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Teens, Professionals Talk About Diversity at Emerson

Diversity leaders joined a public relations trailblazer and teenage organizers to lead a symposium about the transformative power of communication on May 27 at the Bordy Theater.

The symposium kicked off the weekend-long Youth TIDE (Teen Identity and Diversity Education) Conference organized and run by students in Youth LEAD, a Sharon, Massachusetts-based youth leadership program. The ninth annual conference, with the theme, “Lean In: Transforming Conflict Through Communication,” was hosted by Emerson College.

“We must find what binds us together in common hope, common purpose… and not what divides us,” President Lee Pelton said in welcoming remarks.

The conference brought 85 teens from myriad backgrounds together to attend workshops about the importance of connecting through differences and having difficult conversations.

“All that is helpful for young people as they navigate the world and become adults, but it’s also a useful lesson for adults and society as a whole,” said Emerson College Trustee Raj Sharma, MA ’83, who also serves on the Youth LEAD board.

Janet Penn, founder and past executive director of Youth LEAD, moderated a panel discussion featuring Sylvia Spears, Emerson’s vice president for diversity and inclusion; Liz Skinner, director of the Hiatt Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; William “Smitty” Smith, founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College in Boston; Damaria Joyner, a senior at Brockton High School in Brockton, Massachusetts, and a Crossroads for Kids mentor; and Sarah Raykhtsaum, a graduate student at Columbia Teachers College and a Youth LEAD alumna.

Following an exercise in which audience members were asked to talk to each other about their “core identities,” Penn began by asking the panelists to recall a time when they’ve personally faced identity-related conflict.

Spears said as someone who believes in diversity and inclusion, she is often challenged when she sees someone displaying values at odds with her own.

“[I ask myself] how do I help us to create space together so that we both have a shared understanding of one another’s position, and often that comes through the sharing of stories and understanding one another’s stories,” Spears said.

Raykhtsaum said as the first member of her Russian-Jewish family born in the United States, she’s always felt like she’s been doing a “balancing act.”

“Those hyphens, those spaces between the hyphens, helped me develop my own unique voice,” she said.

In answer to a follow-up story about challenging stereotypes, Joyner said when she hears people making assumptions about her high school because of where it is, she thinks about what she wants to say and focuses on the positive.

“I say, ‘Look at all the good that’s coming out of my community,’” said Joyner, who pointed out that her best friend at Brockton High was accepted to nearly all of the Ivy League colleges.

Smith said everyone is familiar with the tradition of racism in America.

“Always, in our national history, from the founding of this nation, there has always been a parallel moral counterweight to racism that has always been an organized pushback to racism,” he said. “And at the heart of those moments, you will find people in cross-racial, cross-cultural [dialogues].”

At Beaver Country Day School a number of years ago, a group charged with coming up with a community action project noticed that people were leaving comments on Facebook posts that they would never say to a person’s face, Skinner said. In response, the students created a gallery wall at the school where they posted their own Facebook comments to provoke a conversation, and it led the school to think about “who they are on social media and who they want to be.”

But there are other ways to engage, she said.

“I think that method is really to call people out, and something we’re trying to encourage people is to call people in,” Skinner said.

Following the half-hour panel, Colette Phillips ’76, MS ’80, president and CEO of Colette Phillips Communications Inc., talked about her journey in the public relations world as one of the few women of color to strike out on her own in the business.

Phillips said there were few, if any, business owners of color to turn to for advice when she started out 30 years ago. One “nice, well-intended white guy” counseled her to get a job working for a corporation, where she would do well, instead of trying to go it alone as a black woman in Boston.

“I didn’t take it as an insult. I thanked him, and then I thought, ‘Oh boy, this guy doesn’t know the village that raised me,’” said Phillips, who said she was raised on an island by two entrepreneurs.

She advised young people of color to look for allies with a similar “enlightenment of consciousness” to them. And to be true to themselves.

“I decided that what I was going to do is, rather than fight it, I would say ‘Look, I’m not a white person with a really deep, dark tan. I am a woman who is black,’ so what I’m going to do is leverage how I look and who I am to help businesses understand how they’re going to…increase market share by thinking about new markets, markets they probably never thought about,” she said.

Boston has changed a lot in 30 years, Phillips said. Today, 53 percent of its residents are people of color. It’s time to not just recognize, but celebrate that fact, she said.

Earlier this year, Phillips put together a list of the 100 most influential people of color in Boston for the eighth anniversary of her Get Konnected networking event.

“The point of putting that list together was not to create conflict, it was to say this city is rich and vibrant in diverse people who are contributing to the fabric of our community, and they should be celebrated, they should be validated,” she said. “Despite all of the ugliness and the rhetoric we hear about immigrants and building walls, rather than build walls, let’s build bridges of understanding and hope and community, and let’s celebrate what makes this country great.

“And that is our diversity,” she said.

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