Center for Leadership and the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education host Intersect Conference

The annual Intersect Conference provides the opportunity for staff, faculty and students to learn through sessions and dialogue

The Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity and the Center for Leadership recently welcomed over 280 attendees from Elon students and 13 other colleges and universities to the ninth annual Intersect Conference, a gathering that promotes the intersection of diversity and leadership.

Intersect had 36 different educational sessions facilitated by students, faculty and staff. The conference also included 23 roundtables, with topics such as Latinx representation in media, Being an Effective Ally and Hip-Hop and Hypermasculinity.

The conference featured two keynote speakers, Jonathan McElderry and Payton Head, who shared about the protests at the University of Missouri in fall 2015 ignited by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and issues of racial discrimination that spurred protests at colleges and university across the country. McElderry was the director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at the university at the time, and now works at Wake Forest University as the assistant dean of students and executive director of the Intercultural Center. Head was serving as the University of Missouri’s student body president at the time.

Intersect is planned by a committee of 10 students and CFL Associate Director Dana Pursley and CREDE Associate Director Sylvia Muñoz.

The committee came up with this year’s theme: “imPossible”, which encouraged attendees to think past obstacles to change. “They wanted to challenge people to move beyond this thought of barriers or obstacles, imagine what could be possible and how many times we face a barrier or situation where we say that’s impossible or it’s unrealistic or I can’t do it but really trying to focus on the positive aspect of what could be,” Pursley said. “They’ve been using the tagline ‘I am possible’, ‘we are possible’ as a way to energize people and giving that positive momentum for creating change.”

Students, faculty and staff engaged in dialogue, reflection and training at the annual Intersect Conference.

The theme also allowed the organizers to play with the wording for more impact, said Kristin Amrine ‘21, the CFL Intersect Director. “The cool thing about ‘impossible’ is you change it just a little bit the right way and it is ‘I am possible’,” Amrine said.

CREDE Intersect Director Maria Ramirez ‘20 said the committee wanted the theme to be broad enough to appeal to all the attendees and encapsulate the sessions and roundtables.

“We left spring semester with this idea of activism and advocacy and we really wanted to make sure to expand that,” Ramirez said. “We had talked about activism and advocacy as students but seeing that the conference is not just for students, but also faculty and staff and that a lot of individuals are going to be seniors, we wanted to make sure that it was inclusive to everyone who was coming to the conference.”

During a Nov. 15 session titled “Difficult Dialogues”, Department of Political Science faculty members Kaye Usry, Damion Blake, Liza Taylor and Jessica Carew presented about strategies they use to facilitate dialogue around controversial and sensitive topics. They spoke about creating environments where students feel safe to share their opinions.

Elon faculty members, from left, Liza Taylor, Jessica Carew, Damion Blake and Kaye Usry from the Department of Political Science and Policy Studies formed a panel for one of the conference’s sessions.

“You have to start to build that community early on by having even smaller discussions, having them to start to know one another and to see the commonalities that we all have because it’s really hard to vilify somebody and to dehumanize them outright that you actually recognize a connection with,” Carew said. “That opens up this space for then talking about some of these more difficult topics.”

Blake, whose courses touches on issues such as immigration, the war on terrorism and the war on drugs, said he teaches students to rely on data to challenge narratives of “othering” through which certain groups are treated and perceived as different.

“I try to teach my students wherever you see ‘othering’ taking place or ‘all immigrants are bad’ and ‘all immigrants are thieves, all immigrants are criminals’, OK, let’s check that narrative, let’s look at the data, does it check out?” Blake said.

Carew and Usry emphasized that emotions in conversations around political topics are valid, contrary to the narrative that political discussions should only include logic and facts.

“Every semester I have my students brainstorm guidelines for productive dialogue in the classroom and without fail someone suggests that we leave emotion out of it, we’re going to be rational, we’re going to be reasoned,” Usry said. “When it comes to politics and these more difficult subjects, many people are directly affected by these issues, so I don’t allow that to be a ground rule in my classroom, I say ‘no, it’s actually OK for you to have emotions in my classroom’, I expect that you will have emotions about the things that we’re talking about.’”

During another session, students Shawna Harris-Lenoir ‘20, Chandler Vaughn ‘21, Taylor McFadden ‘20, Brittany Tuwamo and Destiny Frett ‘20 presented “Black Girls Deserve the World.” These students attended the 2019 Justice for Black Girls Conference in Harlem, New York and during the session they talked about their findings from the conference. They spoke about how black girls are often over-criminalized and pushed out of the education system into the criminal justice system at a young age such as the case of Kiera Wilmot, who was expelled and arrested at 16 years old when her science experiment set off a small explosion.

Black girls make up 16 percent of girls in schools, Vaughn said, but 45 percent of them have had at least one out-of-school suspension, 31 percent have been referred to law enforcement and 34 percent have been arrested on their own campuses.

“They are constantly being punished for their behaviors, they are six times more likely to be disciplined than boys or girls of any other race,” Tuwamo said.

Tuwamo explained that educators need to form positive relationships with their students, specifically black girls, so that they can be successful.

“Black girls face harsher disciplines and are struggling to overcome multiple forms of victimization and annoyingly, we view their responses as angry and argumentative rather than supporting or symptoms of trauma,” Tuwamo said. “Educators who have used empathetic disciplinary tactics than a punitive disciplinary tactic found that suspension rates for black girls and Latino girls have decreased by 75 percent.”

During his keynote address on Saturday, Nov. 16, Head spoke about the protests at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2015 and the importance of collective leadership. He described a meeting that year with student leaders from other University of Missouri campuses who had to decide what legislative issues they were going to send to the state capital. Head had brought up the issue of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students as an issue to prioritize but was eventually outvoted.

Head said this incident sparked him to write a Facebook post about the accumulation of his experiences of racial discrimination. In the post, he implored students with majoritized identities to pay attention to social issues on campus. The post ended up going viral, resonating with some students and angering others.

“It’s time to wake up Mizzou,” Head wrote.

He shared with those attending the Intersect Conference about how being student body president offered him a privileged platform from which to speak, and encouraged others in places of privilege to do the same.

Media outlets called Head to talk about his post and he described his frustration with how some treated the incident and the protests. “Everybody was so enthralled by this post,” Head said. “But for me, my mentality was, people deal with this every single day at campuses all across the country and off campuses all across the country, too. What made this special?”

College students around the country stood in solidarity with the University of Missouri, which Head said showed that this was not just a problem at one school. The protests would lead to the eventual resignation of the University of Missouri system president and the chancellor.

Even though some people come to Intersect with plenty of knowledge about different social issues, Pursley emphasized that the conference challenges people to step out of their comfort zone.

“People can navigate their college experience and see people like them and make friends with people or take classes or live with people who share some of the same beliefs and values,” Pursley said. “But I think it’s important for us to step outside of that and really challenge the norm or challenge the things that we’ve been accustomed to and develop that critical perspective or to understand other people’s perspectives.”

The CREDE and the Center for Leadership look forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Intersect Conference in Fall 2020. If you are interested in serving on the planning committee, please email