MCLA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference set to kick off

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NORTH ADAMS — Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.

These three words have been prolifically popping up in job titles, office and department names, and professional development programs in higher education, health and business sectors and beyond.

But why? And why does it matter? And more importantly, how can it be cultivated in a community like the Berkshires?

This week the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will welcome guests from the Caribbean to California to take a deep dive into these matters through its inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference, which runs Tuesday through Friday.

The conference will focus on the theme of "Catalyzing 21st Century Discourse and Engagement on Race," and feature world-renowned activist, commentator, educator, poet and writer Nikki Giovanni as the keynote speaker. The conference will also include music executive Mathew Knowles, who, in addition to being the father and former manager for daughters Beyonce and Solange Knowles, has worked as an academic and written on issues of leadership and racism, as well as panels with local leaders and national scholars.

Within the conference, MCLA on Wednesday morning will also officially launch its Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Under the guidance of arts management professor, Lisa Donovan, it is a multifaceted diversity, equity and inclusion initiative funded by a $360,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to connect the campus community with area arts and humanities opportunities and resources throughout the Berkshires. Multicultural Bridge CEO and founding Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant will lead a day's worth of workshops and discussions with area arts leaders as part of the launch.

The conference is the brainchild of Vice President of Academic Affairs Emily Williams and is being co-directed with Chief Diversity Officer Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, both who are wrapping up their first academic year at MCLA. Williams and MacDonald-Dennis were hired in an intentional effort to diversify campus leadership.

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Williams says the need for diversity, equity and inclusion to take place in institutions "has always existed."

"We've given it a name and now that we've claimed it," she said. "It's become a matter of what do we do with it."

Williams said the conference will allow local leaders to talk about what they observe happening in Berkshire neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and homes that helps or hinders the advancement and quality of life for people. It will also give participants the opportunity to learn firsthand about different strategies to address diversity, equity and inclusion happening in this hemisphere.

"When we say 'diversity, equity and inclusion,' it's important for us to identify what we are talking about, and say what form of diversity are we talking about," MacDonald-Dennis said.

He said it's significant that the first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference is focusing on race, because "I think race is the form of diversity that is most challenging to people to talk about."

But he said class, privilege, oppression and power are just as important to address, especially at an institution of higher education where the goals of advancing education and career attainment are paramount.

This fall, MacDonald-Dennis will be working with a pair of faculty fellows, Jenna Sciuto and Kerri Nicholl, to train a team of faculty members in diversity, equity and inclusion practices and to develop a mission strategic plan for diversity on campus. MacDonald-Dennis is also hoping to bring more students into the process by establishing a student advisory board.

"What I'm hoping is that this conference will help me to kind of pick people's brains and to say these are the issues here, and these are the things we might be able to do," he said.


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