Over the past year, many HEIs in the US have begun to experience “unprecedented threats” to DEI progress, according to Webster. As such, conference organisers sought to deeply explore topics such as health and healing, immigrants and refugees, gender and sexual identity, equity in education, neurodiversity, accessibility and diverse workforce development.
Panellists provided resources, strategies, case studies, and best practices to “help move individuals and organisations from ally-ship to systemic change”.
Former recipient of Webster’s Gamechanger of the Year Award, Michelle Zauner delivered the opening keynote presentation, discussing her New York Times best-selling memoir and upcoming motion picture, Crying in H Mart, in which she describes growing up as a Korean-American and establishing her own identity.
“For many years I didn’t have someone who looked like me who could support and help me advance”
The journey of international students was highlighted in the session, Coming to America: Meeting the Needs of Our Immigrant Neighbors, where panellists discussed myths and misconceptions about the immigrant experience in the US.
Igho Ekakitie, founder of igowithIGHO, shared stories from his own journey of becoming a permanent resident of the US, including challenges he still experiences regarding equity.
Ekakitie created a podcast to amplify the voices of international students in order to promote interest in international experiences.
In discussing the myths about immigrants, Ekakitie said, “There’s a difference between what you’ve heard and the person standing before you.”
Nisha Ray-Chaudhuri, visiting assistant professor at Webster University, agreed, cautioning against maintaining preconceived stereotypes. “Don’t make assumptions about the people [you] meet. Ask them what is it that [they] need. Any assumption that we make might come off as being insensitive.”
DEI in the workplace took centre stage at the conference as experts discussed current challenges and what the future may hold for diversity efforts at work.
Ashley Storman, manager of DEI at New Honor Society said, “Being familiar with the issues and concerns, it became a personal mission for me to implement programs and strategies so people of colour can show up [to work] as their authentic selves.”
Storman suggested that leaders who aim to implement DEI initiatives in their workplace begin with a “listening tour”, composed of qualitative interviews to learn how employees explain the current company culture.
She cautioned against surface-level efforts, such as those often surrounding history months and cultural celebrations. “We need to get deeper if we want to change the culture.”
Ebony Jones, director, of inclusion and diversity at Accenture, a federal services consulting group, spoke about why workplace-endorsed DEI initiatives matter.
“I know the importance of representation. For many years I didn’t have someone who looked like me who could support and help me advance, so I wanted to create opportunities for myself and others in the firm.
“DEI is a journey and culture change is very hard.” She advised implementing DEI principles in all aspects of the workplace “so it becomes just how we do business,” adding, “that’s when you start to have culture changes,” Jones proffered.
Jones argued that while, as a nation, the US has “made great strides [in DEI], we still have a long way to go”.
During the three days of sessions, Webster announced the winners of two awards for individuals who have championed DEI efforts in a unique way. The 2023 Game Changer of the Year Award was presented to Quinton Ward, co-creator of Speak Up St. Louis. And the Champion for All Award was presented to to NY Times best-selling author, Lyah LaFlore-Ituen.