Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship hosts unconventional diversity discussion

By Kelly Zheng

Students gather in a breakout group to discuss appreciation of the Nyumburu Cultural Center and black staff and faculty. Photo by Kelly Zheng

The University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship held an unconventional discussion for students, staff and faculty on April 2 to gain insight on how to improve and expand diversity and inclusion within their “home.”

“The academy looks at diversity and inclusion with the angle of justice and equity,” said Micaela Quiroga, one of the student peer innovator hosts of the event. “So what does it mean to have justice in our community and to make things equitable to everyone?”

A poster displays the Open Space Technology “Rules” for Design In(clusion) participants. Photo by Kelly Zheng

The event, Design In(clusion), followed a framework called Open Space Technology (OST), an approach that aims to provide an opportunity for each participant to learn what they feel they need to learn. Unlike most lectures and panels, there was not a set agenda. Instead, attendees created one once they arrived.

Using a format like OST provided test results for the hosts as they used the design thinking process. This mindset focuses on innovation that begins with empathy to identify and understand problems and needs, which is then applied to the project, said Quiroga, a senior communications and marketing major.

“We chose this cool way of hosting an event to look at things from a people’s perspective,” she said. “We’re testing it out on all the participants to see how effective the conversations were and then go back to the drawing board.”

Sticky notes address the ideas of diversity and inclusion in the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Photo by Kelly Zheng

At the start of the event, participants were given a different color sticky notepad and marker to write down topics for discussion that related to the theme, “Design In(clusion).” Each sticky note was voiced to the group and placed on poster paper like a mind map.

Quiroga said sticky notes were used to allow participants to rapidly brainstorm. Senior sociology major Darien Dixon also liked the use of sticky notes, as they are a way to solidify ideas with flexibility, he said.

Brainstormed ideas were put into the “marketplace” to be arranged into categories for breakout sessions. Of seven topics, the main four were “Addressing Diversity and Inclusion,” “Importance of Language,” “Inclusion and Cohesion” and “Appreciating the Nyumburu Cultural Center/Black Staff and Faculty.”

Groups formed to discuss the choices with consideration of the adapted Open Space Technology principles. OTS has four “rules:” when it is over, it is over; whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; whoever turns up are the right people and the Law of Two Feet: move to where you are most intrigued.

Like most participants, sophomore finance major Thomas Savransky came to the event with few expectations. He said his group discussed diversity within the university and compared it to College Park and older generations.

Students and faculty share personal experiences about the different cultural centers on campus. Photo by Kelly Zheng

“Diversity and inclusion means to have different cultures when building a team,” he said. “My group had a lot of perspectives and the fact we had the opportunity to just talk and network was important.”

Savransky added he did not feel the need to move since his group’s conversations delved deeper and ideas changed when others joined. He said it did not get tiring, and the ability to get off topic suggested common ground between people.

Students and faculty consider the importance of language for a diverse and inclusive space. Photo by Kelly Zheng

Dixon said he gained insight into people’s lives that he would not have had otherwise. He mainly stayed with his original group, which talked about language, including accents, buzzwords, dialects and microaggressions. Similar to Savransky, Dixon’s group’s discussion evolved to different productive topics.

“I found the open space to be effective since fluidity is better than stagnation overall,” Dixon said. “People were able to freely explore others’ experiences compared to being in a closed space that leaves little room to do so.”

After three hours of conversation, participants came together to debrief. Senior business management major Fasika Delessa shared that she has been to more formal discussions on the same topic and said they were not as creative as this one. She said she was surprised at how pleased she was with the candid outcome.

Quiroga said the hosts developed a lot of insight during the event to further their investigation of diversity and inclusion.

“We were just really inspired by how dedicated and vulnerable all the participants were tonight,” she said. “This isn’t an easy theme to discuss, and to watch a room erupt into thoughtful conversations was really wonderful.”

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