The Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted its first Diversity Leadership Conference for around 50 Northwest students and employees Feb. 22 on the third floor of the J.W. Jones Student Union.
Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion Justin Mallett said the conference was planned over a year and a half, and he said he plans to grow it to become a regional conference over the next several years.
The conference featured three hour-long sessions followed by a dinner and a keynote address by Georgetown Sociology Professor Michael Eric Dyson.
During each session block, attendees had four session options to choose from, which ranged from career preparation with session leaders like Jill Brown and Travis Kline from career services to research-centric, educational sessions about African American Art, LGBTQ+ experiences in rural towns and women’s suffrage in the midwest led by Northwest faculty and students.
Citizens National Bank also held two financial literacy sessions.
In a session called “Grow Your Own: creating a pipeline of educators reflecting students in the classroom,” the leaders of the Grow Your Own program out of the Kansas City campus of Northwest discussed what their program does to combat the issue of lack of diversity in the field of education.
Nationwide, 80% of teachers are white and the vast majority are women. This is particularly an issue in the North Kansas City School District, where 91.5% of teachers are white, but only 61.5% of students are white, according to a district survey.
Mark Maus, the executive director of human resources for North Kansas City Schools, said students perform better when they see themselves in their teachers.
“There’s not a lot of research on it yet, but there’s benefits to white students having teachers of color as well,” Maus said.
Even among the packed meeting room of attendees, the majority were white women seeking undergraduate degrees in education or graduate degrees in counseling.
The idea of Grow Your Own is to assist future educators from North Kansas City who are men and/or students of color in becoming teachers and returning to their home school district through financial assistance, workforce development and a summer field program through Northwest.
The program gets Northwest Kansas City students in classrooms early in their education, similar to the Horace Mann Laboratory School experience Northwest students get at the Maryville campus.
Associate Professor Victoria Seeger said the Grow Your Own program is supposed to be a state-wide program, but it receives no state funding and is inconsistently employed throughout Missouri.
Mallett asked why the Grow Your Own program doesn’t extend to the Maryville campus, and Seeger said the two students in the program started at the main campus but transferred to the Kansas City campus after their first semester.
“It was absolutely about being a student of color on a white campus,” Maus said.
A recurring theme throughout the conference was the challenge of being an underrepresented student on a predominantly white campus, as well as the intersections of race-based disadvantage and other experiences with classism, being LGBTQ+ or first-generation.
Inspired by her doctoral dissertation, Assistant Director of Academic Support Ashley Strickland held a session called “Perceptions of Campus Climate: rural LGBTQ+ student experiences at a rural midwestern university.”
Rather than spending the hour reading from her dissertation, Strickland used her research findings as a jumping-off point for discussion about improving the college experience for LGBTQ+ students.
A recurring issue the group tried to come to grips with was the lack of one-size-fits-all solution for student belonging on campus because every LGBTQ+ student is at a different stage in their identity development and has different community needs.
Northwest Kansas City freshman Isael Bautista brought up the opportunity of educating non-LGBTQ+ students by inviting them into groups like Helping Everyone Regardless of Orientation, but there is a tension between that and some students’ need to have an LGBTQ+-only space as part of their identity development.
Strickland’s research found huge benefits for LGBTQ+ teens in being part of a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar group in high school, but a session attendee from a rural town expressed concern about students outing themselves in a small town by joining a GSA.
However, Strickland found in her research that there are benefits in spite of the risk.
“One thing that consistently came up in talking to people and research is even though the students who did choose to come out in these rural environments, even though victimization increased, even though bullying increased, what also increases is mental health, which shocks a lot of people,” Strickland said.
Some sessions reached outside of the Maryville community and addressed international perspectives on diversity, like Sociology Assistant Professor Giselle Greenridge’s session about Colorism.
Colorism is the system of advantages in areas like education, housing, income and marriage, favoring lighter-skinned people over darker-skinned people. The session’s panel focused especially on colorism in Africa and the Carribean, but panelists also focused the issue back to the U.S.
The panel consisted of Texas Instruments engineer Bernart Hurtault, Communications professor Bayo Joachim, TRIO Director Cassie Tavorn and Northwest student Gabriella Garcia-Adams.
The biggest issue the panel addressed was divides within black communities globally because of lighter-skinned people having advantages and more social capital. Hurtault described his experiences in the Dominica where the mixed-race descendants of white former plantation owners were more likely to climb economic and social ladders because of their relationship to the former power structure being symbolized in their skin tone.
Garcia-Adams and Joachim broached the subject of extreme measures of skin lightening, from rarely going out in the sun to dangerous skin bleaching. Joachim said in Nigeria, 77% of women bleach their skin. One student attending the session pointed out the fact that skin bleaches are readily available, usually shelved next to hair relaxers in beauty stores.
“Skin color has become the defining characteristic of how we define racial identity,” Hurtault. “It’s obvious a narrative has been crafted over the past 500 years that white is the highest level of aspiration.”
Tavorn said the best way to counter this narrative in the community is helping black men and women feel valued in something beyond appearance, teaching self-love and celebrating accomplishments in a meaningful way.
“It’s this whole problem of image-obsession,” Joachim said. “My hope is that if we start on the younger generation, … we can let them know that essence precedes existence.”
Dyson, an author, contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, MSNBC political analyst and contributing editor at New Republic, brought the conference full circle with a message about the necessity of diversity.
An ordained Baptist minister, Dyson addressed the crowd the way he would a congregation. His speech crested and fell like a wave, milking the crowd for all the energy it could give on a Saturday night, then abruptly dropping low to deliver lines too heavy to be met with anything but silence. All the while, he took off-handed jabs at Washington, D.C., politicians in the margins.
The conference was organized by Mallett, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinators Adam Gonzales and N’ninah Freelon, Wellness Center counselor Dana Mallett, Faculty Senate President Jenny Rytting, associate professor Jackie Kibler and instructor Sara Creason.
Following the afternoon sessions, the conference attendees gathered for a group discussion, and Geography professor Mark Corson addressed the way people still separated themselves into comfortable social groups, and said in spite of progress that may have been made that day, there was still work to be done.
“We talked about a lot of institutional approaches. … How do we go about building bridges across those things that divide us on an individual level, supported by institutional approaches?” Corson said.
Graduate student Adrianna Bennett said she tried to attend a wide range of sessions because, as someone who doesn’t identify with being underrepresented, she wanted to take the opportunity to learn about others’ experiences.
“There’s never is change that’s comfortable, so if you want to change yourself or you want to help change your classroom to the University, you gotta start with having awkward conversation,” Bennett said.
She said her only complaint with the conference was that it was too short.
“I loved the sessions, and I wish I could attend more,” Bennett said. “I would totally go to an all-day Diversity Leadership Conference. If this started at 8 a.m., I’d still be here.”