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Changing the Game in Diversity Education

This article was originally published in the University of Utah Pivot Center’s 2020 Innovation Report.

When Dr. Nicole R. Robinson invented her game, she wasn’t setting out to start a company — she was working to solve a problem. She saw much work taking place in the realm of diversity training, with very little lasting change. Drawing from her education background, she knew that the way people learned about diversity and inclusion needed to evolve from a “training” process to an “educational” process.

Diversity “training,” she says, doesn’t truly invoke self-reflection, realization or, most importantly, appropriate action. Education, she says, means something more.

“Training provides people with a specific process to implement if they encounter a similar situation again. But here’s the problem: when it comes to diversity, no two situations are identical,” Robinson explains. “If the incident centers around the same issue, it probably involves different people. If it involves the same people, it could have a different context.”

Instead, Dr. Robinson argues, people need to be educated about diversity. An educational process teaches a concept, not just a prescribed skill. It contextualizes why we’re even where we are, historically and socially. And it provides people with the tools to navigate the complexities of cultural landscapes.

“I don’t change organizations; I help people change, and changed people change organizations,” she explains.

Of course, in launching Cultural Connections by Design (CCBD), a diversity education consulting company and University of Utah startup, Robinson herself underwent a transformation — from educator to entrepreneur. She was serving as the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Presidential Endowed Professor in music education and as associate vice president for Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah. There, Robinson developed a game that helped her music education students understand the many nuances of diversity and inclusivity they’d encounter in music classrooms as school demographics became increasingly diverse.

While she initially crafted the game to serve as a teaching tool for future educators, demand for her sessions grew and were requested at colleges and universities across the nation. Dr. Robinson attended a Lean Canvas business bootcamp through the PIVOT Center and mastered the skills she’d need to scale an ingenious idea to a thriving operation.

Soon, she was also conducting her seminars in the corporate world — sparking the founding of her company, which now presents to organizations ranging from Harley Davidson to Domo to the U.S. Department of Education.

When asked about her leap of faith, Robinson says, “Many people have dreams and hopes they never actualize because of fear, and I believe you have to press through the fear. They search for the evidence that the leap will be successful, but the numbers and metrics will never be perfect enough to make a leap comfortable. You take the leap. You move forward. On some days you wake up and say, ‘What the heck did I do?’ … But you just keep moving forward.”

And move forward she did, thanks to her drive, determination, and a unique ability to fill a need in diversity through education and gamification.

“It’s not what we’re teaching that makes us different; it’s our approach to the way people learn,” explains Robinson. Subjects like diversity, inclusion, identity, power, privilege and intersectionality are complex and can be challenging to grasp. Moreover, seminar attendees all come from their own unique backgrounds and levels of understanding.

“As a music educator, I had to teach very complex music concepts to kindergarten students. It helps that I understand the science behind learning. I know how to meet people where they are and connect them to concepts quickly while keeping them engaged. The appeal of our process is that it opens space for a deeper dive into learning, but in a fun and engaging way.”

By huddling in groups and working together to map out the power dynamics (and disparities) behind gender, race, religion, class and other factors — as well as how these dynamics can intersect — participants can bring what they know to the table and grow as they go.

As Cultural Connections by Design (CCBD) continues its own exceptional growth and broadens its reach nationwide, Robinson’s goals not only pertain to her business but to the people it touches.

“I tell participants, ‘Your responsibility is to dismantle the systems of oppression, starting with a sphere of influence — in your family, in your community, in your job,’” she says. The goal is a bold one, as it should be. Because, as Dr. Robinson knows, anything is attainable if you start small and think big.

For more information visit https://ccbydesign.org.

This article was originally published in the University of Utah Pivot Center’s 2020 Innovation Report.