Diversity Leadership Initiative Builds Bridges

The Riley Institute's Diversity Leadership Initiative was founded on the idea that we all make decisions based on our learning and life experiences. And while this is normal and natural, we make better decisions if we can suspend our assumptions and incorporate other, differing points of view into our decision making processes. Thus, the DLI program was born. Its mission is to train South Carolina's leaders to make better decisions that take into account the diverse experiences of their fellow South Carolinians.

The roots of the DLI initiative go all the way back to 2003 when Michelin first approached the Riley Institute, asking them to bring to South Carolina, Coca-Cola's diversity leadership program with which they were most impressed. The Riley Institute was impressed as well, and only a few months later, the first DLI class graduated. Since then, the DLI program has graduated more than 1,300 leaders from across the state.

Participants are asked to apply after being nominated. Then, in order to assure the diversity of each class, students are divided among government, corporate, non-profit, and faith-based sectors. According to Don Gordon, the Executive Director of the Riley Institute, "Every class is crafted to reflect South Carolina demographics, including gender, race, and cultural background."

Rabbi Marc Wilson, founder and Director of the Year of Altruism and graduate of DLI Upstate Class XV, found that the time spent in honest, even provocative, dialogue with his fellow students gave him a fresh perspective and help him lead YOA activities.

"Stuff that I took for granted before DLI, my mind is now processing more thoughtfully after DLI. I'm better equipped -- from both an intellectual and practical perspective -- to handle certain situations," said Wilson. "This dovetails nicely with what we're doing in the Year of Altruism. In YOA we don't call it diversity. We call it bridge building. But whatever you call it, people are going outside of the box and building bridges. A lot of that was encouraged by my experiences in DLI."

The Lowcountry, Midlands, and Upstate regions each have their own classes that meet over the course of five months. The Upstate DLI students meet on Furman University's campus which also hosts the Riley Institute. The program's format is driven by experiential learning techniques and case studies.

For example, each class is broken into smaller groups that work on community action or "capstone" projects. One recent capstone project involved creating a gardening tool library intended to serve those who need tools for their community gardens. Such experiential learning exercises not only help the community but also facilitate participants learning diversity leadership skills. Additionally, students are encouraged to interact and develop positive relationships with each other.

What's the next step for the DLI program? According to Gordon, now that there are over 1,300 graduates, or Riley Fellows, the Riley Institute has launched the One South Carolina program, which is designed to allow DLI graduates to work collectively on some of South Carolina's problem areas. "Once a year, Riley Fellows are invited to come together to work on South Carolina's critical issues. It's a diverse group but we all focus on the common good and how we're going to reach it together," said Gordon.

Richard W. Riley, for whom the Riley Institute at Furman is named, serves as Advisory Board chair of the Richard W. Riley Institute of Government, Politics and Public Leadership.

Article by Josephine McMullen