On Friday afternoon, about 30 Rackham students and post-doctoral fellows attended a conversation about student-led diversity initiatives and inclusivity with Damon Williams, author and chief catalyst for Strategic Diversity Leadership & Social Innovation. The conversation took place during the Rackham Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Symposium, which included a panel of student diversity leaders and a keynote address delivered by Williams.

The symposium aimed to create a sense of community among DEI leaders and highlight the work Rackham students are doing to make the school more inclusive and accepting. The event was also run by the Professional Development DEI Certificate Program, which began in 2017 and prepares Rackham students to become engaged with DEI work once they are in the workforce.

As chief catalyst, Williams works with universities, companies and government agencies to develop programs that increase diversity and promote his theory of “inclusive excellence” in higher education.  

Deborah Willis, Rackham’s academic program manager for professional and academic involvement, helped coordinate Friday’s discussion. She said one of the goals of the symposium was to demonstrate how critical diversity is for students studying at the graduate level.

“I feel very strongly that you have to have a diverse community to really have excellence,” Willis said. “We talk about excellence, several people today mentioned that the world is becoming more and more diverse and if we don’t know how to communicate with each other across difference, and there is going to be a lot of difference, it’s important to have (diversity) in graduate education. You can’t really have excellence in education without it.”

Williams opened the conversation by giving students a brief background on his childhood in inner-city Dayton, Ohio and years at Western Reserve Academy, a private boarding school in Hudson, Ohio. Williams, whose parents were teenagers when he was born, said he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood where he rarely interacted with people of other races. He said his father’s choice to raise his children in a low-income area stood in contrast to his status as a successful banker in a majority-white company.

“My father became the first African-American to make vice president in his life insurance company and ran small and mid-cap investment portfolios,” Williams said. “So here he was in the most lily-white of the business disciplines, thriving and doing well, but kept us absolutely rooted and anchored in the hood. So we lived in an environment where candidly, economically we could have lived in much different and candidly, better environments. But for whatever reasons, my father really wanted to remain rooted in that Black experience.”

Williams also discussed how boarding school exposed him to diversity for the first time and made him more aware of his own privileges and disadvantages as a black man in an elite private school. He said this experience and his choice to write his high school senior thesis on Malcolm X and Black Muslims motivated him to become involved with diversity, equity and inclusion work later in life.

“Those questions of identity and who I am, and where I am, and my place and space and issues of power and privilege,” Williams said. “Tupac Shakur used to say ‘the thug life hit me like the Holy Ghost’ — I say ‘issues of power and privilege hit me like the Holy Ghost.’ It hit me really hard. And I really dedicated my life (to it) beginning my senior year in boarding school.”

After telling audience members about his background and personal reasons for getting involved in DEI work, Williams opened the floor to questions from Rackham students and faculty.

In response to a question asked by a student who said she often feels discouraged in her field because she doesn’t often see others who look like her, Williams said his relationship with Ronald Taylor, a former professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, taught him that one person can have an impact but can never fully solve a systemic problem by themselves.

“One of the things he told me about the work is he said ‘Damon, you take this too serious,’” Williams said. “He was like, ‘you actually think you’re going to solve it all by yourself.’ He said ‘unfortunately, that’s not how this thing works. I wish it was, but I’m giving you the playbook that allows you to be able to burn at a really great intensity throughout your career versus burning so hot at the beginning of your career that you burn out.’”

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to remove a quote from a graduate student who asked The Daily not use her name and comments. 

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