By Phoebe Spooner, Fall 2016 Strategy Intern

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  

This was the resounding message echoing during the University of Tennessee’s annual Diversity and Inclusion Week. Hosted by the College of Communication and Information, this is the seventh year of bringing students and industry leaders together to discuss the role we play in advancing diversity in the workplace. Josh Loebner, Designsensory’s director of strategy, was invited to participate as a panelist.

Loebner, blind in his left eye and visually impaired in his right, represented the disabled community, along with a panel of other university officials, including: Josh Cunningham, a teaching assistant at UT; Jondra Darden, event coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions; Frank Cuevas, the assistant vice chancellor for student life and executive director of university housing; and Senior Lecturer Florence Abad-Turner.

The five panelists encouraged students, of minority or majority, to be champions for diversity and inclusion in all areas of life. The session started off by asking students to look internally at their personal challenges and prejudices. Students were asked to hold up ”agree“ and ”disagree“ signs in response to various hot topics concerning diversity in the workplace. Loebner and the other panelists explained that acknowledging these issues is the best way to start, as we (the industry’s present and future) pursue efforts to improve diversity.

As representatives within their minority, panelists also shared personal, unique challenges in getting started in their careers. Darden shared that, as the youngest person on the team at her first job, she had to embrace her role as the ”fresh perspective.“ She was also the first person of color hired by the company.

”It was eye opening,“ she said. ”(It’s important to) make sure you’re choosing a place where you feel welcome and can make your own mark.“

Cunningham, a former firefighter, explained the challenges of being queer and working as a firefighter. Living and working in such close quarters, a firefighter crew has to trust and feel comfortable with each other. Together, he and his crewmates had to make the effort to overcome personal biases.

”Diversity creates the challenge where you have to prove and earn your worth as an equal so that people can overlook what makes you different,“ he said.

The dialog continued to cover many other topics, such aswhat young leaders can prepare for as they enter the workforce. The panel discussed red flags to look for within companies that might struggle to respect diversity.

Cuevas shared that, during one interview, the interviewer disclosed that Cuevas was considered solely on the merit that his Mexican-American heritage would enable the company to meet Affirmative Action expectations. He immediately made the choice to walk away from that opportunity because he recognized the level of respect he would receive moving forward. Following Cuevas’ anecdote, the panelists advised students how to best manage disrespectful comments.

The final topic included the pay gap between women and men. Loebner shared that if you plan on negotiating, it’s important to come prepared.

”Know what you want, know what you bring to the table and know what you deserve,“ he said.

In the wrap-up, the panelists encouraged minority students at the event to, first and foremost, be confident. And, to the majority, Loebner said it can support the minority by being understanding and respectful.

”They must play a role on behalf of the diversity effort,“ he said.  

Alice Wirth, the director of CCI Diversity Student Leaders Society, agreed with Loebner and added:

”(Individuals within the majority) bring the opportunity to be an ally and an influencer.“

Wirth wrapped up the event by reminding us that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, because that’s where the most honest and effective discussions come from. It is the only way our industry will move forward with respect to diversity.