Leadership group discusses diversity, inclusion

By: Alex Szwarc | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published June 23, 2021

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Karen Smith said the topic is a little difficult to talk about.

The final session in Leadership Macomb’s 10-part series focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Earlier this month, the three featured speakers were Kayla Blackburn, Prasanna Vengadam and Stefen Welch.

“It’s really sad that our country is experiencing so much racial tension, inequality in many areas, exclusion, intolerance, discrimination and even hatred, all very negative behaviors,” said Smith, Leadership Macomb executive director.

Welch, the divisional vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Saks OFF 5th, said he would often comment that he was a product of his environment.

“I didn’t like that saying growing up, but maybe I am,” he said.

Welch said that early in his career, he was offered a promotion, which he accepted, but he was uncomfortable in the work he was doing.

“There were microaggressions, unconscious bias statements made to me, and I knew it would be an interesting place to navigate,” he said. “After doing it for so long, those statements started to take a toll, and I reached out to HR.”

He later worked at Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, being elevated to director of diversity and inclusion.  

“I tell people all the time that we need to humanize our business and make sure we check in on them,” he said.

Blackburn is a Utica Community Schools graduate, and she now is a law student and assistant at PRAT LLC.

Smith called Blackburn fiercely independent and intelligent.  

Blackburn began her talk by asking, “what comes to mind when you hear the words ‘triple threat’?”

For her, she thinks of the fact that she is Black, disabled and a woman.

“These identities technically put me at a systematic disadvantage, and I’ve been made aware of this,” Blackburn said.

At age 2, Blackburn was in a car crash that left her paralyzed.

“My story begins with the impact that day had,” she said. “My story begins with watching my family sacrifice and advocate for me for the next 21 years.”

Blackburn said her parents were forced to decide whether to enroll her in special or general education. They eventually went with general education.   

In her primary education years, she was faced with challenges like transportation and equipment. She added that, in kindergarten through 12th grade, she was one of the only Black students and had one Black teacher, who became very important in her life.

Vengadam, a Laney College English professor, is a first-generation Indian immigrant to the U.S. She shared her journey to citizenship and the process the U.S. has for immigrants.

“I landed in Boston in 1985 with a suitcase and a few hundred dollars,” she said. “I came here looking for a better life. I looked around and wanted to study here.”

Vengadam called the immigration system somewhat positive for her.

“I had to learn the process but had to do it within 90 days, or I am out,” she said. “I applied to universities and received a student visa.”

It took Vengadam about six years to become a permanent legal resident.

“I feel the promise of America is still immense,” Vengadam said. “Did I sacrifice my life for this country? Perhaps not. But I sacrificed a lot to get this identity.”

Leadership Macomb is a nonprofit organization whose 10-month program brings together leaders from numerous institutions and disciplines to obtain in-depth information about issue-driven, relevant topics in Macomb County. Since 1996, over 1,200 professionals have graduated from the program.