Ask Me Anything: Ben Tapper, Diversity Officer

He just marked his one-year anniversary as Indy’s first chief diversity and equity officer. Answering to Mayor Joe Hogsett, Ben Tapper is responsible for ensuring the city lives up to its diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments. Given his wide range of experience, including as a chaplain, a community organizer, and a racial equity consultant, he was destined for the job.
Photography by Jay Goldz

Some have asked why Indianapolis needs a diversity officer. You have two employees and an annual budget of $687,685.
Given that Indianapolis is the most diverse it’s ever been racially, ethnically, and probably linguistically, it’s crucial we think about whether our city services are meeting the needs of all our residents. How are we creating new services to meet needs that didn’t exist before? An example is language access. We have emerging Burmese and Haitian populations. Some come here speaking English as well as anyone else, but for others, English is a second language at best. It can be difficult for them to get on our website and understand how to find city services, how to pay taxes, or who to call when something goes wrong with trash pickup. It’s important that information is translated into languages that represent our population.

What drew you to the position?
It sounds hokey, but when I saw the job posting online, it just felt like me, the embodiment of how I show up. I saw it as a role that would challenge me and force me to grow, and that combination was really appealing.

What’s your typical day like?
It could be doing research on best practices, [or it could be] meeting with community members and stakeholders in different parts of the city and exploring the impacts of equity on any new policies or programs. For instance, I might be looking at our workforce, how diverse we are, and whether that diversity is spread out across different pay grades.

How did your early life shape you?
Mary, we don’t got the time! In short, though I’m only 35, I feel like I’ve lived probably four lifetimes. I was homeless as a young child and survived domestic violence. Then I was adopted into a middle-class white family in Merrillville … my experiences being both Black and white. I’ve been deeply rooted in faith at times and agnostic at other points in my life. I’ve been on the different sides of so many arguments, so I think that I can be a bridge between different worlds. That both inspires me to eradicate any injustice or inequity I see, but it also moderates me and allows me to understand where people are coming from. Even if I can’t reach a point of understanding, I can usually invite some curiosity in, and that helps me lead with a role of relationship-building rather than antagonism.

How did your degree in divinity prepare you for the job?
Going through seminary helped me redefine my relationship with myself in terms of my racial identity, my family of origin, and my faith. It was very foundational for who I am and how I show up. When you’re doing pastoral work, especially as a chaplain, you’re sometimes sitting with people in the worst moments of life. So there’s nothing you can throw at me that’s harder than sitting with a family who’s watching a loved one die. It gives me confidence going into any conflict or place of fear that it can be handled.

Just drive to a different part of the city, take a chance, and experience it, whether by eating at a restaurant, going to a festival, or attending a local meeting. Just get out of your bubble and expose yourself to our diversity.

What does Indianapolis do well?
I’ve heard about progress being made in terms of the responsiveness of law enforcement officers and their relationship with the community. There is a continuing desire by IMPD leadership to listen, to engage, and to understand what the community wants. And vice versa. Community members are on calls with IMPD sharing their perspectives and pushing for things they need. And there are conversations between our Black and Jewish communities, our Black and Mexican communities, and between different immigrant and refugee populations. Those are signs that we’re learning how to understand diversity in ways that bring us together rather than push us apart.

Where can Indianapolis do better?
Plenty of places. Language access, not only for the immigrant refugee communities, but for those who are hard of hearing or visually impaired. If you look at SAVI’s Racial Equity Report Card, one of the most glaring systemic inequities is the infant and maternal mortality rate, particularly in our Black and indigenous communities. And relationships between our Black and brown communities and educational and healthcare institutions can always be improved.

How do you spend your downtime, assuming you have any?
I enjoy talking about world problems, oddly enough. That’s just me. Give me a shot of bourbon and a couple of people who want to go deep, and we can have a good time. I also like to work out and spend time with my family and kids. Parenthood is a weird gift, so I try to appreciate it as much as I can, learn from my kids, and figure out how to intentionally teach them the things I think they need to have a beautiful, meaningful life.

How can we each contribute to making Indianapolis a better place?
Number one, leave your neighborhood a little more often. This is probably most true for white residents. Indianapolis is more and more diverse. Just drive to a different part of the city, take a chance, and experience it, whether by eating at a restaurant, going to a festival, or attending a local meeting. Just get out of your bubble and expose yourself to our diversity. Number two, pay attention to what’s happening in your local neighborhood groups. See if there’s a chance to get involved, maybe through school boards, a neighborhood association, or a church. And three, just continue to work to better yourself. Maybe it’s reading more, educating yourself on issues, exercising, or going to therapy. If we can all be healthier and more well-rounded, that would go a long way toward improving our city.

How will you measure your success?
I came into this job wanting to do X number of things, so I’ll look back at whether we were able to move the needle on those items. Qualitatively speaking, I’ll measure my success by whether we are continuing to see improvements in community relationships, like between IMPD and our Black neighbors, and whether more members of our diverse populations are engaged in our civic process.

You sound hopeful that you can make inroads through your work.
I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.