If Damon A. Williams had any nerves walking onto the stage in Spanos Theatre on Monday, Oct. 1, he left them all at the podium — then left the podium behind altogether. Instead, Williams walked along the edge of the stage to get close with his audience during his keynote on Diversity and Inclusion.
Williams, who has served as Chief Diversity Officer in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, visited Cal Poly for two days as part of his Inclusive Excellence Tour. Through the tour, he visited several colleges across the nation to lecture on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Awareness and action, Williams said, are great first steps in creating a sense of community on campus. Making every voice matter, however, rests ultimately on innovators.
The “innovator,” according to Williams, is a person who always questions their reality and looks for solutions through collaboration and difficult discussions.
“You cannot allow yourself to be frozen,” Williams said, explaining the challenges that come with standing up to racial inequality. “You have to be courageous anyway.”
With last April’s blackface incident, as well as a new study ranking Cal Poly among the worst universities for Black students, Cal Poly’s student community has a long way to go in addressing issues of diversity.
Ready to accept this challenge is business administration freshman Manmit Singh Chahal, who said he wants to get involved in the larger Mustangs United movement on campus, which emphasizes love, empathy, and respect for all students.
“All communities need to become normalized to the real diversity on campus, which will only happen through increased communication and talks between all,” Chahal said. “One’s difference [should] become something to embrace, not a wall to hinder one from seeing the other as a human.”
For other students, imagining how to make a difference can be difficult. During an open panel discussion in the Julian A. McPhee University Union (building 65) on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Williams admitted that he has not always felt confident about himself or his future.
Growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, Williams found it hard to adjust to the new ethnic and cultural diversity he experienced while at Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Lacking a sense of belonging and struggling academically, Williams was on the verge of leaving the school when a faculty member, Frank Longstreth, invited him to tutoring sessions at his house. Williams studied for seven days a week, every week. He said the discipline helped him to persevere and later earn a Ph.D in organizational behavior and management at the University of Michigan.
Williams said he owes a lot to Longstreth for helping him achieve academic success at Western Reserve. He also said he believes Cal Poly students can touch each others’ lives in similar ways.
“Each and every one of us has the power to include,” Williams said to the audience at Tuesday’s panel. “We all have an opportunity to create a context of inclusion.”
As Williams departed for the next college on his tour, he left each student with one question: “What will you do to help create a more welcoming environment for everyone at Cal Poly?”