Innovation and Questioning Assumptions Keys to Furthering Diversity and Inclusion

Damon Williams

Damon A. Williams urged the 215 attendees at the third annual University-wide Diversity Retreat to devise fresh ways to foster diversity and inclusion on campus: “Within our work of diversity education, there is more awareness than ever before. There is more action than ever before. But there’s not much innovation.”

Williams, founder of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation in Atlanta, was keynote speaker for the May 9 event, sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. He suggested that universities face the same diversity and inclusion challenges year after year because we need to look outside of our disciplines, peer groups and traditional ways of thinking for new solutions.

Innovators must have “a bias toward experimentation,” he explained, and must always “lead with courage,” seeking ideas from those with different experiences and perspectives.

Serving the current college student is a unique task, Williams contended. Social media connects today’s young people to each other more than in previous generations, citing the recent fueling of social activism with the #neveragain movement against gun violence.

Williams said that he sees the potential for this generation to be the greatest force for change he’s ever seen, because varied personal identities are more readily discussed and accepted today.

But too many young people arrive to college lacking diverse life experiences, he said. “Our communities are still hyper-segregated.” Social media, paradoxically, merely serves to collect people into like-minded groups, “creating more tribalism,” he said. Williams displayed a series of photos from social media, showing white college students misusing Black culture — or actually donning black face — along with other students in sombreros and exaggerated mustaches to supposedly celebrate Latino culture.

“These things happen when we don’t do our job,” he said, “when we don’t prepare our students for a world that is diverse, global, interconnected.”

Keynote speaker Damon Williams suggested tactics for University employees striving to create a more diverse, inclusive campus:

  • Move beyond simply screening faculty applicants to actively recruit a more diverse group of potential professors;
  • Be proactive instead of dealing only with crises;
  • Make sure students’ first-year experiences include diverse curricular offerings and high-impact educational experiences;
  • Provide a “restorative educational experience” for students and student groups that violate school diversity and inclusion policies, rather than merely punishment; and
  • Offer leadership development and academic success programs instead of using scholarships to foster diversity.

Ingrained Assumptions Create Culture Clashes

Waverly DuckMiscommunications based on different assumptions about the world are a constant cause of misunderstanding between the races, said Waverly Duck, sociology faculty member, in a lunchtime presentation titled “The High Cost of Unconscious Racism in Everyday Life.”

As an African-American, Duck recalled his own experience with others’ implicit bias and unconscious racism. Recently, in preparation for academic work in Italy, Duck visited Pittsburgh’s Italian consulate office. After one official had examined his CV of professional accomplishments in teaching and research, she looked up and asked: “Are they inviting you back to play basketball?”

“First of all, I’m not that tall,” Duck said. He noted that he is also too old to be a professional athlete, at 42. “I start to have to speculate about motivations. When you speculate about motivations, without truly knowing the intent, it becomes dangerous,” he explained. Such interactions, based on racial assumptions, often make true understanding between individuals impossible.

In our daily encounters with people from cultural groups different from our own, Duck said, it may seem as if we are trying to play the same game by different rule books. We grow up in our own groups learning what behavior is acceptable to that group, then react to others based on those attitudes, many of which have become accepted without question by the time we enter college. He labels the encounters that result “a form of interactional violence.”

“I think Pitt is a wonderful institution,” he said. However, he added, “we have students who experience this on campus every day … a constant daily downpour of racism we call race pollution.” Students will continue to be subject to such encounters unless we challenge the assumptions inherent in them, he said.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859