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Michele Norris, Aisha Sultan And Colleen Starkloff On Diversity, Inclusion And Taking Action

From left, Michele Norris, Aisha Sultan and Colleen Starkloff will joined host Sarah Fenske live during Wednesday's show.
Images courtesy Michele Norris, Eddie Hafiz and the Starkloff Disability Institute

Increasingly more companies, organizations and governmental entities are establishing formal units focused on diversity and inclusion — the St. Louis County Police Department is one recent example in the bi-state region. But even as awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion grows, it can sometimes seem like something that all too often gets stuck at the level of lip service rather than leading to real change.

Webster University is aiming to move the needle “From Conversation to Action” over the course of its four-day Diversity & Inclusion Conference set for Feb. 24-27. All of the sessions are free and open to the public, with journalist and former NPR host Michele Norris, founder of The Race Card Project, giving the keynote address.

St. Louis’ own Aisha Sultan, a nationally syndicated columnist and independent filmmaker, will be honored with the university’s annual Champion for All award. Sultan’s narrative short “Other People” will be screened during the conference, which promises to dig into everything from workplace issues, to how to be an ally, to the intersectionality of disability.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Norris and Sultan as well as Colleen Starkloff, a co-founder of the locally based Starkloff Disability Institute who is also speaking at the Webster conference. All three guests are known for doing the kind of nitty-gritty work that leads to real progress around diversity and inclusion.

Norris noted that she started The Race Card Project 10 years ago because of the notion that people generally don’t want to talk about such issues — particularly related to race.

“I thought no one wanted to talk about race, so the six-word exercise was a way to lubricate that conversation, to bring people into the conversation,” she said. “And what happened is I realized pretty quickly that people were looking for an on-ramp — they actually wanted to have the conversation.”

As the six-word stories kept coming in, first on postcards and then eventually digitally, she launched an online location for them to share “not just that six-word story — the beginning, the distillation of their thoughts about race and identity — but then to share the backstory."

“And that’s where things got really interesting,” Norris said on the show, “where people would send in essays and sometimes artifacts, sometimes artwork, sometimes historical documents, outlining their thoughts.”

She noted that while the project continues to spark dialogue, it’s also aimed at helping people figure out “what course of action they need to take.”

“Often when people start this work, they just set out on this course and they decide, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that, and we’re going to have a campus-wide initiative,’ without first listening to people and understanding the ways that race and identity and social and economic and class dynamics shape our lives.”

For Sultan, one of the areas where she’s focused on pushing for meaningful change is everyday interactions between people.

“After the last election, I had a lot of intense emotions like a lot of people in this country, and even though I’m a writer with a platform, I felt like I wasn’t quite explaining to people how I was feeling — maybe what I was thinking intellectually,” Sultan said. “And so I decided that maybe I would show people instead.”

She started by writing a short script — “just slices of life, informed from my experience and the experience of other people” — and eventually decided to turn it into the nine-minute film “Other People,” which is a fictional story based in St. Louis.

“I wanted audiences who watched it to not think intellectually, initially, about it, but emotionally — connect with the characters and feel either a sense of awkwardness or uncomfortableness in certain situations that happen more frequently for some people than they do for others.”

By screening that film among various groups and then hosting discussions afterward, Sultan has found that the connections with the characters’ experiences lead to openness about their own experiences.

Starkloff, who will be speaking about the intersectionality of disability at the conference later this month, has pushed for key change on multiple fronts since 1973, alongside her late husband, Max Starkloff.

“I think that the work that has happened as a result of the disability rights movement in this country, in this city, in this state and in the world — because our movement is spreading around the world — has begun to chip away at the attitudes that drive public policy, that drive people’s opinions.”

She said that the fact that there is even the awareness around diversity and inclusion that there is today suggests great progress.

“When Max and I first started out, we were fighting for people with disabilities to have jobs,” Starkloff said. “The attitude was, ‘Well, they can’t work — they can’t see, they can’t hear, they can’t use their hands to type on a typewriter ….’ And so I think we’re making great progress. I say to people all the time [that] the Starkloff Disability Institute is very, very focused on people with disabilities getting into really good jobs, not being underestimated for their capacities.”

Related Event
What: From Conversation to Action
When: Various times Monday, Feb. 24, to Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020
Where: Webster University Main Campus (470 E. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, MO 63119)
NOTE: All sessions are free and open to the public. Registration is encouraged.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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