Diversity summit postponed to strengthen impact

Commission Chairman Scott Dean feels that issues of racism and diversity on campus are Columbia’s issues, too.

The city’s Human Rights Commission is planning a diversity summit for several months to create an open dialogue centered around issues of inequality.

Commission Chairman Scott Dean said he feels this summit is needed now more than ever and would like to see MU organizations get involved in its planning after several recent racially-charged incidents on campus, such as racial slurs directed at members of the Legion of Black Collegians Homecoming Royalty, “Racism Lives Here” rallies and Missouri Students Association President Payton Head’s vocalization of his own personal experiences with these topics.

“Obviously, we don’t have jurisdiction over the campus, per se, but issues that take place on campus are issues that take place in Columbia,” Dean said. “It’s a very good time to have these sorts of conversations.”

The commission’s purpose is to work toward minimizing, eliminating and investigating discriminatory practices. However their hope to discuss discriminatory practices with nonprofits and community members will have to wait, as the diversity summit proposed by the commission has been “old business” since discussions on the subject began in June. At its Oct. 6 meeting, the commission decided to table the topic until next month.

While Dean said the commission is still looking to hold the summit this fall at the end of November, Commissioner Persephone Dakopolos – who originally came up with the idea for the summit – said that because this is the first event of its kind that the city hopes to hold, the group is taking cautious steps to facilitate the event in the best way possible by connecting with those who can help ensure that attendees gain a lot from the event.

While the commission originally hoped to see its plans for the diversity summit come to fruition late this month, it has taken a step back from its original timeline to instead connect with other organizations in that time to help strengthen the summit. The commission plans to do this by working with these organizations on side projects.

Since the commission’s September meeting, the group was approached to serve as a community partner in the strategic plan — which hopes to improve local services and foster communal growth — adopted by the city. This comes in addition to the association’s work toward implementing plans from the mayor’s task force on community violence.

“I think it’s a lot more productive and valuable to be brought in on these other partnership ideas than to sort of forge ahead on our own on an idea without consulting a lot of other players,” Commissioner Elizabeth Miller said during the meeting.

Dakopolos agreed by saying, “the more, the merrier.”

While no formal invitations have been sent yet, the commission has spoken to various organizations and departments within the city about the event, including members from the Department of Health and Human Services, Dean said.

The summit was originally structured to be a symposium similar to TED Talks, in which speakers from the community could pitch solutions to issues such as income inequality, inclusion and community building to the audience for five to 10 minutes.

After some discussion, the commission decided to structure the event to focus more on outreach for nonprofits and advocacy organizations. It did this in order to draw attention to the particular issues that the Human Rights Commission should address and how it can go about doing so.

Planned to be a completely free event open to the public, Dakopolos said she wants “changemakers” to be present in the audience, such as downtown business owners, people active on commissions, volunteers and especially city council members.

Dakopolos said she would like the presenters to be of a variety of backgrounds and ethnic makeups in order to better represent the community as a whole. With this combination of active audience members and varied speakers, Dakopolos said she would like to see concrete solutions come out of this conference.

“We’re putting the challenge back on the nonprofits and the human rights organizations in the city, and saying, ‘Okay, we hear you, but now what are we supposed to do with it?’” Dakopolos said. “We’re kicking the ball back. They’re going to bring their best game and give us their best solutions to what they know is already a problem, and I think it challenges the organizations, but it gives us real tools to work with.”

The commission is also looking to find solutions from its community members who attend and can give their unique input. Dean said he feels it’s easier to look for “bottom-up” solutions rather than “top-down” ones.

Dean recounted the addition of gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance in Dec. 2011. The Human Rights Commission reached out to representatives from the transgender community, Dean said, and with their recommendations, they were able to make plumbing code changes so that businesses could have gender-neutral restrooms.

“(That was) something that the commission could have brainstormed for months, and we probably would have never come up with that idea,” Dean said. “I think the beautiful thing about an idea like that is, the community can tell us things that we just aren’t going to realize without their direct involvement.”

This may take more time than originally planned and, because of this, Dakopolos said the summit may not occur until the spring, or possibly even the summer when it is a “slower time in the city.” However, Dakopolos plans on following through with her original idea despite how long it may take.

“I don’t plan on letting it drop,” Dakopolos said. “I plan on just keeping at it until we get it done and get it done right.”

Looking to pair with other city departments to include them as stakeholders in the event, Dean said the event will most likely be held at City Hall or at another safe space for open discussion, such as the Activity and Recreation Center.

Although there is still a lot of work to go, Dakopolos said she hopes this can become a yearly event that will make an impact on the community in order to build bridges between various groups through education, open-mindedness and experiences with others.

“I really want there to be a genuine discussion of inequality in this city,” Dakopolos said. “There’s no room for hatred. That’s something I don’t know if this conference will fix, but it might be a start in the right direction.”

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