Discussing diversity: Engage! Cleveland hosts DEI Conference

The darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 left many people feeling lonely and disconnected. During this time, the leaders of Engage! Cleveland, a nonprofit community engagement organization for young professionals that offers several networking and social events throughout the year for its members, also saw the disconnect and despair.

“When the pandemic hit our members, who are early career, entry-level professionals in their mid-20s, were feeling siloed and isolated,” recalls Engage! Cleveland president Ashley Basile Oeken. “Then George Floyd was murdered.”

As an organization that emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Basile Oeken knew she had to do something to recharge her members and open communications about their lives, the challenges they face, and diversity.

Diversity Equity & Inclusion ConferenceDiversity Equity & Inclusion ConferenceSo the organization launched Takeover Tuesday: Band Together CLE on Instagram—a weekly post in which young professionals share their stories about their ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles, as well as reflections on how they make their workplaces and communities more welcoming and inclusive.

“Someone would take over our social media and walk people through a day in their life,” explains Basile-Oeken. “We had LGBT people, people with mental or physical disabilities—a broad spectrum.”

Takeover Tuesday was a hit—with 35 installments running through 2022.

Basile-Oeken and her colleagues started talking about what the next step was in promoting DEI among young professionals. They decided to host a full, daylong conference to foster meaningful discussions, share best practices, and drive actionable strategies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

With that decision, Engage! Cleveland hosted its inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference on Oct. 25 at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA).

Within two weeks of announcing the conference, in-person tickets sold out, so a virtual ticket option was offered. The event amassed over 200 thought leaders, experts, young professionals, and advocates—both virtual and in-person—to engage in a comprehensive dialogue on the vital importance of diversity and inclusion in today's rapidly evolving world.

Diversity Equity & Inclusion ConferenceDiversity Equity & Inclusion Conference“The goal of the conference was to educate people and take things to the next level,” recalls Basile-Oeken. “We knew people wanted to get back to meeting in person, and we had 160 attendees in-person as well as 50 60 people through the livestream option. “We definitely needed a larger room,” says Basile-Oeken of the attendance

Additionally, representatives from 86 Cleveland companies attended—including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Foundation, the J.M. Smucker Company, Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, and Sherwin-Williams.

“We wanted to bring awareness and education—and have a conference people could relate to and start making changes in their personal and professional lives,” says Basile-Oeken. “It was a very diverse room. We had takeaways that could be implemented immediately.”

The conference featured 14 keynote speakers and panel discussion participants who explored diversity and its impact on organizations, communities, and society.

Attendees were offered insights into fostering inclusive workplaces, addressing systemic barriers, promoting equitable opportunities, and developing strategies for creating a more just and inclusive society.

The speakers included Alan K. Nevel, MetroHealth System’s senior vice president and chief equity and community impact officer; Kimberly Chapmon-Wynne, senior director of race, diversity, equity, and inclusion at United Way of Greater Cleveland; and Crishawna Cunningham: chief DEI officer with Union Home Mortgage.

The conference concluded with a behind-the-scenes tour of the art museum focusing on artists whose work focuses on diversity. CMA curators, docents, and art educators shared information on the art, including the history of the piece, social and historical influences, and facts about the artists.

Engage! Cleveland’s DEI Conference was so successful that Basile-Oeken says they’ve already chosen a date for next year’s event. “It was just remarkable,” she says. “There is so much more to build on for next year.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.