Diversity, Beyoncé & Higher Ed

“Instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella” - Beyoncé Knowles

This article has been a long time coming. I came off a complete high from a panel that Sejal Mehta and I put together in February and ever since then I have been trying to put into words what that experience was like.

Yesterday, I turned on Netflix ready to relax for the rest of the night while watching Queen B do her thing. Within 5 minutes I had goosebumps and I knew I had to put the panel experience into words. I did not have goosebumps because she is a QUEEN, and not because she is a badass dancer and artist, and not because she’s the biggest BOSS ever. I had goosebumps because as you looked into the first few rows of the audience you saw a crowd of people of color, primarily black. I was overwhelmed with the powerful image of seeing someone like them on that stage. Let’s not stop there, Beyoncé is not just someone that looks like them but also someone who embraced their culture and showcased it to the world. She is someone that stayed true to what is important to her. Someone that is authentic and courageous in who she is, where she comes from and the history of her culture.

So, how did I go from Beyoncé to a panel for college students? That’s a great question! Well, as I was in the planning phase, thinking about who I could invite to speak on this panel, I was faced with questions of diversity that I had never asked myself before. The panel would be focusing on community engagement in the workplace or within personal ventures, the importance of diversity within a professional space and the transition from college to the workplace. The shortlist of experts were three men of color and one woman. The week before the event I kept questioning whether it was wrong that there wasn’t a white male on the panel. I even considered going back to the drawing board to find one.I found myself questioning whether this panel of experts was too heavy on minority and marginalized identities.

And then I said to myself… no. I am not going back to the drawing board. I have diversification of gender, diversification of color and an array of cross cultural experiences on this panel. This course that the student audience helped to teach had an emphasis on diversity for the semester and that’s what they would be getting from this experience. The world is not color blind but there is power when you put a panel of experts together that look like the minority within a predominantly white institution knowing that these are the people that have the stories, content and experiences that would create the space that you were aiming for. To recognize that having a person of color on the panel wasn’t for aesthetics, that having a woman was not out of need... it was knowing that each person was the exact person needed for this incredible experience with their own experiences that needed to be shared.

What made this panel so great?

Sejal Mehta, senior and student mentor coach said it best, “it was like we were all in a bubble going at the same wavelength.” The panelists (Alix Montes, Byron Gaskin, Floyd Jones and Nora Wheeler) all kept it real and authentic while staying professional. They admitted the things that they were still trying to figure out and that they didn’t have it all together. They also reiterated that it’s okay to not have it all together. Jacqueline Frazee, student mentor, later mentioned how refreshing it was to hear this message. She noted that other speakers and panelists have pressured students to figure it out and to have it all together because otherwise they wouldn’t be successful in the future.

That night I also received an email from another student mentor, Abigail Sepich, and she wrote:

"It was a perfect reminder of why I chose GWSB-for the commitment to community engagement and to diversity. At district convention last weekend, our service club had a whole debrief about the keynote speaker, who was very much the image of 'white savior' and NOT asset-based development. It was a reminder of the work that still need to be done, even in the volunteering community. It is so amazing that you guys create the spaces to challenge previously held views and share diverse perspectives I may have not ever considered."

That’s the moment that I knew we had accomplished what we had set out to do. We brought to the stage a variety of ideas, impactful experiences, genuine people and shined the light on the difference we can make as we engage with our community and bring our authentic selves to every space that we are in. Thank you to our panelists for stepping onto your stage every day and showing the world who you are, where you come from and what makes each of you the special individuals that you are. Thank you to everyone present that day for helping make magic happen!

Dania Castro