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Conference to promote diversity and inclusion in higher ed communities

Diverse group of people talking

As part of USF’s celebration of Black Heritage Month, the St. Petersburg campus will host its second annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference on February 6. Organized by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the conference will bring together dozens of academics, activists, students and staff to discuss and promote social justice issues in higher education.

Following a successful inaugural event in January 2020 that brought together approximately 200 participants and addressed resilience in social experiences, this year’s conference will focus on the theme of “becoming.”

“Our theme stemmed from the idea that cultural competence is a continual process,” said Kemesha Gabbison, assistant professor of psychology and conference organizer. “We are constantly growing and developing as we address issues of diversity and inclusion. It’s important to note that there isn’t a finish line and we shouldn’t expect to fully achieve these goals. Rather, we should always strive to become more diverse and inclusive.”

Beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, February 6, the conference will feature presentations and group discussions that will explore the history of marginalization, the lived experience for people of color and tools that can help attendees address diversity and inclusion issues on campus and in the community. Keynote speakers will include Karla Benson Rutten, founder and CEO of Benson Rutten Innovations, a consulting firm focused on diversity, equity and inclusion leadership development, and Byron Green, assistant director of Housing and Residential Education at USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

“I’ll share my journey and raise a call to action for conference participants to become bold leaders by aligning their words with their actions when it comes to building diverse, inclusive and equitable communities and organizations,” Benson Rutten said. “My hope is that the conference provides multiple opportunities for participants to feel empowered and inspired to make real and sustainable systemic change within their spheres of influence that will ultimately lead to greater equity and social justice for our nation and world.”

group of st pete campus students

The 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Conference brought approximately 200 participants together to discuss resilience in social experiences.

The Diversity and Inclusion Conference has proven especially important in the wake of 2020. Civil unrest over police violence towards Black Americans and effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color, has ignited greater calls and action for social justice.

“The pandemic’s impact and last summer’s civil unrest has caused many in higher education to begin to address the social injustices that created these issues,” said Gabbidon. “These have been long standing issues, but people seem to have been galvanized by recent events to promote diversity and inclusion.”

The 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Conference brought approximately 200 participants together to discuss resilience in social experiences.
More than 175 people have registered for the conference, which will be held virtually due to the coronavirus. In addition to presentations, the conference will include panel discussions, workshops and breakout sessions, some of which will be specifically designed for students.

“By promoting diversity and practicing inclusion, we can become culturally competent in a way that not only benefits society but individuals as well,” said Victoria Bent, a senior health management major who helped organize the conference. “Understanding the perspectives of people who are different than us is key to facilitating a successful and empowering environment.”

Gabbidon anticipates that the conference will help equip participants with the resources needed to ensure campuses become more diverse and inclusive environments.

“Attendees will hopefully gain a bit of optimism,” she said. “Social justice is an issue that extends across the United States. We’ve designed the conference so that people will be able to walk away with tools to address these issues in their own communities.”

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