GW Hosts Ninth Annual Diversity Summit

The three-day event offered dedicated space and time to engage in meaningful learning, dialogue and community-building together.

March 6, 2024

Diversity Summit 2024

Rebecca Russo (l), who is Jewish and Zionist, and Jenan Mohajir, a Muslim and Palestinian woman, work together at Interfaith America and gave a keynote address on the promise of pluralism on Feb. 20 at Jack Morton Auditorium. (Jordan Tovin/GW Today)

The George Washington University held its ninth annual Diversity Summit, this year themed “Defining Revolutionary: A Call for Justice, Liberation and Empathy.” The three-day summit provided the GW community space to come together for panels, speakers, poster sessions and workshops to bring attention to injustices and work toward liberation for all. 

The summit offered attendees dedicated space and time to share ideas and listen to presentations from more than 80 people, most of them from the GW community. Topics ranged from website accessibility to the history of activism among Black sororities and fraternities. They also included applying group therapy theory to foster meaningful, empathic conversations that can challenge oppressive forces to sharing a collaborative inquiry model using the focus areas from the GW’s Strengthening Our Community in Challenging Times plan. The full schedule archive of sessions is available here.

The summit also featured three keynote sessions, where speakers discussed religious pluralism; Black trans lives and liberation; and an evolving movement to push back against attacks on diversity.

At the opening keynote session, GW's Voice Gospel Choir kicked off the summit with a booming rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, setting the stage for three days of conversation that students, faculty and staff transformed into listening and engagement chambers.

“We look forward to hosting this summit each year to maximize the opportunity for education and participation, to engage in the university's community for an opportunity for folks to come together, meet new people, gain new perspectives and participate in a learning experience that motivates each of us to grow,” said GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey.

"We must be intentional about our time together. Events like the Diversity Summit are crucial to the well-being and growth of GW because they generate critical, honest and productive conversations necessary to attain our goal of being a just, liberatory and empathetic campus community."

Jacob English
Director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships; Presenter of “Collaborate and Activate: Creating Sustainable Social Change Initiatives Through Collaborative Inquiry” with professor Sarah Ray.

The promise of pluralism

Two senior leaders of Interfaith America—one Muslim and Palestinian, one Jewish and Zionist—delivered the opening keynote address Feb. 20 in Jack Morton Auditorium on how colleges and universities should be leaders in establishing relationships and respecting diverse identities even among the deepest of differences.

Jenan Mohajir, Interfaith America’s vice president of external affairs and a Muslim and Palestinian woman, and Rebecca Russo, the organization’s senior director of higher education strategy who is Jewish and Zionist, have worked together for over a decade and have established both a strong personal and professional friendship. Both heavily affected by the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, they strive to model empathy in their friendship and work, and believe others can connect through shared values, respecting one another’s lived experiences and understanding that listening is a powerful tool even in times of disagreement. 

“We defeat the things we do not love by building the things we do,” Russo said. “When we see antisemitism, when we see Islamophobia, when we see other forms of hate and bigotry, one of the ways that we can respond to those is not through tearing down but through building up.”

The panelists both acknowledged that this work is challenging, especially during periods of intense conflict and violence. Mohajir said that the goal is to come together to work toward common action while understanding that disagreement is present. She said it is also important for people to know their individual capacities and that if someone is unwilling to have that conversation in that moment, it might not be a forever moment.

Mohajir and Russo both shared personal interactions they’ve had with people they have disagreed with but found ways to have civil, constructive conversations. Russo said her experience, which occurred while she was studying abroad in undergrad, fundamentally changed how she thinks about the world. Ever since, she has felt able to respectfully listen to people she disagrees with while not necessarily condoning what they have to say or changing her own mind. Like Mohajir, Russo believes college and university environments are meant to be places where people can hear ideas that deeply challenge them and then learn to navigate productively, especially because conflict is inevitable in a diverse democracy.

“Being able to tell our personal stories and why we believe what we believe is so foundational in being able to discuss the hard pieces of the conversation,” Russo said. “Even if minds weren't changed, if people felt like they could share and be listened to and that they were able to listen to the other person is, I think, the most we can ask for.”

"The Diversity Summit added the word ‘empathy’ to the focus of the summit this year, and this is an important component that was added. It is critical for administration, faculty and students to find the capacity to empathize with different perspectives, create space for difference and liberate and fight for social justice."

Cheri Marmarosh
Associate professor of clinical psychology; Presenter of “Applying Group Therapy Principles in the Classroom and University: It is About Damn Time” with professor Joshua DeSilva.

Black trans lives and liberation

Award-winning activist and journalist Raquel Willis delivered the keynote address for Wednesday evening’s session of the Diversity Summit, “What It Takes to Bloom: Black Trans Lives & The Journey to Liberation.” 

In considering the theme of this year’s summit, “defining ‘revolutionary,’” Willis said she spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of that word ahead of the event.

