As a black, lesbian woman growing up in Mississippi, despite the many socially-accepting parts of the state, Kiara Butler knew she did not want to spend the rest of her life in the Magnolia State.

But even when she eventually got out and came to Rhode Island, she still felt that many of the professional development sessions on diversity she sat through failed to address the elephant in the room — race, power, privilege and oppression.

“Students have to believe that they have a voice in a room full of adults and adults have to have high expectations for youth, regardless of their background.”

Her many experiences led her to start and lead Diversity Talks last June, a training organization that focuses on providing K-12 school districts, higher education institutions, community based organizations and corporations with facilitated conversations led by youth.

These 100 percent youth-led conversations, which consists of eight- to 90-minute workshops, are grounded in diversity, equality and inclusion to increase academic performance and achievement. The organization also offers additional support for educators in the classroom setting if participants opt in for the second tier of services.

“It was like checking a box just to say ‘I participated,’ and checking the box was okay, until it came down to diversity professional development,” Butler, a former special assistant to the superintendent of Providence Public Schools, told Rhode Island Inno. “Now, combine that with me working in education, where the teaching population does not reflect the student population. I thought, ‘Why not have your most diverse population [students] share their experiences in a safe and collaborative environment and for once, adults sit back, listen and learn something.’”

The sessions Diversity Talks offers range from understanding LGBTQ identity and expression, examining the root of microaggressions and learning about intersectionality and implicit bias.

In just six months, the organization has built a national recognition for its unique student-led approach. Last August, the Kansas City-based Lean Lab education tech accelerator selected Diversity Talks as one of five companies accepted into the program, which came with $35,000 in seed funding.

The organization is also having success in setting up partnerships with community-based organizations and school districts.

Recently, Diversity Talks signed its first contract with a school district in Rhode Island and will be providing services during the upcoming spring and fall. The new client also provides Butler with a new cohort of students, who are at the core of the organization’s model.

Diversity Talks CEO Kiara Butler. Photo via LinkedIn.

“What we do by providing student-led professional development requires a shift in mindset for both adults and students,” said Butler. “Students have to believe that they have a voice in a room full of adults and adults have to have high expectations for youth, regardless of their background.”

Butler believes it is critical to enlist new cohorts in different locations to show that regardless of demographic location, socioeconomic status, race or gender, youth should have a seat at the table and are highly capable of being facilitators of their own learning.

In the short term, Butler said Diversity Talks is focused on providing services in Rhode Island, Missouri and the District of Columbia, areas she hopes to build relationships through conversations, while also reducing suspension rates for students of color, chronic absenteeism and turnover among teachers of color.

“We’ve skipped the step of building relationships and focus so much on solutions when in reality, one of the solutions is getting to know the people and environment around you,” said Butler. “Especially if it is different from who you are or where you’re from.”

Editor’s Note: Kiara Butler was a 50 on Fire 2018 Inno Blazer in the nonprofit category. Read all about the awards here.