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MacDill Air Force Base ramps up talk and action about diversity and inclusion

By ILEANA NAJARRO | Tampa Bay Times | Published: January 21, 2021

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — Leaders at MacDill Air Force Base are reaching out to Tampa Bay schools to expose students in minority communities to Air Force aviation careers. The base also is hosting panels with community leaders to discuss diversity and inclusion, expanding on similar conversations happening within units on base.

These are some of the efforts underway at the Tampa military base as it seeks to address racial disparities and related issues, despite an executive order in September by then-President Donald Trump, which limited formal diversity training.

In December 2020, the Department of the Air Force Inspector General released a report confirming that racial disparities exist for Black service members in areas such as military justice and leadership opportunities.

At a recent town hall and in interviews, leaders at MacDill said the local base was not immune to such disparities.

“As a subset of the Air Force, our trends are similar to the Air Force’s data,” said Col. Benjamin Robins, vice commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing. “It gives you cause for concern.”

The Air Force report found that enlisted Black service members were 72% more likely than enlisted white service members to receive punishment for minor offenses and 57% more likely than their white peers to face courts-martial. Survey responses showed that one of every three Black officers does not believe the Air Force and Space Force provide them the same advancement opportunities as their white peers. And two of every five Black civilians working for the branches reported seeing racial bias in the promotion system.

Efforts at the local and Air Force level to address problems such as racial stereotypes have grown since the killing of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis.

“What we’ve said and what I firmly believe is that diversity, inclusion, valuing diversity and inclusion on our teams, it’s a mission imperative,” said Col. Benjamin Jonsson, commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing and de facto mayor of MacDill at a virtual town hall on Jan. 7.

Jonsson has charged MacDill leaders with making sure they understand their blind spots when it comes to race and other forms of diversity, and he wants them to be developing diverse talent.

He had specific guidance regarding disparities in military justice.

“By inviting racially diverse leaders from within our teams to the table for discussions about discipline issues, particularly for minority Airmen, we are able to see a clearer picture, address the possibility of our own unconscious biases, and ensure equity for like offenses for all Airmen,” Jonsson said in an email.

More broadly, the military units at MacDill — be they flyers or maintenance technicians — have been engaged in group discussions on race and other forms of diversity. Robins said he’s seen a lot of airmen stepping forward and being active in these discussions. The wing also developed a diversity and inclusion working group.

“One of the things that we are aware of and in compliance with is a presidential executive order that has suspended formal training on diversity and inclusion topics,” Jonsson said, referring to Trump’s executive order. “But what it didn’t suspend was the discussions that we have at the unit level on these topics, which are, in fact, encouraged by Air Force leadership and expected by me.”

Though there’s a new presidential administration in place, Robins said it’s too early to speak of potential changes in directives.

“The method is to wait for the guidance, and then we’ll start planning based off that guidance,” he said.

Beyond these conversations, airmen have until the end of the month to fill out an annual Department of Defense survey that includes new questions this year about diversity and inclusion.

The wing at MacDill also is leading events and programs involving the Tampa Bay community, “because what happens outside the gate happens inside the gate,” Robins added.

The Aviation Inspired Mentorship program is a first for MacDill. Members of the operations group will reach out to schools in the area to do community activities and introduce young people to what it means to be a rated officer and fly in the Air Force.

And on Feb. 4, the wing will host a panel live on Facebook, bringing in community leaders and airmen to talk about diversity more broadly.

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