It led to her reflecting on her journey toward liberation that began with her rebelling against the expectations put forth by those around her. Willis details her story of growth and becoming in her debut memoir, “The Risk It Takes to Bloom.” The book traces her experience exploring her gender, examining her relationship with herself and her loved ones, coming out and working as a Black trans activist.

The title of her memoir was inspired by a poem Willis heard while she was a first-year student at the University of Georgia. The words were the spoken intro to the Alicia Keys album, “Element of Freedom,” with the lines, “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”

“That landed on these little freshman, queer ears with some heaviness,” Willis said. 

She grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and was raised in a religious household. Due to her environment, Willis strongly felt the expectations for her to conform to strict, prescribed binary gender norms.

“But I remember wondering, ‘When am I going to have to share my truth?’ Because going back to that poem, I refused to live in that tight bud forever,” Willis said. “I felt that there was a little piece of a revolution inside of me that was just waiting to come out.”

She said it might feel odd to talk about blooming at a time when trans rights are coming under fire, pointing to the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills proposed by lawmakers across the country in recent years.

Raquel Willis
Raquel Willis delivered the keynote address for Wednesday evening’s session of the Diversity Summit, “What It Takes to Bloom: Black Trans Lives & The Journey to Liberation.” (Lily Speredelozzi/GW Today)

She said queer and trans people are still having to yell at the top of their lungs to demand being treated with respect, honor and dignity in the face of a mountain of disinformation against them. And while a revolution in this time can look like protesting, it can also be taking steps in your everyday life to be inclusive and build community.

It can look like creating spaces for students to come in and know they won’t be misgendered or disrespected, showing up to mentor youth leaders or helping those dealing with trauma, Willis said.

“Those are little slivers of not just revolution, but also liberation because we're shutting down and shattering these expectations that we should be silent or that we should feel powerless, especially as folks on the margin,” Willis said. 

She said she truly felt free for the first time in her life when she started building community with other queer and trans folks after coming out. 

“It was those experiences that freed me up to start understanding where my story connected with other people's story, and that we're all kind of navigating these systems of oppression and contorting ourselves to not be burdened by them,” Willis said. 

She said she believes everyone has the capacity to be a revolutionary because it starts with small actions to build community, organize, and share stories and experiences to inspire one another.  

“It starts with demanding the dignity that you deserve in your everyday life. It starts with supporting your fellow students and having their dignity and honor recognized. It starts with staff showing up for each other. It starts with all of us making sure that we're not the only ones experiencing a revolution,” Willis said.

"I led a workshop titled 'Divine Intervention: Students Sowing Seeds of Social Change within the Divine 9' with Brianna Taylor at the summit. This presentation examined the history of activism within historically black sororities and fraternities. I was truly honored to have presented at the summit and shared the impactful work of these often overlooked organizations."

Jayden Stokes
Sophomore sociology major; Student coordinator for programming and creative strategy in the Office of Student Life

Threats against DEI in higher ed

An important and optimistic takeaway from the third keynote was that a movement seems to be gearing up to push back against attacks on diversity. The keynote, Responding to Today’s Threats Against DEI in Higher Education, featured moderator Laura Coates, chief legal analyst for CNN and anchor of “Laura Coates Live,” and Jeremy C. Young, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn Program.

“There’s a lot of interest in building a movement to fight back against [anti-DEI] laws,” Young said. “PEN America has organized a group called the Champions of Higher Education, made up of almost 250 retired college presidents from all 50 states and D.C., who have spoken out across the country against these laws. There are other groups that are working on this. Two months ago, I would have said higher ed is on its heels, but I feel like there really is a push coming to fight these things.”

On campuses, Young said, good teachers make space for divergent opinions and foster constructive dialog. Data shows that students are more comfortable expressing their views in classrooms than on campus as a whole.

“If you don't have these conversations on a campus where people with different views come together,” Young said, “what you risk is having them in atomized spaces that are information bubbles. You need people to be able to express unpopular opinions, even hurtful opinions. But the person being hurt doesn’t necessarily have to be the one to whom they are expressed, or the person whose job is to respond or to educate that person.”

If true threats are made, authorities should be called, he said. As for banning books, parents have the right to prevent their children from reading certain materials, but not to restrict what other children can read.

Laura Coates and Jeremy C. Young
Moderator Laura Coates (l) and Jeremy C. Young discussed building a movement to fight back against anti-DEI laws at the Thursday keynote session. (Lily Speredelozzi/GW Today)

The audience applauded when Coates spoke of the necessity of defending victims of injustice even when they belong to a group of which you are not a member. 

“One of the biggest wrongs is a race to win the oppression prize,” Coates said. “I can’t tell you how often, growing up, I would be in my junior high classroom, and someone would want to have an argument about who was treated worse. There was actually an argument about who was more oppressed, those who were from the Holocaust or those who were enslaved. Who wants that prize? But that was the conversation, as if somehow you were going to be better off because you could say that. And the conclusion I drew from that was the beauty and power of alliances and people understanding that the argument is exactly what those who oppress want. You’re distracted fighting, while the oppressors are gleefully engaging on the periphery… continuing to oppress.”