Political commentator and human rights advocate Van Jones says the ability to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion is a superpower, and the people who have it will be better poised for success.
Jones, CEO of the REFORM Alliance and host of “Redemption Project” and “The Van Jones Show” on CNN, was the keynote speaker Oct. 7 at a community assembly kicking off the University of Michigan’s monthlong DEI Summit.
The summit features workshops and panels that highlight the university’s commitment to fostering a welcoming, diverse and inclusive environment.
Speaking to a crowd of several hundred people at Hill Auditorium, Jones stressed the importance of working together with people who have varied backgrounds and views.
“The main point is this: I don’t care if you’re black, white, Latina, Latino, Asian American, Native American. I don’t care what faith you are, I don’t care what gender,” Jones said.
“In this new century, the absolute prerequisite superpower for success is how do you perform in a radically diverse environment. That will determine your success or your failure in this new century.”
Jones, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, recently helped convince President Donald Trump to sign the First Step Act, a law that, among other things, eases mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Jones said he’s successfully worked with both Democrat and Republican presidents to address important matters.
“I’ve been able to do that because I’ve learned that cognitive diversity, racial diversity, gender diversity, ideological diversity, viewpoint diversity are strengths and not weaknesses,” he said. “And I worked very, very hard to be good at working across those lines.”
Jones said problems like climate change and border security will only be solved with cooperation from people of different races and political parties.
Jones also touched on his experiences at Yale University, where he studied law. He said he saw more drug use and rule-breaking at Yale than he ever saw in housing projects. When students got into trouble, he said, police rarely got involved.
“Four blocks away in the housing projects in New Haven, Connecticut, poor black kids doing fewer drugs, selling fewer drugs for less money, almost all went to prison in the ’90s,” Jones said.
“They came back 10 years later, 15 years later, 20 years later, and now they’re drug felons. And those same Yale students, who are now in positions of power, won’t hire them: ‘I can’t hire these people. They’re drug felons.’ Well, what were you doing?
“When we’re talking about diversity and standards and all of this stuff, let’s live in the real world.”
During his remarks, President Mark Schlissel said the values of diversity, equity and inclusion are inseparable from U-M’s excellence in research, education and service. He thanked the 275 DEI leads who have worked to make the university’s five-year DEI Strategic Plan successful.
“Our achievements thus far are a direct result of so many members of our community joining together to not only advance our values, but to live them, to share them broadly and instill them in all parts of our mission as a public university,” he said.
Schlissel noted the opening of the Trotter Multicultural Center and other achievements, but also said, “We know there’s much more work to do before our community is as diverse and welcoming as we want it to be.”
The summit kickoff included a panel discussion with Jones; student Dim Mang, a political science and history major; Ashley Lucas, associate professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the Residential College, LSA and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design; and Ethriam Brammer, assistant dean at the Rackham Graduate School. Derrick Darby, professor of philosophy in LSA, moderated.
The event also featured the student dance troupe Arts in Color performing piece called “Love is Love.”
Student Sophia Kim, a senior and a double major in art history and political science, said she attended the summit because she was excited to see Jones speak and to support Mang, a friend of hers.
“I thought it was very powerful and very light-hearted in addressing such hard-hearted issues,” she said of Jones’ keynote address. “It encouraged me to have more conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion with my friends and family, (and) also my larger community.”
Fred Terry, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, said he was struck by Jones’ ability to reach across ideological divides.
Terry was part of the DEI strategic planning process in the CoE.
“For me, as an educator, it is critical that we do our best to develop the talent in our classrooms,” he said. “And I don’t think you can do that without considering these values (of diversity, equity and inclusion).”
— University Record Associate Editor Jeff Bleiler contributed to this article.