Elizabeth Williams-Riley is the first Black woman to take the helm of the American Conference on Diversity, in its 66-year history. The New Jersey based non-profit provides diversity trainings for businesses; experiential workshops and youth leadership programs for high school and college students; and professional development workshops for educators.
Please enjoy this interview with Elizabeth Williams-Riley, in our Women Who Inspire series. We hope you’ll tune in each week, and we look forward to sharing an interview with Elizabeth’s nominee:
“Dr. Ruth D. Edwards, my “Femtor”, who has dedicated her life’s journey to building bridges and connecting the human intellect with our emotions. Ruth is a scholar and author of two powerful books titled “Step Into Yourself” and “Becoming a Black Woman”. Ruth’s charismatic approach to helping others work through difficulties of social identity is remarkable. Her commitment to guiding individuals along their journey with pride and dignity is inspirational.”
How did you choose your career path, or how did it choose you ?
I’ve always viewed the world through the social justice lens. I worked in my faith community educating younger children, and in the workplace designing programs for youth and adults that promote diversity. I also mentored young women that wanted to make a difference, which included 2004 Miss America, Ericka Dunlap. Working in the field of human relations has opened the windows of the world to me, allowing me to work with diverse populations across the United States as well as Indonesia, South Africa, and Ireland.
What were, or are, your greatest challenges?
Opening minds to challenge bias, bigotry and discrimination is no easy feat. The human relations component is more complicated and challenging than I imagined. I’ve encountered many face-to-face affronts. The realities of deeply rooted bias can make you bitter or make you better. Although it’s challenging, I choose to be better. I’m driven to help individuals understand how the full spectrum of diversity, beyond race and gender, shapes and creates a culture of inclusion within our society.
How did facing these challenges contribute to your success?
I truly believe in the positive power of diversity and inclusion, and that positive change comes from understanding that we all come from different places and we’re ALL valuable. Finding common ground has helped me steer the American Conference on Diversity in a promising direction. I envision myself as a drummer beating my instrument with passion and enthusiasm. Each time I hit the drum in a different spot creating an amazing sound that transforms into a beautiful rhythm. I also realize that I need a band to play along to create the melodies of a great song. The songs of inclusion I’ve heard encourage me to stay on the path even when the task seems enormous.
Tell us your favorite success story:
During my senior year in high school, my mother encouraged me to enter the “Miss Pathfinder” beauty pageant — despite my very strong protests! Reluctantly, I auditioned and performed Langston Hughes’ The Negro Mother and Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise and Phenomenal Women for the talent competition. Much to my surprise — and the protests of a few other parents —I won. It turned out to be a fantastic year during which I also served as Student Body President and placed 1st in the school’s lip-sync contest.
A local Florida TV station filmed my at my school during the course of one day. The reporter, an African-American man, said to me, “You don’t seem to fit the mold of a pageant winner and class president.” Fortunately, I had the self-confidence to reply, “When people see you for who you REALLY are, appearances don’t matter as much. It’s strength of character that matters most.”
What one piece of advice do you most want to offer other woman about their professional and/or life choices?
Believe in your own power, strength, and fortitude to embrace new possibilities. Your personal and professional self must be aligned and balanced. Don’t compromise your authentic self.
How to measure success.
I feel too often the emphasis is placed on grandiose achievements and in the professional arena we have a tendency to treat people like “Super Stars”. By this I mean –you are only as good as your last performance. However, for me success is not only measured by the big victories but with all of the smaller ones along the way. I personally believe that I cannot solely look to others’ success to measure my own.