April 2, 2020

Diversity & Inclusion conference sets attendance record

Webster University hosted its fifth annual Diversity & Inclusion Conference from Feb. 23 to 27. The event featured Sam White, Shelly TochlukMichele Norris and other speakers. 

Webster’s fifth annual Diversity & Inclusion Conference attracted a record number of attendees during its four-day run, Feb. 23 to 27, on the university’s home campus in Webster Groves.

Social media influencer, civic entrepreneur and political activist Sam White took the stage on Feb. 24 and told his story of navigating college in a community that wasn’t accepting. During his keynote, he talked of his experiences with racism, joining Kappa Alpha Psi, becoming an ally and why it is important to show up for people.

“We have nothing to lose. We have everything to gain,” he told the audience at the Loretto-Hilton Center.

White ended his session with a Q&A, during which he shared his thoughts on cultural appropriation, neutrality and how to remain in good faith when people are working against you.

The following day included panels from Webster Chancellor Elizabeth Stroble and assistant director of employment relations, Trezette Dixon.

Stroble’s panel, “Mulan and Me,” focused on the role of women and minorities in society, and how what a person wears says a lot about who they are. Stroble, along with Webster Chief Diversity Officer Vincent Flewellen and Religious Studies professor Keith Welsch, engaged with the audience. They asked questions that pertained to the scene in the movie, “Mulan,” where the characters sing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”

For her presentation, Dixon spoke with representatives from different companies about diversity in the workplace and focused on the ways that students can take the initiative in having a diverse career. Speakers emphasized that by creating a diverse workplace—with people of different races, genders and abilities—workers will be the most comfortable.

Webster president Julian Schuster (left), chancellor Elizabeth Stroble and Spire Inc. vice president Mark Darrell, a member of the university’s board of trustees, listen to Michele Norris’ presentation at the university’s Winifred Moore Auditorium. Photo by Jennifer Sarti.

Among the conference’s highlights was the keynote from journalist Michele Norris, who discussed her book, “The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir.” Reading from an excerpt in her book, Norris spoke about her father’s death, and how her family found out that he was shot in the leg. This was done by a white police officer while trying to enter a temple to learn the Constitution so he could vote. She also spoke about the organization she founded, The Race Card Project.

The Race Card Project, Norris explained, was a way for people to tell their stories of race in six words or less. With each card she displayed, she showed a photo and gave a back story.

One woman who worked at an adoption agency wrote, “Black babies cost less to adopt.”

Another person wrote, “Racism is a flesh-colored band aid.”

Norris discussed how such cards force people to face hard truths and how important it is to remain at the table even when things get uncomfortable.

Later that day, Trish Muyco-Tobin, Webster journalism professor and Gazelle magazine community editor, moderated a panel on diversity in the media, it featured a conversation on how a diverse newsroom can impact the community. Members of the panel were KSDK Channel 5 investigative reporter PJ Randhawa and Gazelle Media founder and publisher Cillah Hall. They talked about claiming their spots at a predominantly white, male table, how to use their diversity as an advantage and how to become an ambassador for people like them.

Nationally syndicated columnist Aisha Sultan, who produced the film, “Other People,” hosted a screening of her documentary. In it, a St. Louis man of color and members of his family are shown facing micro-aggressions in their everyday lives. Following the screening, Sultan invited students to share the stage for a discussion.

“This is where I’m from. How do I deal with these situations politely?” Webster student Drew Fisher asked during the discussion.

Sultan opined that with personal relationships people should have patience; however, in structural relationships, people need to have courage.

“Courage is contagious is just as contagious as fear”, she told the audience, adding that these conversations can lead to change.

Closing out the conference was a keynote from Shelly Tochluk, author of “Witnessing Whiteness.” Tochluk spoke about four lessons: accountability, on ramps and lanes, white racial identity and white supremacy. In these four lessons, she talked about how she and the AWARE-LA alliance work to encourage others to become allies. She also called on white people to get involved, take leadership, and work together with people of color to make racial justice more accessible.

“We have an urgent need to scale up our efforts and expand those committing to the movement,” Tochluk said. This year’s conference drew more participants than in previous years, with approximately 1,600 attendees. Flewellen credits this year’s slate of nationally acclaimed keynote speakers, as well as publicity about the conference throughout the St. Louis community.

“We were incredibly fortunate to not only count among our participants, our own Webster students, faculty and staff, but corporate, educational and community members from across the St. Louis region,” Flewellene said. “Looking forward to making next year’s conference even better!”

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