American Conference on Diversity Empowers Individuals, Communities to Address Social Justice Issues

Formed as an offshoot of the National Conference of Christians and Jews — which was established in 1927 to bring an interfaith community together to address social issues of that time — the American Conference on Diversity (ACOD) serves a similar purpose as it strives to overcome discrimination, ensure equity, and advocate for meaningful social change, with an expanded focus at three key levels.

[Above: Students in ACOD’s Lead for Diversity initiative]

“Our primary mission is to build more inclusive and just schools, workplaces, and communities,” says Elizabeth Williams-Riley, president and CEO of ACOD. “We do that by [delivering programs] to help build awareness and raise consciousness around social justice issues and oppression.”

Elizabeth Williams-Riley
Elizabeth Williams-Riley

Through an array of diversity and inclusion programming and trainings, ACOD helps meet the specific needs of its clients — which range from K-12 school districts, high schools, and colleges to community organizations and businesses, in industries from finance to healthcare. ACOD is headquartered in New Jersey and serves organizations across the country.

Williams-Riley says that ACOD learning experiences are customized and can address issues on an organization- or school-wide level, or at the individual student, teacher, or employee level. In addition, the topics covered, the length and duration of sessions, and the structure of training also vary based on the client.

“We customize [them] to meet the needs of the organization. For example, if someone is looking to start a diversity and inclusion initiative and they’re trying to figure out how to prioritize their goals or objectives, we can help support them in that process. We can also work with key leaders and stakeholders on executive leadership teams to begin to increase and expand their learning and understanding around what’s required,” says Williams-Riley. “Sometimes, that can take three or four sessions over an 18-month period, or sometimes even longer.”

One of ACOD’s most powerful initiatives is Lead for Diversity, a yearlong experience that kicks off with a summer retreat of nearly 100 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from New Jersey high schools who engage in experiential workshops, small group discussions, and action planning around issues of diversity and social justice. The goal of the activities is to help students develop leadership and communication skills, understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures, and awareness of the harmful impact of prejudice and bias.

“[Lead for Diversity] is designed to bring young people together across cultural divides to begin to understand what it takes to create respectful environments where people feel valued and appreciated — not because they’re different, but for what their difference can offer,” Williams-Riley says.

In addition to large group activities during the five-day summer kickoff session, teams of four students — all from the same high school — work together to create action plans to address some of the issues they’ve learned about. The teams then implement their plans in their respective schools or communities during the following school year.

Williams-Riley says that in the past, students have created gay-straight alliances at their schools, executed awareness campaigns around gender equity, created videos to help educate their peers on bullying and its effects, and more. According to her, 85 percent of student teams have been able to fully implement their plans, which she says is very empowering for students.

“For us, that’s the real success, because not only did they have a vision that they planned and followed through on, they were able to achieve what they wanted to,” says Williams-Riley.

She believes Lead for Diversity helps better prepare students to live on and learn at diverse college campuses and, ultimately, to thrive in diverse workplaces.

Beyond working with students, ACOD also hosts an Annual Diversity Issues in Higher Education Conference that brings together college students, faculty, staff, and administrators — as well as some individuals from the corporate sector — to address obstacles to improving diversity and equity on their campuses. Williams-Riley says the one-day event provides an opportunity for higher education institutions across the country to learn from one another and develop creative solutions.

The theme of this year’s conference, which will be held November 18 at Jersey City University in New Jersey, is “The Charge to Lead Diversity and Inclusion in a Climate of Globalization.” Breakout sessions will discuss topics ranging from faculty diversity and campus climate to immigration issues and building partnerships with minority communities. INSIGHT Into Diversity will be a presenter at the event.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information on ACOD or to register for the conference, visit americanconferenceondiversity.org.