I was raised in Orlando, Fla.—a place often equated with magic. Like many other youth growing up and discovering who I am in the world, I taught myself to navigate through a magical place and space that would allow me to freely be myself even when others may have had other expectations.
Juneteenth is a reminder that we must value freedom. Freedom to pursue our dreams and to work for our own prosperity—no matter how long it takes to get the message—and that it’s still one of the greatest gifts to cherish! I can only imagine the joy that touched their souls. However, I know how precious freedom is to me.
I chose to live for social justice long before I came to lead the American Conference on Diversity. I’ve always had a passion for social-justice work and viewed the world through the diversity lens. I worked in my faith community educating younger children, in the community promoting pride in my heritage, and in the workplace designing programs for youth and adults that promote diversity. Working in the field of human relations has opened the windows of the world where I’ve met lifelong friends who have their own stories and are just as passionate about social justice as me.
Growing up on the west side of Orlando, I lived in an African-American working-class neighborhood; the first African-American fire chief in the city lived on one side of us and a lawyer on the other. I was surrounded by people who I could aspire to be. I was also heavily influenced by my mother, an activist and member of the NAACP who participated in protests and sit-ins. She raised me to be independent-minded, confident, and comfortable with myself. She refused to allow me to live up to the expectations of others. These qualities stuck with me and helped me to become a leader against all odds.
During my senior year in high school, my mother encouraged me to enter the “Miss Pathfinder” pageant despite my very strong protests. “Big girls don’t do things like that,” I initially said. But I reluctantly auditioned and performed Langston Hughes’ The Negro Mother and Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise for the talent competition. I also lobbied to have the bathing suit competition permanently eliminated from the lineup. Much to my surprise—and the protests of a few other parents!–I won. That year turned out to be a fantastic year of winning. I was Student Body President and placed 1st in our lip-sync contest. A local TV station sent a camera crew to my school to follow me around for the day. I’ll never forget what the reporter, an African-American man, said to me: “You don’t seem to fit the mold of a pageant winner and class president.” Fortunately, I had the self-confidence in that very moment to reply, “When people see you for who you REALLY are, appearances don’t matter as much. It’s the strength of character that matters most.”
At the impressionable age of 16, a statement such as that could present some challenges, and I will never forget that as my defining diversity moment. Defining moments, such as Juneteenth, often come at a place and time when you least expect them.
Today, as the first African-American woman president and CEO to take the helm of the American Conference on Diversity in its 65-year history in New Jersey, I’m on the lookout for other defining diversity moments. This way, I can “pay it forward” and empower people to be their authentic selves through our programs, services, and initiatives. Diversity isn’t just about race and gender; it includes people from all economic levels, nationalities, ages, abilities, faith traditions, sexual orientations, family situations, and more. Aligned with the mission of the American Conference on Diversity, diversity and inclusion are about valuing the freedom to be ourselves and using our unique qualities to allow more access to opportunities for success.
Juneteenth teaches us about the experience of waiting two years enslaved while others were free. This lesson in history could make you bitter or better. I choose to be better through the life I live and the work that I do in diversity.
Elizabeth Williams-Riley is President and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, a New Brunswick, N.J.-based organization that’s celebrating 65 years of valuing diversity, educating leaders, and promoting respect throughout the state.