The Missouri National Guard reports it has diversified its ranks by 25 percent over the last year, even as some law enforcement agencies around the state have struggled to do so.
The Guard has added 188 soldiers of color to its ranks, for a total of 940 minority personnel. Meanwhile, the head of Missouri State Highway Patrol has acknowledged its minority recruiting has fallen in recent years. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department recently expanded its minority recruitment program. It is facing a separate federal complaint over the promotion of minority officers.
The Guard's equal employment manager Major Deborah Smith said the organization is on the right track, but more improvement still is needed.
"I believe that the Guard should actually mirror the community itself, and I believe if you mirror the community you will have that trust factor," she said. "A strong effective organization is one that is very diverse, with people from all backgrounds, education, experiences, all across the board. What can you bring to this organization to make us a more effective force?"
Smith credits the increasing numbers of minority soldiers to Guard recruiters being actively involved in communities, whether by showing up at high schools or by seeking out candidates at historically black and tribal colleges.
"Just going in to the high schools and seeing them there all the time and seeing them at football games all the time," she said, "or actually going out into the community like state fairs, then you start to build that trust factor, that 'Okay, hey, well, they're coming out here where I'm at. Then maybe this is worthwhile for me to actually at least give the Guard a try."
Having previously worked with the Lincoln University Army ROTC program, Smith said she saw how Guard recruiters actively sought to get students there interested in opportunities with the National Guard.
But potential soldiers must also see that there is an opportunity to advance to higher rank in order to get them to stay, Smith said. In the last two years, the Guard said it has promoted two minority soldiers to command sergeants major, the most senior enlisted rank available.
As a black woman and a major in the Guard, Smith said she has served as an example of those opportunities for her former students at Lincoln.
"They'll say, 'Hey, in the Missouri National Guard, you don't have as many minorities in leadership positions,' but then they can look at me now and say, 'Well, hey, Major Smith is in a leadership position at the Missouri National Guard, and if she can do it, I can do it," Smith said. "So I'm building that trust."
Smith said that visibility of minorities in higher ranks, plus an objective system for promotions to remove built-in biases, has helped retain minority soldiers - which the Guard considers key to maintaining diversity in its ranks.
The Missouri National Guard began using an automated Enlisted Promotion System in 2012, which Smith said is important for diversity in promotions.
"Before the board actually convenes to look at soldiers' profiles for promotion, first you try to have as diverse a board as you can, and then two, that making sure there’s no barriers so everyone has an equal access and equal opportunity to progress," she said.
But Smith said the Guard acknowledges it has more work to do. She said in her role, she plans to study how other institutions across the state have been successful in recruiting and retaining minorities. Smith said she will also continue to monitor the results of soldiers' responses to surveys on the command climate to see where improvements can be made. She also hopes to work with members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP on additional diversity efforts.
Additionally, Smith said the Guard is hoping to focus on recruiting in urban areas - which can sometimes be hard when most armories are in rural or suburban areas. That's why, Smith said, the organization is hoping to build an armory in Bridgeton in order to "get more people in urban areas to join the National Guard, which would bring more money into the economy." She said the site's location near mass transportation would also give guardsmen better access to their armory.