Students, speakers at MCLA's inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference find it 'empowering'

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NORTH ADAMS — Chenzira Davis-Kahina seemed to be having the time of her life.

Sitting in the front row, Davis-Kahina, director of the Virgin Islands & Caribbean Cultural Center at the University of the Virgin Islands, joined dozens of others to greet poet and activist Nikki Giovanni with a standing ovation — before her talk even began.

Giovanni gave the keynote presentation Wednesday at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts during the inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference, which stretched over four days last week.

A day earlier, Davis-Kahina gave a well-received presentation about her own initiative, called "Heritage Education and Arts Legacy: HEAL365," which combines culturally sensitive educational programs while addressing trauma and providing community engagement opportunities for participants. In addition to grappling with systemic racism and classism, folks in the Virgin Islands are still trying to recover emotionally and economically from damages caused by hurricanes in 2017.

"It's only day two, but there's a synergy here," she told The Eagle, using a description that would come up again, interview after interview, with other presenters and participants. While diversity, equity and inclusion is a broad umbrella of terms, the conference theme invited participants to focus on "Catalyzing 21st Century Discourse and Engagement on Race."

Davis-Kahina credited conference creator Emily Allen Williams, MCLA's vice president of academic affairs, "for doing exceptional work" — citing the theme, the caliber of local and international presenters, and topics presented at the event.

"This is a bold step," she said. "This is a human rights space, and those who are here have come here for solutions."

The issues themselves were identified over the course of the week. While she read from her work, Giovanni began her keynote presentation by addressing the issues of slavery, gun violence and trauma among other topics.

Referring to the matter of reparations, Giovanni said, "You can't say ... your great-grandmother was a slave, how about we send you a check and that will make it all right? My great-grandmother was not a prostitute. ... So you can't write a check and make it all right. You have to change. You have to make something happen that makes it all right."

While waiting in line to meet the speaker after her talk, Mississippi State University Professor Anthony Sean Neal spoke about he sees society shifting, from what he referred to as the rhetoric of "toleration" under the President Ronald Reagan.

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"Now it's about accepting people on those people's terms," Neal said, adding the caveat, "We've done a lot, but we have a long way to go."

During a Wednesday luncheon, Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, director of The Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, gave a talk titled "Embedding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into Higher Education Strategies," during which she explained how access and achievement gaps persist in Western Massachusetts among black, Latin American and Hispanic students.

She detailed benchmarks and multiyear strategies that can help higher-education institutions to better diversify its staff and student rosters, through actions like hiring an institutional researcher to keep track of multicultural student enrollment and progress; actively working with students and staff to ensure not only recruitment, but retention, and providing quality training for faculty to work with students of diverse backgrounds, from residential life to curriculum.

"A lot of institutions say we want this, and they don't back it up with funding," Lugo-DeJesus said. "You have to make diversity, equity and inclusion a strategic priority."

If you don't want students or programs to fall through the cracks, she said, "You need financial stability for these programs."

While classes are over, a group of multicultural students stayed on campus to help launch the MCLA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference, supporting all the behind-the-scenes logistics.

"Especially for students of color, just knowing something like this is happening on campus is empowering for us," said Fatima Sidibe, a rising sophomore majoring in environmental studies. "Now we can take [what we've learned] back to the students who weren't here this week."

"I'm very excited, but for me a big thing is the push for change. There's no representation of that diversity on campus that represents us," Dominique Stevenson-Pope said of the demographic makeup of MCLA faculty and staff. She is a rising senior studying history with a minor in women's studies, and is also a student adviser to the college's new Institute for the Arts and Humanities, which also launched on Wednesday.

Stevenson-Pope noted that there is also a lack of people representing students of diverse social classes and disabilities, especially in upper-level roles at the college.

"I hope to see more of a desire from the faculty to want these things, to want their students to feel included," she said. "There's a lot of talk but no action."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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