Immigration, race, sexual orientation, disabilities and gender inequality were all topics of conversation Friday at the Fifth Annual Diversity Conference held at Columbus State University.
More than 150 people attended the daylong event held at the Cunningham Center, featuring a variety of workshops and presenters. Keynote speakers included Mariano Castillo, a CNN reporter who participated on a panel titled "Immigration in America, Past and Present," and Susan Cooper, interim president of the Urban League of Columbus, who spoke on "Community Service: Having an Impact on a Multitude of Lives."
The audience consisted of university students, faculty, city officials and representatives from various community organizations. In workshops they explored the impact of media stereotypes, Islamophobia, food insecurity, poverty and the challenges facing young black men in society. The group also watched a six-part documentary on the history of immigration in America.
The event, co-sponsored by the Mayor's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity, opened with remarks from Tom Hackett, CSU's interim president; Gina Sheeks, the university's vice president of student affairs; Christina Varghese, Aflac's diversity officer; and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
Varghese, who moved to Columbus from Fort Lauderdale about four years ago, said she and her husband were willing to relocate their family because of Aflac's commitment to diversity. She said the company is an example of how corporations can help lead the way to social change. She also led a workshop titled "Diversity in the Workplace: Aflac Diversity Training and Initiatives."
"We all have come from different communities, different religions, different ethnicities, different backgrounds that help us view the world differently," she said. "But one thing that companies cause employees to do companies force them to drop it at the door because you have to work with people you don't agree with."
Tomlinson said it's easy to get lost in controversy when debating divisive legislative issues, but it's important to remember three ideas that put things in perspective.
The first is that regardless of a person's faith it was never meant to be a weapon. The second is that 250 years ago the phrase "All men are created equal" was written in the Declaration of Independence. And the third is the question, "What side of history do you want to be on?"
"We know, as Martin Luther King told us, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice," she said. "So what side of that do you want to be on?"
Castillo sat on a panel with Nick Easton, an associate professor of political science at CSU, and Ivelisse Quinones, associate pastor of Hispanic ministries at St. Luke United Methodist Church. Currently a writer and weekend supervising editor for CNN Digital, Castillo has covered many Hispanic-related stories, including the 2009 coup in Honduras, the rescue of Chilean miners and the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
At the conference, he said there are four aspects of the debate on immigration: economics, legal, political and fear associated with racism.
He said the current debate in Washington boils down to two options: a border-control first approach or a comprehensive approach.
"The key there is what are we to do for the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants living in this country right now?" he asked. "Everyone agrees that something that has to be done. That many people living in the shadows, working. They're a part of our economy but we don't know who they are. And that raises other concerns that we must address."
Yet, he said, the country has been unable to move forward with immigration reform.
Paula Adams, an associate professor of library sciences and one of the event coordinators, said the aim of the conference was to spark conversation about inequality and how it affects all of Columbus.
"I think the overarching theme is get up and get involved," she said. "This year we wanted to let people know that a lot of the issues concerning diversity and inclusion, they don't happen just on a national level or some city or town or another state. They are very much represented in our community."
To solve the problems, Adams said, people have to step out of their comfort zones and be willing to hear other people's stories.
"Columbus, the Chattahoochee Valley area, is very diverse in a lot of different ways, well beyond race, even beyond gender, and I wanted the program to reflect that," she said. "One of the major complaints that I had today was that we needed more time and people wanted to discuss this more, which is a good problem to have."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.