Sheri Shahri (Communications) and Oscar Talaro
I recently spoke with Sara Agahi to discuss the formation of an exciting new group at the County of San Diego. Sara is a Senior Civil Engineer in the Department of Public Works at the County and also is the proud mother of one recent graduate and one current student at the Persian Cultural Center’s language school, The Iranian School of San Diego.
Q. Please tell me about this group that you all have started.
This all began out of an idea that several of my co-workers and I had this past Noruz. We had planned on setting up a Haft Seen at the office. As more people got involved in organizing the festivities, our concept expanded to a catered lunch, music, and displays about the rich and enduring cultural history of Iran and the many contributions that Iranians have made to the world. The Noruz event was open to all and we had over 100 people attend both Iranians and non-Iranians. Afterwards, people kept approaching us, thanking us for introducing them to another culture and asking us to plan more events.
A few of us started meeting regularly to discuss forming a group to plan additional activities and continue the cross-cultural dialogue. We also came to the conclusion that expanding our scope from one country to the entire Middle East could greatly increase our collective impact. Now we have representation from Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Eritrea, and Turkey, in addition to Iran. We also have representation from areas outside of the Middle East, from people who have Middle Eastern friends and family to people who know very little about the Middle East and want to learn more.
There is a formal process to forming this type of group at the County – writing a Mission Statement, writing a Charter and By-laws, filing paperwork with the state to become recognized as a non-profit organization, and more. As we have been discussing our goals and writing these documents it has been absolutely thrilling to watch people come together and give freely of their time. We are still in the process of deciding our name, but right now we go by the Middle Eastern Employee Resource Group.
Q. What was the purpose for establishing it?
The County of San Diego has five established Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): the first of which, the San Diego County Latino Association (SDCLA) dates back to 1983; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender & Allies Association; the San Diego Filipino-American Employees’ Association; the African-American Association of County Employees; and the Asian Pacific Alliance of County Employees were formed afterwards. Currently, three new groups are in the process of forming: Modern Professionals, Veterans, and Middle Eastern.
The ERGs sponsor wonderful events at the County and in the community – events that raise awareness about diverse cultures and experiences, provide training to staff on skills to advance in their jobs and careers, and events that support community service. So many people have come up to me and said that they have really enjoyed the other ERGs’ events and have always wondered why there wasn’t a Middle Eastern ERG.
Q. Why are groups like these important?
By saying that it is important for us to expose others to diverse cultures, histories, and experiences, we are starting from the position that diversity and inclusion improves the strength and quality of our community. That is when we are truly a reflection of our community that we serve and are a part of. There is an abundance of research on this topic that supports this statement. Given the challenges that we as a county (or nation or world) face, experience has shown that we cannot just “keep doing business as normal” or “as we have always done in the past”. When we seek solutions with teams of people who look just like ourselves and have shared backgrounds, although this may be comfortable, we tend to come up with the same answers that we have seen in the past, business as usual. However, when we gather a diverse group of people with varying backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, we start to see the really creative problem solving occur. This is what we need to address today’s challenges.
Aside from the diversity contribution, the ERGs benefit the County by serving as a social and professional network for employees and assisting the County in achieving its strategic goals. The work of the County is to promote safe communities in environments that foster viable, livable communities while bolstering economic growth. We work every day to make it easier for people of all ages to lead healthy lives. The County understands that ERGs are partners in this endeavor, as voiced recently by Helen Robbins-Meyer, the County Chief Administrative Officer when she said, “The value of Employee Resource Groups cannot be underestimated. They foster a shared sense of interconnectedness at work, infuse employees with energy, and increase collective impact towards shared goals that support the County’s initiatives. The Middle Eastern Employee Resource Group will add another important perspective to the conversation about diversity and inclusion in our policies, recruitments, employee development, workplace satisfaction, and customer service.”
Q. Who is involved in these groups?
The ERGs are non-political, non-religious, and non-profit groups that are open to everyone at the County and in the community.
Q. How many people work for the County and is the City of San Diego the same as the County?
San Diego is the second most populous county in the state of California and the fifth in the U.S. The County of San Diego employs approximately 17,000 people and is the fifth largest employer in the region. The County provides a full range of public services to our residents, from law enforcement to protecting open spaces, from emergency response services to protecting and improving air and water quality. We protect consumers from fraud, provide health and human services, inspect restaurants, maintain libraries and parks, and provide disaster assistance during floods, fires, and earthquakes. We maintain roads, abate mosquitos and other vectors, certify farmer’s markets, and insure new buildings are safe. The County also serves as a delivery channel for many State services, such as foster care, public health care and elections.
The County and the City of San Diego are not the same entities. The City is incorporated and although it relies on the County to provide some services (like holding elections) the City provides certain services for residents within its boundaries, by its own employees. There are 17 additional incorporated cities located within San Diego County that also provide services for their residents.
Q. How can people learn more and/or support this organization?
Please e-mail us at MEERG@sdcounty.ca.gov to find out about planning meetings and events. The ERGs rely on membership enrollment and nominal charges for events.