“I had no idea that White people cared about me.” It only took a 2-hour conversation for a twenty-six year-old Black woman to share this tearful realization. That this particular 2-hour conversation happened in St. Louis during the unrest following the Ferguson riots, was even more telling for the region.
After Michael Brown, Jr.’s death from police violence in August 2014, Reena Hajat Carroll, Executive Director of Diversity Awareness Partnership (DAP), recalls that they were flooded with calls from corporate partners about what to do, how to respond. The community was doing everything from protesting to donating canned food. For an organization committed to small group diversity training, none of those options felt right. After agonizing about it for two weeks, DAP developed Listen. Talk. Learn. (LTL).These two-hour conversations became vital for a city on the verge of self-destruction. Hajat Carroll recalls that, “what we saw as the biggest community need, was to convene the community to learn, talk, and listen with and from one another. At that time, we just weren’t listening to each other.”
DAP ordered pizzas and scheduled a series of four LTL sessions to provide a safe space for explosive, public, yet private conversations. Every session had a wait list and drew a broader community list, so they added more sessions. Since December 2014, DAP has worked with over 3,000 participants. Hajat Carroll suggests that “People feel like it’s a space where they can share regardless of their racial identity.” For most participants, these talks are the first time they explore questions like: What do Black and White people value? Who do they value? Facilitators say that successful LTL’s include people staying after the event to keep talking, hugging, and sharing contact information.
Thirteen years ago, DAP started with a youth program on race, religion, and sexual orientation diversity issues. The Give Respect, Get Respect (GRGR) programs have worked with 1300 middle and high school students who talk about these concepts intergenerationally with employees from host companies such as Edward Jones, Boeing, St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Toyota. The model combines youth diversity training with internal corporate diversity training to help highlight the value of diversity in the workplace. Working with companies on issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation helps create more progressive, inclusive environments for the students and employees.
DAP works with companies who are just starting to introduce diversity and equity to their teams and others who are deeply invested in transformation for all employees. The Diversity 101 program uses panels, lunches, and uncomfortable conversations to help employees understand and identify unconscious bias.
Hajat Carroll applauds companies who, after two tense and uncomfortable sessions, plan to have more engagement for their entire team. When many companies begin the series, their employees may not agree with the content or fully understand lived experience of Black people, but they feel the need to participate in the conversation. These interactions are closing an information gap, one that is so entrenched in St. Louis and across the country. It might take a company six months to train their entire team in awareness conversations. DAP sees their programs as the first step on the spectrum of equity work: awareness and education serve as the entree into diversity and inclusion. “When you come to our training and get basic information, engage in these first difficult conversations in a safe space, then you’re able to move along the spectrum to other organizations who do a deeper dive,” says Hajat Carroll.
In the St. Louis community, those deeper dives are led by groups like the NCCJ and Anti-Defamation League who conduct multi-day trainings for youth and adults. They are also positioned to help organizations with systems and policy changes to guard against systemic oppression. Together, groups like these create the conditions for regional growth where institutions can think, believe and breathe in the same way around equity. Regional change requires many organizations serving different levels of interventions. DAP helps create the ecosystem of awareness, education, diversity and inclusion. Reena Hajat Carroll is clear that “You need all of [these conversations] for your whole life.”