Leaders Learn to Leverage Diversity at DLI

A statewide program that aims to bridge divides and increase awareness about diversity was born right here in the Upstate. In 2003, the Riley Institute at Furman University created the Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI), which brings leaders together to learn about and discuss diversity and inclusion. The focus is on helping leaders in business, government, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations recognize the many dimensions of diversity, and for those people to become diversity champions and problem-solvers in the places where they lead. DLI’s ultimate goal is to foster organizations of every sort that leverage the value of diversity, and ultimately improve our state. 

There are three classes per year, one each in the Upstate, Midlands, and the Low Country. They meet about once a month for five months. Each class is tailored to create a balance that reflects the diversity of the state as a whole. The result is a mix of ages, races, genders, and organizations, from law enforcement to faith leaders to corporate CEOs, and other groups. Several members of the Riley Institute staff are involved in nearly all aspects of the program, but the daylong meetings are led by facilitator Juan Johnson. Johnson was previously Coca-Cola Corporation’s first ever Vice President for Diversity Strategy. With that expertise, Johnson started his own Atlanta-based business and helped launch DLI in 2003. 

DLI participants learn that diversity has do with more than what meets the eye. The course looks at other dimensions of diversity that are traditionally under-examined, including geographic orientation, culture, knowledge, and more. It also has the important element of inclusion, which means taking those differences into account to fairly address everyone’s interests. More than simple matters of personnel management, diversity and inclusion are the kinds of strengths that can take organizations to the next level. Through group work, discussion, and instruction, participants tackle often difficult issues, all in an effort to become more capable managers and executives when it comes to diversity. Participants also have the opportunity to examine their own blind spots, biases, and assumptions. 

Case studies are built into the curriculum to help drive home key points, but real-world events often find their way into the discussion when they happen during the class season. After the tragic shootings in Charleston in 2015, the Riley Institute made plans to pilot an expansion of DLI tailored specifically for education and law enforcement professionals, with support from Duke Energy and its employees. 

Group projects that tackle issues outside of the class are another way that participants engage with the world and are a key component of the experience. Projects need not deal specifically with diversity but tend to focus on serving diverse groups. “Alumni have completed 150 community projects that have had a direct and immediate impact on increasing opportunities for those members of society who have been excluded from participating in the past,” said Don Gordon, Executive Director of the Riley Institute.

DLI sustains its network of alumni—now numbering more 1,600—through local gatherings and events on related topics. Recent years have seen the addition of the annual “OneSouthCarolina” conference. Scores of DLI graduates, also known as “Riley Fellows,” will be meeting again March 3–5. 

“We will host our fourth OneSouthCarolina to bring together DLI alumni from across the state to explore strategies for improving ‘The Infrastructure of Opportunity’ as we work to help move all South Carolinians into the social and economic mainstream of the state and ramp up our competitiveness in the increasingly competitive global economy. We are excited about the future DLI programs and the impact they can have on improving the lives of all South Carolinians,” Gordon said.

Photos courtesy of the Riley Institute.

Jennifer Oladipo is a writer in Greenville whose work appears in local and national publications.