Students and guest speakers spoke on panels on discussions about race, gender identity, sexuality and disability during the sixth annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference.
This week, Webster hosted the sixth annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference. The conference, which was first held in 2016 around the topic “Critical Conversations,” was moved to a webinar platform this year.
The 2021 conference features presentations centered around the topic, “Beyond Conversation: Driving Our Future.”
The welcome message from the university on the conference’s website states, “Breaking down barriers to success and creating a more liberated and inclusive environment has never been more important than it is at this very moment.”
Sarah Hill, president of the Student Government Association (SGA), hosted a panel about advocating for those underrepresented in leadership alongside Jessica Battle, vice president of SGA. The panel aimed to address how people in positions of power can support and be an ally to others.
“This is important because DEI involves every single one of us – it cannot be the responsibility of one sole person,” Hill said. “We hope that everyone from students to working professionals will benefit from our workshop, because … each of us, regardless of position or privilege, can make the spaces we are already in welcoming to all.”
For the sixth DEI conference, having productive conversations about difficult subjects was the focal point. Panels ranged from discussions on disability, race, sexuality and gender identity and exemplified how those who have struggled overcame adversity.
Freshman Nae Lowery and her family hosted a discussion panel centered around her journey as a transgender woman of color. Having faced discrimination and bullying because of her identity, Lowery spent much of her youth overcoming challenges.
“It’s just like going to the grocery store. When my parents go, they’re going to the grocery store. When I go, it’s more so, ‘Is my safety in danger?’” Lowery said.
For transgender women of color, the rate of violence perpetrated against them is considered by advocates, such as the Human Rights Campaign, to be at “crisis level.” According to the FBI’s 2019 Uniform Crime Report, hate crimes against transgender people rose by 20% from 2018, going from 189 victims in 2018 to 227 a year later.
Not only did Lowery worry for her safety, but she also felt mistreated by institutions thought of as protectors and supporters.
In kindergarten, Lowery was asked by the teacher to draw a self-portrait. She drew a girl with hoop earrings and a ponytail. At the time, Lowery presented as masculine. After the teacher saw the picture, there was a subsequent meeting with Lowery’s parents.
“I just remember in my head being like, ‘What is the big deal about this? This is me. This picture is me,’” Lowery said during her panel. “I think I was drawing who I was on the inside, rather than on the outside.”
For Lowery, she said her experiences as a Black, transgender woman in the city of St. Louis made her stronger.
“Never lose hope. One day, it gets better. It might be tomorrow, it might be five years from now, but when it’s there, it’s so worth it,” Lowery said.
Experiences, stories and perspectives such as Lowery’s showcase the types of conversations and topics Webster strives to normalize.
Starting off the conference was Kai Stowers and his presentation, “Mindfulness and Intercultural Communication: Showing Up in Mind, Body and Heart.” Stowers’ panel set the stage for the rest of the conference; he discussed strategies on how to have healthy communication with people of diverse backgrounds.
Stowers approached his perspective in the panel from his background as a white, transgender man. In this, he realized his role as a communicator who has minority identities, but also socially dominant identities.
“Learning and developing in intercultural communication requires a lot of self-reflection and vulnerability,” Stowers said. “I’m hoping that if I can show my process and things that I’ve struggled with, that will help other people understand that this might be hard, not because you can’t do it but because it’s challenging.”
Stowers worked as a chemist for companies such as Fortune 500 and Genentech. He eventually progressed to coaching mindfulness in organizations. He obtained a certification in Integral Coaching in 2015 and went on to complete his Executive Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and Change Leadership.
Having recently started working with educational organizations, Stowers sought to make an impact on students attending his panel.
“I’m hoping [students] can walk away with new tools to use to continue to develop, because we all have things to learn,” Stowers said. “Many of us have fear when it comes to navigating conversations across differences. By normalizing it and giving us some tools on how to support ourselves, it can help us be more effective.”
Lowery also advocated for normalizing conversations about differences and diversity.
“You go through something really life-changing, which can be very negative … People are taught by society that [negative life-changing events are] not okay to share,” Lowery said, “but if we’re never having that conversation, then it’s never going to get better.”
Lowery said the impact she wants to have with her story is producing conversation, which she said, in turn, produces change.