Skip to content

Putting Racial Equity at the Center of Conversations

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

By Ryan Heinz, Public Affairs Staff

Events and protests this past summer turned up the volume on national conversations about fair treatment of Black Americans, including in the workplace and the economy.

woman in business dress

Sydney Diavua, director of engagement in Community Development

But Sydney Diavua and her colleagues already had been making sure those conversations were heard—in the Federal Reserve System and in the districts Reserve banks serve.

Diavua’s work on community development, civic participation and neighborhood revitalization has taken her all over the East Coast and overseas.

She brought that wealth of experience to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ District when she returned to her native Memphis, Tenn. She began working in May as director of engagement in Community Development at the St. Louis Fed.

Diavua also continued her work with the Federal Reserve’s Racial Equity Learning Community, which she helped start during a five-year stint with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

The RELC is a formalized network created as part of the Federal Reserve System’s Community Development strategic plan. Colleagues across the Federal Reserve System work together and learn from each other, including at biweekly meetings.

Diavua is one of three founding members of the learning community to receive this year’s Janet L. Yellen Award for Excellence in Community Development. The award recognizes those individuals who have demonstrated superior leadership, achievement and contributions to the System’s community development responsibilities. The award is named in honor of Janet Yellen, the first woman to chair the Fed’s Board of Governors. 

Diavua shares the Yellen Award with Marija Bingulac, senior Community Development analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Jennifer Fernandez, community affairs analyst at the Board of Governors.

In an interview, Diavua discussed RELC, the Yellen Award she received in a virtual ceremony Nov. 17 and her work at two Federal Reserve banks.

Q: Let’s start with your role at the St. Louis Fed. Tell me a little about your work.

Sydney Diavua: I joined the Community Development team in May as the director of engagement. I lead our team of six. And it’s really about being the boots on the ground for the Community Development team. It’s being able to go out, even in this virtual work environment, to talk to people in communities every day to better understand what’s going on and how trends are impacting low- and moderate-income communities. We use this information to better inform our work and to help expand partnerships between funders and community projects. And we connect this information to our policy and analysis team or the Center for Household Financial Stability

Q: You spent five years at the Philadelphia Fed, which is where your work on RELC began. Was that work similar to what you’re now doing?

Diavua: Yes, I played a similar role. I was part of the outreach and engagement arm of community development. I’d think about our strategies and how we intake information. I’d provide some context and texture to the trends we see in the data. The most important question I was trying to answer was: How can we help bring partners toward solutions? I was working in places like Chester, Pa., and Johnstown, Pa. Those are very different places than the St. Louis region. But many of the core issues like housing stability, employment and access to credit are the fundamental issues that cut across all of these places.

Q: How did you come to work at the Federal Reserve?

Diavua: I found my role at the Philadelphia Fed through a search on LinkedIn. I searched for two words that were meaningful to me: "community engagement." And a role at the Fed came up. It struck me. I had to double-check to make sure it wasn’t digital engagement or software strategy. But, no, it’s actually community engagement. It’s revitalizing communities and supporting households at all levels.

That to me was such an important part—that our central bank was intentional about supporting low- and moderate-income communities. Economic growth includes our efforts to understand why certain communities aren’t prospering. And, secondly, it’s not just understanding it but highlighting promising activities that create economic mobility to help communities prosper. It’s being able to provide data and information from practitioners on the ground and funders or governments. We have a reputation for providing useful analysis and convening partners, and we’re really trying to help communities move forward. That keeps me at the Fed and motivates me in this role.

Q: Tell me about the Racial Equity Learning Community. How did it start? What’s its purpose?

Diavua: The Racial Equity Learning Community began about three years ago, when a small group of us across the System, led by a former colleague at the San Francisco Fed, gathered to talk about the racial equity efforts that we were leading at our individual banks. At that time, a number of our Federal Reserve banks were having convenings where we were starting to put racial equity at the center of our conversations, because we recognized that in focusing on low- and moderate-income communities, our data tells us that there are disparities that are apparent upon racial lines. We can no longer say that we don’t know. We can’t not address this. But how do we do that?

And, at the same time, the System’s Community Development strategic plan outlined the opportunity to create a learning community where we could bring others from across the System together around a certain issue and say, “We want to not only learn more but we want to collaborate, create strategies and embed and improve these strategies within our work.”

We acknowledged we didn’t know everything about racial equity or the ways in which racism and disparities appear in our work. We needed other experts to come in, train us on tools and help us to identify root causes. It’s been a year after our big kickoff in San Francisco. It’s a great community to be a part of at the Fed, and it’s inspiring to have supporting System partners working on this. It’s a testament to the importance and urgency of doing this work.

Q: How does it feel to see the learning community get recognized with the Yellen Award?

Diavua: I was very glad we received the award, but I think for me what matters most is the urgency we’ve seen this year. If we have learned anything from this year, it is that we can no longer afford to be race neutral. After many years of avoiding challenging conversations about race, this year has shown us that we must actively work to reverse the impact of racial economic inequity in our society. The most meaningful thing about this award is lifting up the impact and power this learning community—this specific project—has to talk about race in a productive way. We have the opportunity to reverse these trends and to help this institution advance equity, and I am glad the Racial Equity Learning Community is one tool to support this work. And that’s important to me. That’s what drives me every day. 

More to Explore

Ryan Heinz 

Ryan Heinz is a senior web content strategist with St. Louis Fed Public Affairs. 

Tagged ryan heinzsydney diavuacommunity developmentjanet yellenracial equity