The woman in charge of leading DE&I efforts for the City of Philadelphia
As Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Nefertiri Sickout is a staunch advocate for changing existing structures against underrepresented and marginalized communities in the city.
Over the past five years, Nefertiri Sickout has been an integral part of the City of Philadelphia’s approach towards diversity, equity and inclusion.
In May 2021, she was officially named chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, where she leads the Mayor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She had been in an acting role since May 2020, following the retirement of Nolan Atkinson.
Sickout’s prior titles at the Mayor’s Office since joining in 2016 also included Deputy Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Assistant Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Research and Policy.
In her new permanent role, Sickout is in charge of leading the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which houses the Office of LGBT Affairs and the Office for People with Disabilities.
During a conversation with AL DÍA, Sickout explained the differences between diversity, equity and inclusion — three words thrown around at will in organizations of all kinds.
“Diversity is looking at who is in the room in terms of differences… inclusion is looking at organizational culture and feeling like they belong… and when you talk about equity, you’re really talking about resources and outcomes, and policies and practices,” she said.
Much of her work, she said, will be focused on looking at how existing structures have played a huge role in repeated patterns of racial disparities and exclusion, and finding ways to dismantle those structures.
“Even though we’ve had overtly racist laws abolished during the Civil Rights era and so forth, the effects of those laws and the structures around those laws continue to exist,” she said.
“Oftentimes… they play out in outcomes around health, employment, housing and across a lot of indicators of success,” she added.
The numbers indicate that these structures have been especially detrimental to the Latino population, and other communities of color.
For example, when it comes to poverty, Latino Philadelphians accounted for 40.2% of residents living in poverty in 2019, despite making up only 15% of the city’s population.
This is just one of the many reasons why the work that Sickout is leading at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is so important.
“When we focus on those who are the most vulnerable, [we] improve outcomes for everyone,” said Sickout.
As it pertains to this effort, the Office is partnering with City departments to push forward a dual strategy to center a racial equity framework and advance equitable workforce and community outcomes.
As part of this strategy, each department will engage in a racial equity assessment and create an action plan with the goal of achieving greater representation and participation by employees of color and other historically marginalized and underrepresented groups in the City’s workforce.
Racial equity is the primary focus of this work, as race has been a primary factor leading to discrimination. However, it goes beyond just the element of race.
“As we start to dismantle barriers [and] racialized systems and improve outcomes for people based on race and ethnicity, we will be better positioned to make sure that other marginalized and underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ and language, religion, age, gender, so forth… that these systems are being improved for them as well, and their outcomes are improving, as well,” said Sickout.
The desire to improve the lives of others started long before Sickout began working at the City of Philadelphia.
Prior to joining the Mayor’s Office, she worked at Pepper Hamilton LLP, where she practiced law for eight years as a commercial litigation associate, handling complex contract litigation matters involving business and partnership disputes.
She detailed how her years in the law practice has aided her work in DE&I efforts, particularly in the area of advocacy.
“A lot of the skills that you have to exercise in a law firm are transferable to the type of analysis and advocacy skills that you need to advance an organization-wide strategy to improve outcomes for employees and for residents,” Sickout said.
She specifically noted verbal, written, persuasive, negotiation and analytical skills as all valuable transferable skills she obtained that has guided her as she transitioned from working at a law firm of about 500 attorneys to an organization of 25,000 employees for a city with 1.6 million residents.
“It’s also about being able to be meticulous and very detail-oriented,” she added.
Advocacy has always been a major interest of Sickout. In fact, she began her professional career in community-based advocacy where she worked on issues affecting the well-being of vulnerable families and children. This included child welfare, early childhood education, adolescent health and parenting education programs.
While she was able to make a positive impact in that area, she strived to do even more.
“I actually went to law school because I wanted to be a better advocate,” Sickout expressed. “And I figured that a law degree would give me the ability to better influence systems as opposed to influencing standalone programs or standalone community centers.”
This is why she decided to attend Villanova University School of Law, after having already earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Clark Atlanta University, a master’s in infant special education from George Washington University and a master’s in development psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University.
“I've always wanted to influence systems and structures but It wasn't until I went to law school that I felt like I could carve out a better path to do that,” she added.
However, working at a law firm wasn’t a path she necessarily saw in her future, but nonetheless called her time there “one of the best experiences I could have had,” she said.
The growth she saw within herself, based on the challenges of working in such a high pressure environment and with high performance standards really helped her succeed in the law field, and gave her the confidence to take on her current role with the City of Philadelphia.
The desire to positively impact and change structures and especially advocacy work around children, however, dates back to her own childhood.
Sickout grew up in Atlanta during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, and seeing the effects of that epidemic — such as increased crime, violence and incarceration — had a profound impact on her.
“As a child, seeing the suffering that came with those community dynamics, I wanted to focus on a career where I could decrease the suffering and improve the opportunities and outcomes for the community that I grew up in,” she reflected.
Those early experiences set the stage for her to embark on the career path she’s taken.
In each role she’d had throughout her professional career, Sickout has been able to make a positive impact for individuals, families, communities and the city at-large, with an eye towards improving systems that ignite inequities and providing more resources for those most vulnerable.
As she moves forward in her current role as Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the City of Philadelphia, the mission remains unchanged and the goal remains consistent.
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.