Each year around this time, as applications roll in for our upcoming 10-month Leadership Stark County Signature Program class, I begin to get anxious. It is not a worry related to the number of applicants; rather, I become anxious about ensuring the pool of applicants effectively represents the diversity of Stark County.
I analyze the list of community leaders who apply and wonder: are there community members from the Eastern and Western portions of our community? Are there applicants from a variety of businesses, entrepreneurial endeavors, and non-profits? And most importantly, do I have applicants that are representative and inclusive of race, gender, and socio-economic levels in our community?
I heavily weigh these factors because I have witnessed how important a diverse class is not only to the experience of each class member but the community at large. I do not take the responsibility lightly to ensure that the Class of leaders is inclusive and diverse. This year more than ever, I believe it is to the benefit of all organizations to identify actionable steps for achieving a greater level of inclusion in all that they do.
Last summer, members of our Spring Spotlight class for young professionals came forward expressing an expectation that Leadership Stark County should address the social injustices that rocked (and continue to rock) our country. It was a reminder that, as leaders, we need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations, even when we may not feel that we have the perfect words. When we do so, we see classes and communities come together with better solutions, curiosity in dialogue, and an overall empathy to know that problems need to be solved, with equity in mind.
I have seen first-hand how diversity works in the many classes we offer. It connects, engages, and moves conversations to levels that haven’t yet existed in many spaces. One of the most formative Signature Program days we hold throughout the year involves a poverty simulation. Class members portray different families or individuals who represent poverty in some aspect. For most in the Class, the simulation is a learning experience that opens their eyes to the day-to-day challenges of the underserved. However, it’s not uncommon for class members to become emotional, recalling their real-life experiences of empty food shelves or an eviction notice on the door.
These are the moments that create change. I see the empathy that arises when we conduct the Privilege Walk, where class members take a step forward for “yes” or backward for “no” in response to having had certain privileges (such as parents who went to college or always being food-secure). Consistently, we see that most minority class members fall to the back of the walk throughout the course of the exercise. When the rest of the room turns and sees this, the silence is telling at first, but then dialogue, emotion, and truth fill the space. To have honest, open, dynamic conversations, we must have the richness of diversity and the willingness to learn.
It’s a joy to know that our community leaders return to their workplaces, their volunteer boards, their families, and communities with the diverse perspective that our program helps provide. In my own workplace, I’m proud that Leadership Stark County is part of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Through its strategic plan, the Chamber is taking steps such as greater collaboration with the Stark County Minority Business Association, now co-located with our Chamber offices, to support their critical work to improve diversity and inclusion in our business sector.