Like many Gadsden residents, Ruth Moffatt was watching a debate between the contenders five days before a runoff election to choose the city’s new mayor. It caught her attention when Craig Ford, the eventual winner, pledged to add a new position in city government: Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“I remember saying, ‘That’s going to be a great job,’ ” Moffatt recalled.
She had no clue that her name would wind up on the plate outside the door to that office at City Hall.
Moffatt left United Way of Etowah County after seven years with the nonprofit, the final two as director, to join Ford’s administration. Her first day on the job was Nov. 18.
She has ambitious ideas that involve concrete, quantifiable actions as well as preaching the “gospel” of diversity, equity and inclusion.
There’s a single, definitive, bottom-line goal, however: promoting and achieving unity in Gadsden.
That’s what Ford is looking for from the role. “I made this position a priority because Gadsden needs to make sure we are allocating our resources equitably,” the mayor said. “Whether it’s staffing, parks and recreation programs, police and fire, or other areas, there is always potential for unintentional bias to impact decisions.
“So, having a leader like Ruth help our city navigate that part of our human nature is one proactive step we can take to prevent issues from arising,” he said.
It’s territory Moffatt was already exploring at United Way.
“When I got the call (from Ford), I paused for a minute,” she said. “It was such an amazing call for something I’ve always had thoughts around. Even in the work we did at United Way, we were looking at diversified funding and what areas were we missing, were wondering if we’d we excluded certain portions of our community.”
Moffatt is a graduate of Jacksonville State University and spent 18 years in management with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Union City, Tennessee. She and her husband relocated to Gadsden after retirement, and she joined United Way as director of its 2-1-1/First Call for Help program in 2015.
She succeeded the late Joanne Hightower as United Way director in 2020, and before Ford’s call had given no thought to pursuing another job.
In her new role, Moffatt plans to prioritize accessibility, not just to activities and services but to opportunities for people to improve themselves and their work status. Seeking help for those who find themselves homeless, for whatever reason, is another priority.
She has broken the concept of diversity down into four areas:
• Demographics (changes in the population makeup)
• Culture (whether people of different backgrounds have opportunities and feel comfortable in Gadsden)
• Functional (whether activities and programs in Gadsden are inclusive for those with special needs, and give them support and a sense of belonging)
• Cognitive (how people think, which can reflect the unintentional bias Ford mentioned)
“That’s a very powerful one,” Moffatt said, “because we all have a tendency to bring people into the room who think like we do and see things like we do. … That’s one of the things that hurts us a great deal, because you need people in the room that think differently than you, and it’s OK if they oppose you.”
She recalled a college course called the Art of Advanced Rhetoric, and a professor who told her she needed to know how the opposition thinks and feels. “That’s a part of diversity,” she added.
As for unconscious bias, she cited the military’s “7/11 rule” in its DEI efforts — in 7 seconds, the average person makes 11 judgments about someone he or she encounters.
“If I go to the store and it’s in the evening, I’m sizing up everything around me,” she said. “I’m sizing people up just by the way they look. … But just visually looking at someone doesn’t tell me if that person could be a threat.
“Often abusers and the like don’t look like a threat,” Moffatt said. “They look like just another person, but my unconscious bias makes me feel safe.”
She said such thoughts must be gotten out of the way, both internally (in city government) and externally (in the general population).
“We need to get it on the table, we need to discuss it, we need to figure out where are the roots of this and we need to deal with those roots,” she added, “because here’s the big picture, the unification. You cannot unify the city … until you come to the table and have a conversation about it. You will never conquer what you cannot confront.”
Moffatt said such conversations can be difficult, and they also don’t inherently involve who’s right or wrong.
“The inclusion … is that I value what you have to say, and I demonstrate that by coming to the table,” she said. “Not with excuses, not to overtalk you, but to hear you. And then to go back and put actions to that.”
Moffatt said she thinks Gadsden has mastered “bringing people to the table that look different,” but hasn’t demonstrated that those voices are being heard. Without that, she said, “You’re just checking the boxes, you’re not getting in there and doing the hard work, the work that sometimes will raise the hair on the back of your neck.”
She said the city, internally, has a DEI plan in place — she called it a “great plan” — that deals with housing, education, policy and culture. She plans to institute some training, again focusing on unconscious bias.
Moffatt also plans to seek federal grants to finance various programs; No. 1 on the agenda would be CharityTracker, a program generally used by nonprofits to, according to its website, “manage statistical date, referrals, collaboration and alerts.”
She said Huntsville has successfully adapted it to governmental use, and that it also could be useful to local businesses.
Moffatt also would like to establish a multicultural advisory council made up of people from different cultures, and envisioned a potential event at The Venue at Coosa Landing where people could share things from their respective cultures.
“At the base of all of this is unity,” she said. “The way we get there is through looking at our differences and then learning to embrace them.
“… I believe unification will become so strong and so powerful that we’ll be able to embrace and celebrate our differences, and then we can get to the business of making Gadsden everything we ever dreamed about,” Moffatt said. “I can feel the hope in the city, and I think that goes back to have a leader at the helm who’s full of that hope and pushing to make those things happen.”
Moffatt realizes that level of change won’t occur overnight, but said people can expect to see “some traction” in the first 90 days. “We have some things we’re working on that we think we can move on at a pretty good rate,” she said.
They include collaborations with schools (she noted the lingering impact of the COVID-19 closures on students) and potential arts programs in theater and other activities that may not be common in certain communities.
“Sometimes you can’t dream because you don’t know anything further that where you are,” Moffatt said. “… Sometimes you look at education just with the books, but it’s also about other things you expose them to.
“Gadsden is rich in its environment,” she said. “You’ve got the (Coosa) river and the mountains, you’ve got Noccalula Falls, you’ve got so many diversified things to do here, but does our community engage in it as a whole? Are our children exposed to it as a whole?”
“… Our entire city will benefit from her outreach, training and mediation efforts,” Ford said of Moffatt. “She has some big plans for special programming, cultural awareness and meeting the needs of residents that may have historically been neglected.
“This needs to be a city government for all of the people. We want to make sure everyone is not only represented, but also feels comfortable and welcomed in participating, and Ruth is uniquely gifted to make that vision a reality,” the mayor said.
Moffatt in turn gives much credit to Ford, saying she didn’t know much about him, really didn’t know him that well before his phone call, other than encountering him around town and in Montgomery (where he was a state legislator for many years).
“He has hit the ground running and he loves Gadsden,” she said. “When you’re around someone and their belief is so strong, their vision is so wide … the Bible says (in Habakkuk 2:2, ESV), ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.’ His vision is so wide. To sit in a meeting with him, his mind is actually running 360 (degrees) about the things we need to do.
“I believe with all my heart that Gadsden is about to step into so many transformative things — about to experience unification as never before,” Moffatt said. “It’s going to be massive, huge, and I want to be a part of it.”