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Diversity Expert Damon A. Williams Shares Ideas About Innovation, Equity and Inclusion During Campus Visit

Innovation may be one key for an institution to advance its diversity, equity and inclusion work to create deep and lasting cultural change, Damon Williams said during a keynote address Oct. 1 on campus.

Williams, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert and one of the  founding architects of the “Inclusive Excellence Model,” visited Cal Poly for two days to meet with campus faculty, staff, students and administrators. The campus community was invited to the keynote talk Oct. 1 and an open session Oct. 2.

During the keynote, Williams talked about the traits of innovators, who are always questioning their reality, looking for solutions, collaborating instead of working in silos, experimenting with new ideas, scaling up ideas and leading with courage. 

“I’ve never seen an institution forge forward with an aggressive diversity plan without courage,” he said.

At the same time, Williams cautioned that “there’s no inclusive excellence pill. There’s no one tactic. It takes each and every one of us to be a part of this work.”

Changing the culture on campus will take time and commitment, he added, and no one institution has the answer to the challenges. Numerous universities are facing the same issues; some are exploring targeted, innovative programs and initiatives that may start small but can pave the way for larger changes on their campuses.

“The key is that there’s these pockets of excellence,” Williams said. “If I turned the lens on your university, I could find pockets of excellence here. The question is: How are you taking different initiatives and scaling up? Diversity plans and efforts can’t breathe without AIIR (accountability, infrastructures, incentives and resources).”

He suggested building new traditions to embed inclusive excellence into the campus culture. Cal Poly is following the Inclusive Excellence Model — a framework that helps institutions fully integrate their diversity, equity and educational quality efforts and embed them into the core of academic mission and institutional operations.

“At the core of the model is this idea of creating a multicultural and inclusive campus climate where individuals feel a sense of belonging and connection,” Williams said.

When students go out into the world, no matter their profession, they’ll spend time working in groups and teams, he said. And research shows that teams of people with different social identities outperform teams that are homogenous, because they bring “cognitive diversity” that helps them solve complex problems in ways that teams lacking diverse identities and perspectives cannot accomplish.

“If students go out into the world and aren’t able to look at something from someone else’s perspective,” he said, “then we haven’t done our job.”

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