Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Town of West Springfield; Springfield City Councilor
She’s an Entrepreneur, Public Servant, Mentor, and True Role Model
To effectively convey the depth of Tracye Whitfield’s impact within the community, one should probably start with her business cards — as in the plural.
She carries three of them. Sort of.
She usually has only one on her, and that’s for the job she started just four months ago — as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield. That’s a new position, and in it, she’s essentially starting from scratch and drafting the blueprint for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department, an assignment she describes with the single word ‘difficult’ (much more on that in a bit).
But she also has a business card identifying her as an at-large city councilor in Springfield — she said she had to make it herself; the city does not supply them — and another one explaining that she is a principal with T&J Tax and Credit Savers, the most recent iteration of a small business she started seven years ago.
Together, these business cards tell a compelling story. It’s about a single mother who started working at a call center in the late ’90s because it was a way to get more doors to open for her, including the one at MassMutual, where she would become inspired — and receive the tuition reimbursement — to earn first a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance and then a master’s in accounting and taxation, both at American International College.
She would use those degrees to launch her own tax business — one she has built steadily over the years — and eventually move on to different career challenges, including one as director of Business Development for the Training and Workforce Options (TWO) program operated by Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, and, well before that, as a finance analyst for Springfield Public Schools.
It was while in that job that Whitfield realized many constituents were missing out on resources and program funding because they were simply not aware of them. Later, as she talked within the community about the need for better communication and a voice for all residents, friends and relatives encouraged her to become that voice by running for City Council.
Neither she nor most of the members of her team had any experience with election campaigns, but she ran hard, knocked on more doors than she could count, and would up finishing a strong sixth, just out of the running, in the 2017 election. But she was later placed in an at-large seat when Tom Ashe became chief of staff for Mayor Domenic Sarno. Today, she is vice president of the Council and running for a third term.
Yes, it’s a compelling story, and one that forms the basis of what she considers the advice she passes on to the many young people she mentors.
“There are no real barriers other than the ones we place on ourselves — we can do whatever we want to do,” she said. “And I also tell them to give back; whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”
“Whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”
Those sentiments, and, yes, those business cards and all they stand for, explain why Tracye Whitfield is a Woman of Impact for 2021.
As noted, Whitfield is running for re-election this fall. That means an already-hectic daily schedule becomes even more so.
Indeed, in addition to her day job in West Springfield, her duties as city councilor — which include countless meetings (many now thankfully conducted via Zoom) and events — and her work handling clients who asked for extensions on filing their tax returns, she must now campaign.
Such work is a little different in a pandemic, she explained, adding that there will be less knocking on doors (at least for her). But there are still the events and the stand-outs with supporters at busy intersections. Whitfield is an at-large councilor, so she must blanket the entire city; some of her favorite stand-out locations are the convergence of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street and at the X by the CVS.
Packing a lot into the hours available in a day is nothing new to Whitfield, who long juggled work, school, and parenting duties, and still does to some extent, although now it’s her first grandchild, different kinds of work, and different kinds of education.
Born and raised in Springfield, she said she had her first child at 18 and, like many single teen mothers, faced a number of daily challenges. But unlike many others like her, she had a plan — and a path — as well as a desire to set the tone for her children.
“I wanted to set a good example for them,” she said, adding that she took a job at First Notice Systems, a giant call center, with the larger goal of taking her experience in customer service and use it to get a foot in the door at MassMutual.
She eventually joined the financial-services giant in 2000, working her way from customer service representative to ‘top Blue Case manager,’ to accounting specialist.
Along the way, as noted, she earned two college degrees and set her career sights higher. After stints with Springfield Public Schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and Springfield Technical Community College, she landed a job as director of Business Development for TWO, a position that was eventually eliminated due to cuts forced by COVID-19, a setback that brought her back to the job market and, eventually, to apply for a new position posted by the town of West Springfield.
She saw it posted on Indeed, and after talking with friends and colleagues, she decided to apply. She prevailed and started just four months ago, becoming one of a growing number of people with ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer’ printed on their business cards.
“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development.”
When asked about this movement, if it can be called that, she said these positions are being created out of obvious need.
“It’s important to bring everyone’s voice to the table,” she said, noting that many area communities, including West Springfield, are becoming increasingly diverse. “There’s a large refugee population in this community, and from what I’ve gathered from meeting and interviewing people, they do feel left out and isolated because communication isn’t in their language, and they don’t know where to go; they don’t have a lot of guidance and resources to help them navigate the town process itself.”
Her work is pioneering in many respects, she said, adding that there is no blueprint to follow — as noted, she’s creating one. Thus, she’s reaching out to others in this emerging field of equity and inclusion for advice and best practices. And, following a pattern from earlier in her career, she’s continuing her education. Indeed, she’s pursuing a certificate in diversity, equity, and inclusion from Cornell and attending a number of forums.
Her first assignment is to hire a strategic consultant to help chart a course, and eventually she plans to create a town Equity Advisory Committee.
While breaking new ground in West Springfield, Whitfield continues to serve her constituents across the river in the City of Homes.
As an at-large councilor, she represents the entire city and has established some priorities or specific points of focus, including transparency, finance, public safety (she’s been chair of the Mason Square C3 Initiative since 2016), home ownership, and education and workforce development.
Those are all matters to which she can speak from experience, especially when it comes to seeing how higher education can change one’s career path — and their life.
“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development,” she told BusinessWest. “College isn’t for everyone right after high school, so I think workforce development is a great path.”
Paying It Forward
Amid her myriad roles, Whitfield saves time to mentor others, especially a small group of young women, including some on her campaign team. She advises them on subjects ranging from politics to entrepreneurship; from credit repair to home ownership.
“I feel that anything I’ve done … I can pass that on to others,” she said. “If someone asks, and they’re serious, I’m definitely going to help them.”
And there is much she can help with, as we know from those business cards. Together, they speak of someone who used education to change her life, someone who has chosen not to just live in a community, but get involved in it — someone who has molded herself into a Woman of Impact.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]