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Memorable moments from the 2022 Diversity Forum

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus

Embracing difference, learning from discomfort and committing to change were among the key takeaways of the University of Pittsburgh’s 2022 Diversity Forum.

The four-day event, themed “Rewiring Our Systems: Transforming the Intersections of Inequity,” welcomed a range of speakers including keynotes Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, and Nyle DiMarco, deaf activist and model, as well as youth organizers, Pitt students, professors and others. They discussed topics that ranged from online activism and burnout to the power that personal narratives can bring to political discourse.

In his opening remarks, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher acknowledged the difficult work that lies ahead for those seeking justice.

“As hard as we work to build a just community, we know that individuals in any such community can become marginalized. Individualized experiences are complex and understanding them is complex. Solving them can be complex. But solving hard problems is our specialty. It’s what universities are made for. In this case, it’s not only worthwhile, it’s also essential to our mission to make the world a better place through knowledge and understanding.”

During a Thursday session on the role of higher education in impacting systems of inequity, Clyde Pickett, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, asked attendees to consider how institutions such as Pitt can advance the cause of equity.

“I hope that you have enjoyed and, indeed, experienced a transformational time with us at the forum. … We [must] shift our focus to thinking about the role education, specifically, higher education plays in terms of rewiring systems. We know, after all, that education has a responsibility to fortify leaders and prepare citizens for engagement in broader society.”

For those who might have missed the forum, we’ve got a recap of some of the signature events below. To view recordings of all the sessions, registrants can log back in to the attendee hub, click “Schedule” then “On Demand.”

A bold beginning

The forum’s first presentation featured author and Pitt Department of English instructor Katie Booth in conversation with DiMarco.

During the event, titled “Nyle DiMarco: Living Out Loud: Expanding the Conversation,” the two discussed self-esteem, DiMarco’s upbringing and his activism in the deaf community.

DiMarco, communicating through an American Sign Language interpreter, used his life experiences to emphasize the importance of introspection and the value of embracing one’s identity and each other’s differences.

During a gap year after graduating college, DiMarco and his friend visited a beach, where his friend asked him a question he’d heard several times before: Did he ever wish he could hear? 

This time, however, the question gave him pause.

“Why would he ask me there?” DiMarco said. “And what I realized was that while I could see the waves coming in and crashing on the sands, he could hear that the people who had taken over the volleyball court next to us were loud and were laughing and cheering each other on ... so the environment is quite noisy. But for me, my world is completely silent.” 

This experience made him reflect on why he never wanted to hear.

“I learned to embrace my identity, not only because it was all I knew, but also because I knew that the life that was laid out ahead of me was one that I had to learn to love,” DiMarco said. “Our identity, our uniqueness and our difference is truly what brings so much worth in this world for us to offer to others.”

[ICYMI: Performers and activists used art to spark change at the Diversity Forum.]

During Burke’s Wednesday keynote with Pitt clinical assistant professor of law Jabeen Adawi, she addressed the forum’s theme.

“Our two biggest issues are narrative and culture,” said Burke. “If we’re going to rewire the systems … we must start with the people at the center. We must look at the voices we’ve elevated.”

Burke also discussed traditional versus new notions of justice, including the power of social media, which directly correlated to a later panel with youth activist Winter BreeAnne about using digital platforms to advance social justice.

“Social media has allowed people to visualize their experience [and] allows me to connect worlds and communities that otherwise wouldn’t connect,” said BreeAnne who was joined by award-winning Hampton University student and Miss Liberia USA Nupol Kiazolu and Filipina American mental health and healing advocate Kim Saira. 

Moderated by David Miguel Molina, a Pitt communications lecturer, panelists explained how social media creates a sense of agency for marginalized individuals and communities. They also recounted experiences like being arrested for peacefully protesting that have informed how they “show up” online.

“It’s about building and emphasizing that bridge [between online and off],” BreeAnne said. “Social media and engaging online are not enough, just like reading a book or taking a class are not enough. Now that you’ve garnered a platform, how are you going out into your community or providing resources to solve what’s happening?”

“It’s important we don’t emphasize the digital space as a means to an end,” BreeAnne continued. “The digital space is a tool to enact change in the real world.”

Real world applications and solutions

During their Wednesday session, Duquesne University public health professors Ahmad Khanijahani and Faina Linkov presented on racial and socioeconomic disparities in the context of the pandemic. 

We need to be working on risk communication because risk perception is different for different ethnic groups, specifically minorities,” said Linkov, whose recent work focused on youth perceptions of COVID-19 messaging and pandemic parties. “We need to effectively communicate and customize messages.” 

Solving hard problems is our specialty. It’s what universities are made for.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher

Khanijahani shared his 2021 case studies, which focused on county-level health care and COVID-19 disparities in the U.S. In them, he found a positive association between COVID-19 deaths and racial segregation.

“Health is impacted by various factors including access to health care, socioeconomic status, our environment, decisions and habits,” said Khanijahani. “If we want to make a difference, we should factor in policies that will decrease disparities.”

In another session, Urban Studies Program Director Michael Glass moderated a discussion between the president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation Marimba Milliones and author, columnist and scholar Andre M. Perry. They considered the legacy of redlining and its present-day consequences.

“Cities like Pittsburgh may still be carrying the burden of disinvestment that happened as a result of redlining,” said Marimba, a native of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which she said was without a grocery store for over 30 years. “We secured one that then closed in less than five years. Grocery stores are heavily driven by economics which is heavily driven by redlining.”

Healing and progress

Activism isn’t easy. In the final session of the forum, “A Time for Grace and Healing,” moderated by Associate Dean of Students for Wellness Jay Darr, panelists emphasized the need for self-care and gave tips on how to practice it.

Self-care can take many forms including spirituality, physical wellness and embracing one’s identity, panelists said.

Humor writer Virginia Montanez said laughter is a valuable tool for self-care, along with accepting one’s emotions.

“Part of self-care for me is I really have to remind myself that my emotions are valid, and that it's okay to feel them and to process them. If you're speaking with someone that won't recognize your emotions, or tries to invalidate them, that's gaslighting,” Montanez said. “It's okay to feel the way you're feeling.”

Felicia Friedman, founder and CEO, YogaRoots On Location, encouraged the audience to come together to look inward. “Self-care, for me, is really a response to internalized oppression. And in turn, the only person that I can point to in terms of internalizing oppression is me. I have to take care of myself so that I can be as balanced and loving for myself and I can extend that to other people.”


— Donovan Harrell and Kara Henderson