Diversity Talks founder, part of Forbes “30 Under 30” for education, aims to give youth seat at table
The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Kiara Butler, founder and CEO of Diversity Talks, a Providence-based corporation that empowers students to improve the cultural competence of their teachers and school administrators.
Question: What did it mean to you to be chosen to be one of the Forbes “30 Under 30” in education for 2020?
Answer: Receiving recognition from Forbes is bigger than me. I carry the weight and the power of my ancestors. I think of my people back home in Mississippi that are rooting for me. I think of our students. There is a lack of representation of people of color in education. This holds truth beyond the educator sector, as well. Knowing that I — as a black, same-gender-loving woman — was chosen as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in education means that black people can see themselves, queer people can see themselves, women can see themselves in a world where, in most cases, we are invisible or misrepresented.
A: We tend to live our lives telling no one our truths — you know, the truths that we’ve buried so deep inside of us in hopes that they go away. But still they linger and haunt us because they are a part of who we’ve become. Our truths have helped to shape our present and continue to mold our future. We’ve built outer shells that have allowed us to get away with not being vulnerable. I would like to think that vulnerability is what truly makes us human. But being vulnerable means that you have to live with yourself. You have to proudly live with your secrets, and you have to accept your mistakes.
Q: How did Diversity Talks start in 2017 and what is it doing today?
A: Myself and two seniors in high school at the time — Taiwo Demola and Taliq Tillman — created Diversity Talks through an idea that has now evolved into a company. In 2017, we entered Startup Weekend Education with ideas from different focal points but found common interest in tackling the same issue: the silencing of student voice through the misrepresentation of their identities. Our team spent 54 hours brainstorming solutions that would bring the voices of marginalized populations to the forefront and, ultimately, dismantle inequitable systems in education. Diversity Talks specializes in increasing the cultural competence of adults by providing student-led professional development grounded in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We partner with schools, colleges, nonprofits, and businesses to create unique educational contexts where adults are learners and young people are the facilitators of learning. We train 9th-to-12th-grade youth to facilitate a series of eight conversation-based workshops for adults on topics such as race, power, privilege, and oppression.
Q: What is the importance of having a youth-led organization?
A: I strongly believe that it is always important to be led by the people that have the most proximity to the issue at hand. In education, we spend a lot of time creating solutions for youth, or we may pick their brains to make them feel as if they are involved. At Diversity Talks, we work to disrupt that power dynamic by providing youth with an actual seat at the table — not a metaphorical one. Our students are the experts of their own experiences. They already have a voice. We’ve just created the platform for their voices to be amplified.
Q: Can you tell us about your work with the Central Falls school district and the “Re-imagine Our Future” project?
A: The Central Falls School District was the first district to invest in our work. They are a part of our founding story. We jointly applied for a grant through the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that was geared toward surfacing the root causes for inequities in education. As their technical assistance provider, we were able to bring new insights to the district from the youth perspective, as the district was looking for ways to authentically engage and empower youth, families and members of the community to be the drivers and advocates of change.
Q: What does Diversity Talks have planned for 2020?
A: 2020 will be a big year for us. Over the past two years, we’ve focused our efforts on piloting and refining our model. Now that we have a proven concept, we plan to shift our focus to expansion. We currently provide ongoing services to approximately 25 organizations across seven states, impacting more than 10,000 students. We want to double that. In 2020, we will be hiring a third full-time program coordinator, a director of strategic partnerships, and we’ll be entering into the college/university sector.