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Florida is rapidly becoming one of the world’s innovation hubs. Those of us in the Tampa Bay region are experiencing a time of growth and development that is simultaneously increasing our need for diverse talent. As we continue to attract people from a wide range of identities and life experiences, it is critical that we, as a society, are prepared to have difficult conversations that center on dimensions of diversity.
Although it has been noted that there is a need and desire to advance cultural competencies, it has become increasingly difficult over the last few years as disagreements about politics and racial, gender, sexual, and class identity have clouded our collective ability to communicate effectively with one another. This polarization, or division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs, has stifled efforts to build bridges that would ultimately improve the ability to innovate together across a range of identities. Luckily, efforts to address these concerns are underway in our region, having a national reach.
On Nov. 3, Inclusivity, LCC, one of Tampa Bay’s premier Diversity and Inclusion consulting firms, headed by Erik C. Smith, hosted its annual conference, Thriving in a House Divided: Pathways to Healing in a Polarized Society. Inclusivity, LLC is a full-service consulting firm with a cultural competence lens that passionately believes a diverse workforce fuels creativity, innovation, and economic growth. Their mission is to work with clients, agencies and systems to advance cultural competencies in the workplace and amongst the workforce. The annual conference received support from Pinellas Community Foundation, The Foundation For A Healthy St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Equity Incubator, Juvenile Welfare Board, Healthy Start at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Allegany Franciscan Ministries, The City of St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Tampa Bay Rays, Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber Of Commerce.
Inclusivity’s conference proved that our nation’s current communication struggle is a significant concern for multi-sector and industry leaders. The online gathering amassed over 300 attendees who came with the goals of acknowledging the challenges we have communicating within and across our communities and examining strategic approaches to navigating complicated discussions.
Six panels shaped these discussions throughout the day. The topics centered on navigating conversations with a polarized perspective, educating on equity in the midst of anti-woke legislation, dimensions of diversity that impact effective engagement, psychology and safety and its role in maintaining safe workplaces and communities, what to do when “woke” goes wrong, and changing the paradigm of dividing and conquering to work together. These meaningful discussions were moderated by Inclusivity’s DEI experts and spearheaded by national and local leaders including, but not limited to, Daniel Gibson, Regional Vice-President of Miami-Dade Allegany Franciscan Ministries, Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, and Melody Yoo, Founding Member of Asian American Voices for Education.
Mayor Kenneth Welch of St. Petersburg, whose campaign message was Intentional Equity and Inclusive Progress, attended the conference and stated that “At a human level, I think people understand the fact that as a community, we can’t achieve our highest level of success if large segments of our communities don’t have hope and don’t have equal access to opportunity. I view equity as equal opportunity informed by historical facts and then the cumulative impact of our historical realities on our current circumstances.”
This sentiment was reflected by the Rays’ Brian Auld, who emphasized the importance of respecting the lived experiences of people of color and being intentional about working towards changing the status quo to improve the lives of all diverse populations. He warned that “A lack of intentionality can lead to really ugly scenarios such as communities living more and more isolated from each other, workplaces only hiring friends who look and think like them, and the like. It’s crucial that if we’re going to move forward as a country, we figure out ways to bridge those differences.”
Lynda Gonzales-Chavez, Senior Vice President/Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Global Officer of YMCA of the USA, highlighted that when polarizing conversations take place, it’s often a reflection of a larger societal or community issue. She encouraged participants to lean into those conversations bravely, utilizing that space to listen with empathy and learn practical ways to move forward.
Participants were encouraged to look at and consider systemic factors and to challenge themselves internally. “We have to look at the difference between optics and action. If your activism ends with a statement, that’s optics and not action. To move mountains, policy, and systems, we have to make sure we understand individually where we are and look at our lanes, spheres of influence, and areas we have the power to create change,” stated Jennifer Yeagley, CEO of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.
A break for self-care accompanied a day of difficult conversations. Three separate hour-long breakout sessions allowed the audience to participate in Zumba with Sistah Anyangō, do yoga with LaQuelle Mills or meditate with Clayton Sizemore.
The day was a success. Those who gave feedback after the conference said that they would use the information in their workplace.
As Inclusivity LLC continues to lead the charge on DEI in Tampa Bay, the hope is that many will continue to educate themselves on effective ways to build bridges and not barriers in our society. Thanks to a partnership with the Pinellas Community Foundation, Inclusivity LLC has launched the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEBI) Fund, which supports diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion work in our community. The fund provides our community with a safe, responsible way to support cultural competence and DEI efforts that strengthen our knowledge, community, systems, and economy. It will currently fund the Tampa Bay Equity Incubator, which provides the innovative solution to transform the ecosystem through a system-wide strategy and implementation benchmarks that promote equitable outcomes in the nonprofit sector by diversifying the workforce, executing equitable staff/board capacity-building strategies, and promoting inclusive, data-driven policies and practices.