By Juli Oberlander
Ohio native Marisa Hattab’s first love may have been education, but a turn of events led her to Omaha and her role as Douglas County’s first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer.
In 2016, Hattab was on her honeymoon when her husband, Sami, received orders to Offutt Air Force Base. Within seven months, they moved to the Omaha area, and Hattab was looking for education jobs.
Ever since she was young, Hattab says her goal was to become a teacher due to the lack of diversity she saw in the classroom.
“I only had one person of color from pre-K through 12th grade who was a teacher,” she says. “I had one administrator who was African American, so based on that, I said, ‘I think I want to be a teacher.’”
After receiving her degree in education from Wright State University, Hattab had been working on her teaching certification in Ohio. Because of the move, she says she was unable to finish the process.
For two-and-a-half years, Hattab says she went back and forth with the state to obtain her license in Nebraska. At the time, she was teaching at Omaha Street School, a faith-based alternative high school. Eventually, Hattab left the profession after the state informed her she needed a new degree in order to teach.
Over the next three years, Hattab worked for MENTOR Nebraska, a nonprofit that provides mentoring programs for Nebraska youth. While at MENTOR Nebraska, she says she was doing a substantial amount of DEI work on a local and national scale. She has since realized her DEI background stems back to her childhood.
“When I look at the scope of my life, I was raised in a predominantly white community in Ohio,” Hattab says. “There were initiatives that I did in high school that were under the umbrella of DEI before I even knew that diversity, equity, and inclusion had been coined, but I was doing the work.”
During college, Hattab says she had several experiences that prepared her for her current role. While Wright State University was very diverse, the College of Education was not. Hattab had few minority professors, and her first class with three other African American students was during her senior year.
“We all gravitated to each other,” Hattab says. “Long story short, we ended up having a conversation where we started sharing about our experiences and what it was like being the only person of color in classes, what our experiences were with faculty, and what our experiences were like with professors. The area that was the most painful was our interactions with peers who were going into the teaching profession, and how they treated us. When we were thinking about what could happen when they were going into schools and their students looked like us, we said, ‘This is not a good recipe.’”
Motivated to make a change, Hattab says she contacted the dean of the college, which resulted in a conversation with a handful of professors and faculty members about their experiences. Following the discussion, one of the professors secured a grant for a program requiring seniors to complete a cultural competency component before graduation.
Reflecting on that time, Hattab says her student experiences opened the door for new career paths that she never knew existed.
“In college, I was doing the work,” she says. “When I saw the DEI position open up for the county, I put my name in the hat, and I ended up getting selected. It was a super nontraditional route towards being in this position, and especially in county government, but now that I’ve been in my role just shy of two years, I can absolutely see how my education, my training, facilitation, and now strategic leadership collided together and helped me be successful in my role thus far.”
As the DEI officer for Douglas County, a role she has held since 2022, Hattab meets with senior officials from the county’s 22 departments to develop a DEI action plan that aligns with the overall government structure. Hattab also helps department heads bolster their interviewing processes, job descriptions, and performance evaluations.
This year, she launched a county-wide pilot mentoring program, Mentoring 360. This initiative supports workforce development needs by creating professional growth opportunities for nearly 100 employees. and creates professional growth opportunities.
“It’s going well,” Hattab says. “I’ve been able to hire different consultants who have been able to come and support the efforts, as well, so that’s been good this year.”
In addition to her county work, Hattab has her own consulting company, Marisa Hattab, LLC. For the past few years, she has helped leaders transform workplace culture, led workshops and trainings, and spoken at conferences about building more inclusive job environments.
“Essentially, I want to ensure that I help leaders connect with themselves, and then connect with others,” Hattab says. “A lot of times, when we’re thinking of workplace culture and how we show up in our work, it’s busy. It’s like, ‘Do, do, do’ and ‘Produce, produce, produce.’ What falls to the wayside is people are not in touch with themselves. A lot of us are going so much that we’re not even aware of what we do well, what we don’t do well, and how we can sustain our energy. I like to create spaces where leaders can be in tune with themselves so that they’re then better able to connect with others.”
As a Christian, Hattab says the world could have more harmony if people sought to understand rather than discredit varying points of view.
“There’s a scripture that comes to mind about being slow to anger and slow to speak,” she says. “I think if we would be able to posture ourselves to understand rather than to defend, that [there would be] more space for people to communicate their needs without people fearing that if your need is supported or uplifted, that means one of my needs is then erased. A lot of people seek to defend their stance rather than to seek to understand, so I feel that if we were to be able to cultivate a more inclusive society, people would just listen more, and would listen to understand and not to defend.”
On the job, Hattab says she is working to perfect the skill of listening and creating space for people to be heard.
“I’ve had to learn in this work the importance of really listening to understand,” she says. “Even if I have an emotional response, I have to check myself and say, ‘Okay, you’re having an emotional response. Why? This isn’t about you.’ I have to practice what I preach.”
Along with her DEI work, Hattab says she is passionate about Mom Power Inc., a nonprofit that transforms communities by providing working moms with resources to thrive personally and professionally. Hattab serves as president on the board, and she is currently helping plan the organization’s inaugural Working Moms Professional Conference and Award Luncheon in November.
A working mom of three, Hattab says many mothers juggle multiple responsibilities, including their careers, partners, and children. Often, mothers experience guilt if they take even a little time for themselves, something Hattab understands all too well as she seeks to prioritize her children, Marlee, 13, Kynlee, 6, and Waleed, 2.
While finding the balance can be exhausting, Hattab says Mom Power Inc. is working to help mothers feel less overwhelmed and isolated.
“The founder of the organization is actually my mom, so it’s definitely near and dear to my heart,” she says. “It’s been a huge labor of love for our board.
Just seeing the importance of the work and helping to build something from the ground up is something that I’m really proud of.”
In her journey from teaching to nonprofit work to DEI, Hattab says she has learned more about herself, her strengths, and her passions. She has taken risks and welcomed change,
leaving her comfort zone behind in pursuit of fresh challenges.
“I’m proud of trying something new,” Hattab says. “I had this trajectory, I had this vision of what I thought my life would look like, and I’m not doing what I thought I would, but I’ve found so much significance and joy and growth and discomfort and fresh vision in stepping out and trying something completely different.”
While her career trajectory has diverged from her initial plan, Hattab says she is enjoying the ride and remaining open to new possibilities.
“I had this vision that I would teach for five years, that I would be a principal for maybe 10, and ultimately a superintendent,” Hattab says. “I had this timeline, and I’ve had to grow comfortable with not putting myself in a box. I don’t know what my future is, but I’m anchored in who I am, I’m anchored in what I enjoy, what I don’t enjoy, my purpose. My goal as I think about my next steps and my future is that I would pursue open doors without fear.
So far, taking the risk to try new things and to bet on myself while doing it, even if I did it afraid, has opened so many doors for me that I never envisioned.”