Photo of Marisa Hattab from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Marisa Hattab

Creating Ripples of Change in Douglas County

By Mary Lee Harvey Dircks
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography

Long before they carried the recognizable buzz they do today, the values of diversity, equity and inclusion drove a young Marisa Hattab to take action in high school.

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Hattab, now the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer for Douglas County, says she struggled with her identity in a predominantly white community. “Growing up in spaces where I was the only African American, it really impacted my self-perception,” she says. “And I had to grow comfortable with not always feeling accepted and welcomed.”

She initiated the first ever Black History Month in her high school, securing grants and organizing assemblies. “That first year I did it, I was the only person on the committee. It was just me. The next year I had a little more support.” One year she focused on diversity, highlighting a different culture each week, with emphasis on Black history that final week.

Hattab earned a Bachelor of Education degree from Wright State University in 2015, taught for several years and then worked at Mentor Nebraska in a variety of capacities. “I have done things both locally and nationally in advocacy work, mentorship, youth development and workplace development as it relates to driving equity into outcomes,” she says.

As she transitioned out of her previous position at Mentor Nebraska, Hattab founded Marisa Hattab, LLC, as a channel for her to provide services as a keynote speaker around DEI, as well as domestic violence survivorship and consultation in the areas of mentorship, DEI strategies and leadership coaching. “When I left the organization some of that expertise came with me,” she says, adding she continues that work after hours and on weekends.

Hattab is also chairing a new nonprofit organization called Mom Power, Inc. “I’m passionate about the work we are doing because there are not a lot of resources for moms in the middle,” Hattab says. The focus is to provide professional and personal resources for working moms and for moms who stayed home to fill in that gap on their resumés, she says.

“I really am passionate about creating space for people to be seen and for people to be heard and validated for who they are while also creating a space for people to grow,” Hattab says. “Diversity is the fruit and equity the root.” She believes that driving equitable policies, procedures and decision-making produces the outcome of diversity.

“When people say they are focused on diversity what they are really talking about is racial equity work,” she adds. Key components include removing barriers that prevent people’s access to opportunity while also cultivating inclusive atmospheres and environments.

A one-word definition for diversity is differences, Hattab says. “Diversity is our differences, the things that make humans and beings uniquely themselves,” she adds. When de- fining equity, Hattab likes to distinguish between equity and equality because a lot of people use those terms interchangeably. “They are not the same. Equity and equality are related, they are cousins, but they are not twins!” she laughs. “Equity focuses on fairness and equality focuses on sameness.”

A positive outcome from Covid exemplifies the difference. Before Covid, training meetings were almost never offered online. Post-Covid, many hybrid approaches make attendance more accessible to more people. “Equality says—I gave all people the opportunity to come to this training,” Hattab explains. “Equity says—not everyone has access to come.” Inclusion refers to creating environments where people feel seen, accepted, heard, and treated with dignity, Hattab says.

Her position at Douglas County was created in January of 2022 following an employee engagement survey completed by almost half of Douglas County employees the previous year. “When the employee engagement survey was done, a huge area that was screaming for attention was workforce development,” Hattab says.

In response, she initiated a mentoring program with a 360-degree approach. Often in traditional mentoring, a seasoned leader imparts wisdom to a younger professional or someone not as advanced in their career. “That’s important,” Hattab says. “But I believe all our employees are leaders. So, we also built peer-to-peer mentorship into our mentoring model.” There are 12 leaders who are department directors and elected officials with 68 participants. Each group meets for seminars providing education about core leadership concepts and creating space for peer-to-peer exchange, so they are all giving and receiving, Hattab says.

She also created a 22-page action plan to set the county on course to better incorporate DEI moving forward. “I called it an action plan rather than a strategic plan because in my assessment we need to first focus on education, engagement and empowerment,” Hattab says. “Once we, as a county, are in that empowerment place as it relates to what DEI means, then we can come up with our DEI strategy. Our leaders will be empowered and equipped with the tools to be able to make decisions strategically from that place.”

The plan highlights four pillars: workforce development; workplace inclusivity; equitable policies and procedures; and strengthening community relations. “I do work directly with all elected officials, commissioners, and department directors as we collectively come together quarterly for strategic direction and education so they can make more DEI-centered decisions in their leadership,” Hattab says.

Workforce development initiatives are tied to the mentoring 360 program. “It’s a leadership development course that tackles topics ranging from conflict resolution all the way to social and emotional intelligence,” Hattab says. “This program is in direct correlation with strengthening our workforce professionally.”

The county hired Joe Gerstandt, an inclusive strategist, who developed an inclusive leadership course that three cohorts of leaders are participating in currently. In August all county commissioners and elected officials will be encouraged to attend as well, Hattab says. “The inclusion leadership program is not only about our employees, but it helps our leaders to think through that lens when they are making decisions as it relates to the community and the services we provide,” she adds.

County leaders are also collectively identifying policies and procedures that have been problematic and will then work with the human relations department to refine them, Hattab says. And finally, to initiate strengthening community relations, Hattab looks forward to implementing a county-wide job fair featuring all 22 departments. “I think it’s important that we are open and transparent about what job opportunities are available,” she says.

The county employs over 2,400 people. Most of those people live in Douglas County, Hattab estimates. “The services we provide our community are also the services we provide our employees,” she says about the impact these changes have overall.

“I want to create ripples of change in the county, one person at a time, where they show up thinking of people first,” Hattab says.