As ever more organizations embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion, members of marginalized groups increasingly find themselves in formerly homogenous boardrooms and offices. For Leslie Council Lake, founder of female youth development program My Sistah Taught Me That, this shift is rife with opportunities — and challenges.
In her experience, Lake says, the leaders of predominantly white organizations too often address diversity with the best of intentions but insufficient knowledge. “They just don’t know how to go about things,” she explains. “[They’ll] have a person of color on their board to check the box to say, ‘We’re a diverse board,’ but they are not in real relationship with the people in the community or the employees that they are trying to ‘serve,’ so they miss it altogether.”
For Lake, the solution to that frustrating dynamic is a reality check. Together with her husband, Kenyon Lake, the founder of male youth development program My Daddy Taught Me That, she’ll be helping leaders from across Western North Carolina understand diversity challenges and build skills at the Reality Check Conference, which will be held on Friday, June 29, at A-B Tech. The event will also raise funds for both of the Lakes’ work in the community.
Be the change
Lake clarifies that the conference is not structured to be a racial equity event, with interactive workshops that dig into the causes of systemic racism. Instead, it will educate and empower attendees to lead conversations about diversity and inclusion in their own organizations. “I want attendees to walk away with a better understanding of how to approach people, how to approach subjects, how to deal with people, and realize that everyone is not like you and does not act like you, lead like you,” she says.
The daylong event will include local African-American leaders such as Darin Waters, Alaysia Black-Hackett, Libby Kyles and Shuvonda Harper, as well as featured speeches from nationally recognized white anti-racist educators Tim Wise and Jane Elliot. Lake explains that the choice of white keynote speakers acknowledges the demographics of the conference’s location.
“As a person of color, I get frustrated because I have been in too many situations where people are not listening to what I’m saying,” Lake says. “So I wanted this conference to feature speakers who look like the majority of people who live in our community. Hopefully, the message will be more well-received coming from their own peers.”
Lake says that message is particularly important for region’s largest employers, including Mission Health, Asheville city and Buncombe County governments and UNC Asheville. “This is a majorly white community, with white leaders, and not a lot of diverse representation in any level of leadership from the bottom to the top,” she explains. The conference thus represents a place for these leaders to build competency around diversity issues.
Diversity in mind
Topics on the agenda include empathy, the difference between intention and impact, and the historical and current trauma of African-Americans in Asheville. “A lot of organizations in Asheville have come to the understanding that diversity is important and that there is something within their organizations that has to change in order to be a more inclusive environment,” says Ashley Cooper, board member of My Daddy Taught Me That. “But I’m not sure if people are having the mindset changes so that they actually understand what are the patterns and behaviors of how they operate that need to shift.”
With change often comes discomfort, and conference organizers encourage those interested in attending to be prepared to stretch. “If we want to create an equitable environment for people to live and learn and work,” says Cooper, “we have to allow our own minds to be reorganized a little bit, because none of us have lived in an equitable world, a world where there are equal rights and opportunities for all.
“If we really are committed to this type of change,” Cooper continues, “then we have to be willing to step into environments where we can be exposed to things that we hadn’t thought of and erroneous ways of thinking we are practicing, and to have the courage and bravery to sit with that and allow ourselves to be transformed so we can actually create the world that we dream of.”
Checking the future
My Sistah Taught Me That and My Daddy Taught Me That, which will benefit from the funds raised by the Reality Check Conference, are committed to bringing that world into being. Beyond providing young people of color with essential support and supplies, the Lakes’ programs encourage them to thrive through life skills education and opportunities to explore the world beyond Asheville. Notably, Cooper says, the Lakes “live amongst the communities that they serve, and they are in everyday relationship with these youth. That’s how they know what’s needed.”
The organizers of the Reality Check Conference welcome leaders who value diversity and inclusion and are open to new insights and tools for improved outcomes. “There are a lot of incredible people who live in this town,” says Cooper. “I believe that there are enough humble and brave folks who are willing to feel it in their gut when they’re just checking a box versus when they’re having a reality check and taking action that’s going to have an impact, that’s actually going to make the world a more equitable and just place.”
WHAT: Reality Check Conference
WHEN: Friday, June 29, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
WHERE: A-B Tech Event Space, 340 Victoria Road, Asheville
MORE INFORMATION: mahec.net/event/55327