It’s never a bad time to have a tough conversation. That was the message at the Fayette Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity & Inclusion Summit on Aug. 7. 

Hosted with some Chamber members in-person following safety guidelines (“It’s great to see your eyes,” quipped Chamber Board Chair Rob Parker of the masked-up audience) and with many more watching the online stream, the day centered around the theme of “Intentional Inclusion.”

Parker led off the day with a personal story that stuck with him. He spent 20 years working with the Boys and Girls Club in some of the toughest cities in the country, focusing on gang and pregnancy intervention. In the early 1990s, he was coaching the boys basketball team at Oceanside High in California when there was a call that broke his heart. A woman called and said, “There’s a gang outside the Boys and Girls Club, and I can’t drop off my child.” The people she was referring to were his basketball players, and he hurt to know that they were being judged solely on their appearance. 

“I would tell you, on a very personal level, we need to do better as society,” he said, “just how we look at each other and how we view people who don’t look like us.”

He offered two key words for inspiration: Hope and opportunity. If someone does not have hope that their world can be better, they have little reason to work for more. Likewise, hope without opportunity is a tease. 

“We’ve got to create a path, and not just for kids,” he said. “This is about making sure there is a level playing field for all and that there is access for everybody to come in.”

The main roundtable led by Rev. James Vance, President of the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, included Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson, Southern Crescent Technical College VP of Student Affairs Dr. Xenia Johns, owner of Country Fried Creative Joe Domaleski, and board member of the Fayette County Development Authority Dr. Luis Matta. 

Mayor Johnson noted that in his 27 years in Fayette, he has seen progress, but there is much work to be done, and it must be done intentionally. He is proud of the work Fayetteville is doing to be more inclusive.

“I think it has to come from a spirit of sincerity,” he said. “We are sincere about making sure that there is representation from as many cultures as possible in our city government.”

He also noted that the church he leads, Flat Rock AME, has diversified their leadership by involving younger members of their congregation, and it has made the church that much stronger. 

“We have to make sure the young people know we are listening and we want their input.”

Dr. Johns pointed to education as an essential tool for lifting up everyone.

“I believe that educators have a responsibility to ensure that learning environments are inclusive, that every learner feels a sense of belonging, and that the environment is a safe space for learners to be who they are naturally and to feel good about that and to feel that there is value and respect for who they are,” she said.

Domaleski noted that strides are being made locally, shown in the summit itself and in the recent Black Lives Matter march through Fayetteville.

“That wouldn’t have happened even five years ago,” he said. “That’s progress, but that’s not enough.”

He felt the importance of inclusion when he was younger, and it inspired him to pay it forward. When he was younger, he was usually the last picked to play sports, and it lifted his spirits when others lifted him up.

“When people went out of their way to pick me, it really made me feel special,” he said. “It planted a seed and it carried through, and I’m seeing signs of it in this community.”

He expressed the importance of having a diverse organization in age, gender, race, and background. It gives you a greater variety of points of view to make your business better. 

“You have a stronger organization when you are diversified, and I think it’s through being cognizant of that fact and being intentional that you’re going to be a stronger unit.”

He also noted that more varied clientele helps a business survive during lean times. Don’t just target high-end, top-dollar clients, but also work with start-ups, entrepreneurs, and businesses that don’t have a lot of money. 

“Be that way about your customer base,” he said. “Be intentional about helping the person just starting out.”

Matta believes that the community can do more to help minority-owned businesses understand they are an asset.

“We need to help them understand that being a minority is not something negative or it’s not a crutch, it’s something that you bring more flavor, you bring more things to the table,” he said.

The summit also included a talk with Scott Kirchner, President at Panasonic Automotive Systems, on how his company is confronting conversations about race, as well as a talk between Olympic gold medalist Ralph Boston and Paralympian Al Mead. 

The roundatable at the Fayette Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity & Inclusion Summit discusses problems and progress in the county.