Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence


By Leah Smiley

As we celebrate 50 years of progress in civil rights, I want to explore this concept of “being a Change Agent”.


Some people, like myself, have heard stories, seen videos, and read interesting American history commentaries, but in all reality—we have no idea what it was like to live in America in 1963. When I was a student in school, I was told, “Racism, sexism, ageism, and everything else, is history.  It doesn’t exist anymore.” I believed it for years, until my personal experiences told me otherwise. Therefore, by the time I went to Hampton University, I was fully committed to doing something to change the world. In fact, nearly 20 years ago, I wrote my senior thesis on the topic of equity, access and inclusion to politics and the workplace.


Today, I look back and can’t believe that I was thinking about this stuff back then…Nevertheless, I just made three key points:  (1) There are still a multitude of people in this generation who believe that all of the “–isms” are history; (2) Yet, their personal experiences may present a conflict:  what they were told vs. what they experience; and (3) This generation has a profound desire to lead change—in a good way or bad way.


For example, John and Laura Arnold in Houston, TX intend to give away $4 billion to solve some of the country’s biggest problems through data analysis and science, with an unsentimental focus on results and an aversion to feel-good projects. These Generation Xers want to emphasize areas such as obesity, fairness in the criminal justice system, and pension reform, to name a few. This is change in the good way. It will ultimately impact philanthropy around the world. On the other hand, Edward Snowden broke the law to make the public aware of what he believes is wrong. While some may agree with what he believes in, they may disagree with how this Millennial initiated change.


When we look at the news today—right now—there are numerous stories about racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and every other type of “-ism”.  From the Cheerios commercial to the last NBA game to the Whole Foods English-Only controversy, -ism’s are dominating the news 50-years into this civil rights movement.  The question is, what are you going to do?


Steve Martin, author of Instant Profits: Making Your Business Pay says, “A change agent is a person who indirectly or directly causes change. For example, a change agent may work within an organization to lead or cause the change in some aspect of how the business is conducted. They may be assigned the role or may assume the role naturally. Some change agents surface as leaders, instigators or examples for change in cultural, social or human behavior.


A change agent may initiate change, assist others in understanding the need for change and what is entailed, recruit support, manage the change process and/or assist in resolving conflict. In some cases the agent of change may be a team on a mission.”


As many organizations struggle with “diversity fatigue” 50 years into this movement, it’s important for us change agents to keep pushing for transparency, fairness and inclusion. Regardless of our title, we all have a responsibility to make a good mark on history.  Don’t ever give up—someone needs a Superhero to the rescue!


Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity. For more information about the Society for Diversity,  log onto 


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