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Diversity, equity and inclusion conference explores issue at a time of polarization • Wisconsin Examiner

Exploring the current status and the future of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts was the major theme at the annual Toward One Wisconsin conference organized by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) — a University of Wisconsin organization that seeks to address local, state and national issues through scholarship, outreach and public service.  The two-day conference in Eau Claire brought together advocates, educators, community members and business professionals Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

The conference took place as DEI has increasingly become a hot button political issue in Wisconsin with Republican lawmakers targeting DEI programs used in the UW system and in state government — describing them as “cancerous” — while Democrats have largely defended DEI.  

Eric Giordano, executive director for WIPPS, said the conference organizers were cognizant of the controversy around DEI and chose to address the issue head-on in the conference. 

“We really need to ask ourselves: What is the state of DEI and what is the future and you know, what does the political landscape mean…, and should we even be using these terms anymore since they’ve become so politicized and used as wedges to divide people,” Giordano said.

In previous years, there was more bipartisan buy-in to DEI, Giordano said. In 2019, former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch co-chaired the first Toward One Wisconsin conference, where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers spoke and also declared Inclusivity Day that year in its honor.

In 2019, “we were in a time and a space where people really were genuinely concerned about, you know, ‘Is our state on the right path?’” Giordano said. “Are we recognizing that we have many diverse cultures, people from historically underrepresented groups — some of whom, thanks to marginalization over decades, are disadvantaged — and is there a way we can, you know, level up everybody to start from a better place and have more opportunities for advancement?” 

Giordano said that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to use the term DEI because it has been weaponized. “We’ve sort of lost in our state — and even in our country — much about what was valuable about DEI,” Giordano said, adding that conference organizers wanted to acknowledge that reality. 

The conference sought to cover a wide swath of issues related to DEI, including different tracks for education, health, community and the workforce. That was a purposeful choice, Giordano said, noting that over 50 people were involved in planning the conference this year. 

“We wanted… people from health care interacting with people from education, having business people in the room, having, you know, community activists in the room and people who work for the government,” Giordano said. “The reality is when you get on the ground with any sort of project, any sort of program, any sort of policy change, it rarely just affects one segment of society or one group, it really cuts across many sectors.”

Questions about the future of DEI arose throughout the conference. 

Kelly Blackmon, a business consultant who focuses on DEI and culture issues, told the Wisconsin Examiner that DEI has been around since the Civil Rights Movement and has evolved through the years to encompass  race, gender and sexual orientation. He said he thinks it is reaching a point where it needs to evolve again.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to make the world fair enough so that everyone can be valued equally,” Blackmon said. Recently, he said DEI has created an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality that has led to “a lot of polarization, which leads to people weaponizing DEI.” 

Blackmon said that he hopes the next iteration of DEI is “something more human-centric” and focused on what people have in common.

Beyond language and framework for DEI, Giordano said the conference tried to focus on the real needs of Wisconsinites. 

“How can we address [the needs] in ways that help people to feel more included, belonging, welcomed in Wisconsin and represented — both politically but also economically, and how we can get rid of things that we just all think are terrible things like hate discrimination and bias,” Giordano said. 

In a keynote address at the conference, Dr. Anthony Jack, a Boston University associate professor, researcher and author, highlighted the barriers that low-income and first generation students often face within higher education. 

“First-gen status and low-income status are not one and the same but have a significant amount of overlap, and the data shows us that the more selective the college, the fewer the number of first-gen students and the fewer the number of lower income students,” Jack said during his address. “Here’s a problem with that: Those from lower income families are disproportionately relegated to schools that receive less funding, less support and have less structure than their wealthier peers.”

His research seeks to differentiate the experiences and difficulties that some disadvantaged students face when they begin attending a college or university. He points out that, in addition to financial troubles, students may face struggles with a lack of social capital. 

A panel discussion considered Wisconsin Act 31, which was adopted in 1989 and requires Wisconsin public schools to provide instruction on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Native Americans. Another panel focused on providing information about mental health initiatives available to diverse communities.

Two panel discussions considered health equity in rural communities — an issue that Giordano noted is not necessarily an issue that is first to mind when people consider DEI. 

“This is a big issue in the state of Wisconsin,” Giordano said. He noted that there are troubling statistics showing that people who live in rural areas have higher mortality rates compared to urban areas.

The panels were a reflection of what people are “talking about and caring about in Wisconsin,” Giordano said. Even if the term DEI is controversial, many of the efforts it ecompasses have broad support. 

“This is why we do this — so that people can sit down in the room together and say, ‘What are we missing? Where are the gaps? How do we fill that? What can we do better?” Giordano said. 

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F05%2F10%2Fdiversity-equity-and-inclusion-conference-explores-issue-at-a-time-of-polarization%2F by Baylor Spears

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