Oct 1, 2018 3 min read

Learning Through Doing

Image of Juan Johnson, Facilitator for Diversity Leaders Initiative, handing graduation certificate to participant.

Diversity Leaders Initiative

Furman University's Riley Institute hosts the Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) in for leaders across the state of South Carolina. The program sounds simple enough. Mix 20-40 diverse community leaders in a room, add a skilled facilitator, put them through an orientation session to get to know one another, and then lead them through 5 full-day work sessions across a semester with plenty of time to reflect in between sessions. One more thing — the participants form teams, and each team self-selects, funds, develops, and tackles a project within the community aimed at improving diversity and inclusion. Repeat in local settings across the state multiple times a year for years.

While the process seems simple, the results are amazing.  Each DLI class puts diversity and inclusion to work in their community in a unique, and very often lasting, way.  Each of these projects become seeds within the community to grow over the years.

Those of you who know a little of my story, know that the decision to begin my professional work in diversity and inclusion followed my experience of attending our local DLI program. I didn’t have an epiphany there. I didn’t learn something I honestly didn’t already know about diversity or inclusion. So what did happen?

The DLI experience enabled me to contextualize diversity and inclusion in a community setting.  Even more importantly, it made me think about putting what I knew into action in the community.

Since 2003, they Riley Institute DLI team has graduated over 2500 leaders who have completed hundreds of projects, across all 46 counties in the state of South Carolina.  Some of the projects are specific, one-time actions.  Others are longer term commitments that find permanent and sustaining homes.  You can read about their past projects here.

Often, I join the most recent DLI class of the Upstate and sit in on their capstone project presentations.  As they wrap up their experience, I’m always inspired by their vision, their energy, and their actions.  I’m there to offer encouragement and recognition, while taking away a little of their motivation and energy, their spark.

As I pursue my work in diversity and inclusion, I often encounter other DLI graduates across our state.  I know instantly when I do that I’ve found a colleague, friend, and supporter for this journey towards inclusion.  

Learn more about the Riley Institute Diversity Leadership Initiative.

A Word About Service Projects

It is important to provide a word of caution about service projects. A recent article:  Community Service Learning: Pedagogy at the Interface of Poverty, Inequality, and Privilege, asks whether service projects in learning settings drive social change, could be considered charity, or are potentially even harmful and extractive. When considering projects, we must have clear guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not. From this article, we can distill several recommended practices:

  • Choice of projects - Projects should avoid unequal payoff (avoid a focus on learner benefit) and unsustainable solutions. The chosen projects should mainly benefit the affected community, build their autonomy community agency, and address underlying systemic issues.
  • Attitudes and Styles - Leaders should check their attitudes and styles as they work to develop and implement projects. They should not foster further paternalism or represent attitudes of superiority or privilege. 
  • Free prior informed consent - affected community members should be adequately and truthfully informed, in advance, of the aims of the service project along with potential benefits, risks, and costs to them.
  • Democratic and participative development - Ensuring that the affected community is part of a collaborative design process and shares the definitions of the goals and solutions. It means a deeply participative approach in both design and implementation.

With these cautions in mind, service projects can be a vital part of planting seeds of equity and inclusion across the community. As a learning tool, they can serve as both a means and an end.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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