In November, the HCLA’s 2023 Class met on the campus of Ivy Tech Hamilton County for a day centered on diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI). The day included keynote presentations and panel discussions. HCLA’s DEAI Day was an enjoyable and thought-provoking session. I’m typically the kind of person who sits at the back of the classroom and takes notes. This month was different. It could have been that the only seats remaining when I arrived were at the front, or perhaps it was the subject, but I was not silent when asked for feedback.

As associate vice president of development at Conner Prairie, I’ve been having many conversations about DEAI. The museum is opening a new experience next year that centers on sharing more than 1000 years of African American history from pre-colonial Africa to the present day. I’ve had frank conversations with community members of diverse backgrounds who have shared powerful, personal stories of negative experiences in Hamilton County. Before the museum, I worked in Indianapolis, and there I heard more than one less-than-positive comment about Hamilton County. So, I had to pause when asked why Hamilton County was excellent.

Andrew Adeniyi, CEO & founder of AAA Solutions, opened the day with a review of definitions related to DEAI. Words and our shared definitions and understanding of them are crucial. Following Adeniyi’s presentation, panelists Patricia Gamble-Moore, PNC Bank senior vice president and market manager; Arwa Ghalawan, diversity and inclusion lead-midwest for Infosys; Taina Lance, director of relocation services, The International Center; Wendy Nelson, Noblesville Schools bilingual family liaison; and Senator Fady Qaddoura, Indiana General Assembly shared more about building an inclusive community. We then learned about Hamilton County’s demographics from Mike Thibideau, CEO& president of Invest Hamilton County. Carolina Castoreno, the executive director of The American Indian Center of Indiana, shared numerous statistics about the American Indians living in our community and across the nation. The day concluded with a panel presentation from leaders in the disability community, including Sandi Clark, client success manager for the Indiana Canine Assistant Network; Fishers City Councilor At-Large Cecilia Coble; Yolanda Kincaid, president & CEO of Janus Developmental Services, Inc.; and Tami Wanninger, assistant vice president quality, customer services and regulatory compliance for Noble, Inc.

In 2021, Hamilton County’s population totaled 356,650. The county is 85% White, nearly 60% of residents have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, and the median household income is $98,880 – exceeding the nation’s average household income by more than $30,000. Almost 6% of residents under age 65 live with a disability – 21,399 children and adults – and 4% – 14,266 people in Hamilton County live in poverty.

Adeniyi also shared a quote from Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategist Arthur Chan, “Diversity is a FACT. Equity is a CHOICE. Inclusion is an ACTION. Belonging is an OUTCOME.” While we all strive for belonging, we must first take inclusive actions. All persons have to feel comfortable and confident to be themselves and work, live and play in a way that suits them. Inclusion adds value to our workplaces, our schools, and our communities. In helping build openness to inclusion, Adeniyi encouraged the class to use data and storytelling. Stories engage our frontal cortex. Stories stimulate the brain and build empathy, and human connection, whereas data supports our decisions.

Hamilton County has an incredible opportunity to grow its inclusivity. As members of HLCA, we can share the data we’ve learned with our colleagues and families. We can also reflect on the stories we’ve heard in class, from friends, and from colleagues. Each of us has unique, lived experiences – experiences that have formed who we are today and how we show up in the workplace and at home. Hamilton County is an outstanding community, and I’m thankful for its amenities. But there is work to be done within the county. We, as leaders, can build a more diverse community. It starts with authenticity, being open to the stories and lived experiences of others, and seeking out opinions that differ from our own – this is the start of excellence.