When I began to engage in social-justice work, it wasn’t a field. It was an opportunity to think about equity and be included. It was my idea of trying to work toward ideals, obtain a quality of life that I deserve and am entitled to, and overcome barriers that exist because of my race and gender. Through my realities in facing injustice, I realized I could be made bitter or better. I chose the latter. Then, through my academic experience majoring in advertising and PR at the University of Central Florida, I realized that in order to sell products, you have to understand your audience. How persuasive you are is rooted in how well you know your audience and what they respect and value. I want people to understand that too. I want them to understand who I am when engaging personally, in my career, and society at large. My diversity work didn’t start with my career. It started with my life.
During the early stage of social development, young people are more reflective of their lives and their future. And when you think about diversity and inclusion, it’s a key element of our future and how we interact in society. The early years of life are critical because young people are still being molded and struggling with “how do I fit in?” Children at an earlier stage, while still impressionable, aren’t as tuned in to their environment. During the high-school years, there’s more of a sense of urgency but you also still have the opportunity to influence them. When in high school, students are also highly influenced by those around them. That’s why the American Conference on Diversity holds our annual Educators’ Institute each summer to work with teachers, administrators, counselors, educators, and others interested in building more inclusive educational environments. We connect them to the process. To learn more about our Educators’ Institute, please visit http://americanconferenceondiversity.org/educators-institute.
We also provide high-school students throughout New Jersey the opportunity to attend our Lead for Diversity year-long experiential program to learn planning skills (because they have to create action plans that are implemented in their schools), communication skills (because they do presentations), and teamwork (though small group discussions) as well as individual leadership skills. These are all tangible skills that make them more effective team players and leaders, plus they gain a knowledge base of diversity and inclusion. So when they get to the workplace, they are better prepared because they look at the different dimensions of diversity. Our student delegates are also exposed to corporate leaders who serve as our mentors in the program. For example, we’ve had a man from PSEG volunteer at Lead for Diversity for years. We also train corporate leaders to work alongside the students. Find out more about our middle and high-school programs here: http://americanconferenceondiversity.org/middled.
Providing programs such as these has become challenging. Because of the economy, more and more young people are taking on jobs to support families and extracurricular projects become difficult for them. Some students no longer have the luxury to participate in activities, especially long-term ones like our Lead for Diversity (for 11th and 12th graders) that stretch the entire school year. Our programs are not one-day programs; they last over time because change occurs over time. We deal with this by asking each school to send a team of students that can carry the load if someone drops out. There’s also the challenge of capacity building and resources. That’s why we use highly trained volunteers who are prepared and have the skill sets to deliver our services. We train more than 100 people each year to participate in our Lead for Diversity program.
Corporations that are committed to diversity and inclusion recognize that programs such as ours help build a broad and diverse talent pipeline for the future. They are intentional about partnering with schools and organizations like ours that provide student services. It’s one thing to provide resources, but it’s quite another to connect in the sense of humanity. That makes a difference. If young people can see themselves in the corporate world in ways that are practical, that makes a big difference. That person then becomes a part of their reality. Corporations can work with us to sponsor one of our Lead for Diversity teams and help with the initiative (contact Pam@AmericanConferenceonDiversity.org). They can also reach out and share their defining diversity moments with us to impact the lives of youth and to celebrate our 65th anniversary of valuing diversity, educating leaders, and promoting respect throughout New Jersey!
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.