One of the best parts of our job at Peak Academy is supporting Black Belts as they implement changes in the city in order to earn their Black Belt certification, because we get to know some incredibly special people during this process. It was the luck of the draw that I was paired with Valerie Herrera, a city planner in the Community Planning and Development (CPD) department, when she came through Black Belt training in November of 2019. I enjoyed getting to know Val during the week of training, she was vivacious and authentic while also being caring and supportive of her fellow cohort members. When we went on our Gemba Walk, I watched Val quietly speak Spanish with a woman who was trying to navigate her way through the Denver Human Services Castro building. This woman seemed stressed and nervous until the moment Val started speaking Spanish to the resident, putting her arm around her as they walked together to a sign on the wall that showed where each of the different departments was located. I watched the woman physically relax and ultimately end the short interaction with a smile, taking Val’s hand in both of hers in gratitude. That was the first of many moments where I have witnessed Val’s big heart in action, in service to her community and her passion to create equity for those most marginalized in our community.
Val had been pushing in her department for more of a focus on equity for several years before coming through Denver Peak Academy training, and Community Planning and Development was one of the city departments who had a team that was beginning to focus on this work prior to the creation of the Office of Social Equity and Innovation. But once Val started to see the ways in which the tools she learned in Black Belt could be applied to further equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in her department, there was no stopping her.
With her colleagues on the CPD EDI team, she worked to create an EDI training opportunity for the full CPD staff. She also helped create a language access plan for staff to use to break down the barriers for communicating with residents in outreach and engagement, which also helped the few Spanish-speaking CPD employees level-load and standardize the translation requests that were coming in. Then, she worked with fellow Black Belt Lizzie Friend on creating a template to standardize and expand the racial demographic data they were collecting to ensure more equitable service and representation throughout the department.
“Black Belt has helped me in many ways, from how I view the bigger picture of processes – to analyzing specific data points to tell a story and look for improvements,” said Valerie. “I feel more savvy, innovative, and helpful in my current position as a city planner and enjoy mentoring others to encourage them as they move through the Black Belt process.”
Val has also worked on the analysis of the Comprehensive Sign Plan (CSP) process within CPD to provide better customer service and shorten timelines and rounds of review with the applicant and staff. While these innovations have saved her department time and money, even more importantly, they are helping CPD provide more equitable and inclusive service and representation. Val’s determination and willingness to think outside the box have been gifts to the City and County of Denver, and to me personally as I have found a true and lifelong friend in her. Thank you for everything you have shared with me and taught me over the past two years, and thank you for everything you do for our city.