Championing Diversity: An Interview with Justin LaKyle Brown

Source: University of Kansas Medical Center

Justin LaKyle Brown is the author of “Ugh!?! Not Another Diversity Book!” and the founder and lead trainer at the Diversity Awareness Program (D.A.P), a diversity training program founded at the Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Justin’s experience spans 11 years of designing and delivering diversity awareness programming to over 600 schools and over 100 conferences in the United States. Justin holds a Masters in Student Affairs in Higher Education degree from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and lives in West Chester with his wife and daughter. Pranav Ramkumar (MPA ‘21) spoke with him about his motivations and specific issues that diversity and cultural awareness training can help address in communities.

Pranav Ramkumar (PR): Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and your motivations to conceive and build the D.A.P? What makes you still persevere and stand up as a champion for cultural awareness even after doing so successfully for 11 years?

Justin Brown (JB): First, I think everyone who works on diversity related programming has a strong personal motivation to do so. My personal motivation stems from my own lived experiences, the experiences of those close to me, and from being a student of US and world history through my worldview and identity, as an African-American male.

Next, let’s discuss where diversity and inclusion issues stem from, using an example from the era of slavery in the 17th century colonial United States. Circa 1619, in the US, there was great societal and income inequality due to winners and losers from colonialism, coupled with a fear in the upper echelons to embrace a perspective different from one’s own. This meant that society degenerated into an era of free labor on one side, and empire-building with permanent wealth inequality on the other. The winners built institutions which helped protect and further concentrate the wealth. Following the abolition of slavery (1783), and the end of segregation (1964), the losers of colonialism built institutions too, but only capable of having their subscribers, attain half the success with twice the work, something which left the proponents of these institutions questioning if they were selling a false reality. ‘Diversity and inclusion awareness’ as we describe it today then began when members of upper society turned allies to help bridge the realities of institutions built by the losers and winners of colonialism.

Finally, the reason why I continue to persevere as a champion for cultural awareness today is because I think reasons for ostracizing the ‘other’ and for accentuating societal and income inequalities will come again! For example, there have been findings about greater wage inequality due to globalizing value chains. It is important to ensure under such circumstances that society does not degenerate into promoting stereotypes, rumors, microaggressions, and racism, as it did under my prior example.

PR: Are the benefits of ‘cultural awareness’ universal? Or does it benefit some communities at certain times more than others?

JB: If there is one thing you remember, remember this: cultural awareness is ‘universally’ important and benefits all! Going back to my example from earlier, it is this awareness that is going to be able to create allies from privileged higher institutions, and leaders from smaller institutions come closer together to bridge realities to create an integrated society. The example I shared earlier borrowed from my African-American heritage, but there are similar examples from all historical or contemporary segregated communities – LatinX, women, LGBTIQ, people living with disabilities, or immigrants. The biggest benefit such awareness creates is that it creates pathways for leaders from communities at the margins to step up as role models into the more integrated globalized societies of today. It is when people see others like them, succeeding in the unified reality, do they then believe in their abilities to get there.

In the African American community, even until 2003, the possibility of being elected US President was considered a joke! I remember a Chris Rock movie from 2013 titled Head of State where Chris Rock played the head of state and it was a comedy. Today however, having role models from the community such as Martin Luther King Jr. (in the post-colonial times) and  Barack Obama (in the post-globalized world) despite their criticisms and shortcomings goes a long way for me.

PR: Tell us more about a typical D.A.P session. What does it look and feel like? What empathy does it create, and what benefits does it bring to participants?

JB: At the D.A.P, we believe that leaders within privileged institutions and smaller community institutions will be unable to build pathways and bridge realities if they do not know how or where to build the bridge. The goals of a D.A.P training session is hence two-fold. First, to inculcate the belief that it is most important to believe first in your own reality, rather than what your parents, local media, religious institution or global news tell you and  secondly, to increase the set of lenses through which each participant can view the world, i.e. to “expand their reality”. These goals are accomplished through a collection of games, activities, ice-breakers, and conversational archetypes we have developed slowly and steadily over time. 

Here are two example activities we use during our training sessions. A game we call “The System” is classified under a group of activities called “Privilege Activities”. It starts off by arranging the chairs in the room in a straight line like a bus. Everyone is then asked to pick up a piece of paper to be able to throw it into a trash can to score a point. The right to place the trash can anywhere is then offered to someone at random. Needless to say, they place the trash can right beside themselves, thereby creating for themselves a ‘privilege’. This immediately practically highlights to the group how focusing on ‘equality in rules’ over ‘equality in outcomes’ automatically creates an imbalance due to privilege. Another game focuses on the ‘Intersectionality of Identities’. Participants draw cards out of  a pile, with each card having a sample ‘Intersectional Identity’ such as ‘Black man’, ‘Indian woman etc’. Prior to the start of the game we ask people if they are excited about observing the world for the next few minutes from their new identity and they invariably respond “Yes”. They are then made to walk around the floor and have conversations with other program participants and staff. During the conversations, they feel disadvantages in numbers, inabilities to articulate their nuanced position, discrimination, and microaggression to the effect that they come out saying ‘I do not want to live like this!’.

It is important to note that we are trying to get people to be able to be comfortable enough to talk about real problems that are affecting their daily lives here, such as discrimination by virtue of economic status, environmental settings,  health status, (dis)ability, race, color, class, creed, sexual-orientation, gender identity etc. Participants are taught that it is ok to be vulnerable and share pain in front of people very different from them, something they are not used to when they show up at our trainings. While there are sometimes disagreements during training activities, people soon come to realize that it’s about being relational and engaging in hard conversations which need to be had. The expanded empathy that the training creates allows participants to engage with their world and put the relationality into practice in a constructive manner.

PR: What are some of your highlights and challenges as a program? What are your goals for the next 2 years?

JB: The D.A.P has conducted over 1500 trainings to date at over 600 schools and universities in the US. It is also currently taught as a class at the Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. 

While we have also been approached by corporations such as Macy’s and Lockheed Martin, the majority of our demand comes mainly from universities and school districts, primarily in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and other southern states. We have realized that our demand is directly correlated with a hostile incident or an inappropriate remark from a politician in the press. We have requests of all kinds, from businesses with diverse staff to train empathy and promote the sharing of ideas, to businesses with less diverse staff for awareness, from national conferences with an audience of over 3000, to small classes of under 10 students. We have demand not just from underserved areas, but also from higher management teams of policy, law, and legal enforcement institutions. 

We have been told we do a very good job of humanizing the experience of diversity programming. During the course of a training session, participants feel no shame but feel comfortable being vulnerable, learning through making mistakes, laughing off areas of ignorance, and truly enjoying the experience. In fact, each time training is a completely different experience!

PR: How can students of a premier university such as Columbia University get involved in your mission if they’d like to?

JB: A good start would be to engage with our social media handles to understand what we do. We collect a lot of data from our sessions, which has been the basis for our curriculum development and my book. This data could possibly be analyzed in a manner to identify policy recommendations and measure policy outcomes, which is something student groups may be able to help the D.A.P with. Another area may be to explore whether we can deploy simple technology-based activities in our programming, which is now purely focused on simple tasks and conversations.