How to Have Courageous Diversity Conversations

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Conversations about diversity in higher education and advancement can be challenging. But Ishna Hall doesn’t like to say that those discussions are tough—she calls them courageous.


Hall, director of development at the University of North Carolina’s Arts & Sciences Foundation, has found during the course of her 12 years in fundraising that honest dialogues about diversity, inclusion and mentoring are key. At CASE’s Minority Advancement Institute, Hall and fellow advancement leaders had the chance to have these kinds of conversations.

Here are some of Hall’s takeaways—including how assuming positive intent can make all the difference.

CASE: What’s advancement’s biggest challenge around diversity?

Ishna Hall: Diversity encompasses so much in our industry—whether we’re trying to be thoughtful about how we continue to ensure our staff reflects the diversity of our institutions, how we engage diverse constituents and, once we’ve engaged them, how we ensure that they have leadership and representation across the many boards and committees of alumni with which we work every day. That’s what makes it complex.

There are lots of moving pieces and lots of things to be mindful of and thoughtful about. What that really does is present an amazing opportunity to have open dialogue and conversations and to be really intentional about the work we’re doing.

Some of those conversations can be hard, right?

I don’t like to call them hard. I like to call them courageous. The thing that we have to remember—and we talked about this at MAI—that most people (our donors, the people we work with, our colleagues) are coming from a place of good intent. Sometimes our intent is not what comes through in the delivery of the message or the receipt of the message. But most people are trying to connect with you; sometimes they just don’t understand the best way to do that. If we can all remember that people are coming from a place of good intentions, I think we’ll be a lot better.

What’s a lesson you’ve learned about your leadership style and inclusion?

[At MAI] I learned a new term: blind spot. I had a moment to reflect on what my blind spots are. It was nice to be able to take 48 hours or 60 hours and just focus on my own growth and development as a leader and as an advancement professional.

What advice would you pass along to diverse professionals as they navigate those discussions?

The diversity conversation is such a big one. It’s important for our diverse professionals to have these kinds of conversations—but what’s even more important is ensuring that we reach outside of those circles because we need partners who don’t look like us and think like us. That can really further the conversation.

No great thing in this country or in this world has been fulfilled by one group. It’s taken the partnership and collaboration with a diversity of people and opinions to really move the needle and push that forward. [Diverse professionals] should really embrace the fact that we’re not in this alone. That there are people who want to carry this with us, for us, behind us, beside us. We should embrace that.

That should be on a bumper sticker.

We can all hope.

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