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Kelley Cornish: Championing DEI and Empowering Marginalized Communities

Celebrating the Leadership of Kelley Cornish for Black Women’s History Month

This April, we celebrated Black Women’s History Month. It’s an important occasion, giving us time to uphold the often-overlooked contributions of Black women in our society. These weeks in Spring give us a chance to reflect on the intersectionality of race and gender while also looking at the victories and setbacks we are making on the road to progress. And there’s no one better to gain insight into this struggle than Kelley Cornish—CEO of the T.D. Jakes Foundation and an expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

She sat down with us to discuss the significance of Black Women’s History Month and the state of DEI in America.

Recent developments, like the removal of the DEI program at the University of Florida, show us that there is plenty of work to be done. Yet there are also many gains Black women have made in the realms of education and entrepreneurship that are well worth appreciating, too.

We talk all of that and more with Kelly Cornish: Championing DEI.

1.  As a veteran in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), can you share your personal journey and what drove you to commit to this work?


My journey in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) stems from a deep-rooted belief in the transformative power of opportunity and equality. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the barriers faced by marginalized communities, barriers that hindered access to education, employment, and advancement. These experiences ignited a fire within me to advocate for change and to work towards creating a more equitable society. Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to collaborate with organizations and individuals dedicated to creating pathways for the underserved and under-championed to become a part of mainstream opportunities. This work has allowed me to see the profound impact that inclusive practices can have on individuals, communities, and organizations, opening doors to opportunities that were once out of reach.

Joining the T.D. Jakes Foundation as President and CEO has been a tremendous honor and a natural progression in my commitment to DEI work. Our foundation is dedicated to building bridges to opportunity through various avenues such as corporate partnerships, workforce readiness programs, STEAM initiatives for youth, financial inclusion conversations and pathways, and community engagement efforts. Every day, I am motivated by the stories of individuals whose lives have been positively impacted by our work. Whether it's a young person gaining access to STEM education or a community member finding stable housing, these moments reaffirm the importance of our mission and drive me to continue pushing for positive change. In essence, my personal journey and commitment to being a voice for the under-represented are rooted in a belief that everyone deserves a fair chance to thrive, and I am honored to be part of an organization that shares and acts upon that belief.

2. Many people aren’t aware that April is Black Women’s History Month. Can you discuss why this is such an important time to highlight both the accomplishments and unique struggles of Black women?

  April being designated as Black Women's History Month holds immense significance as it provides a dedicated space to celebrate and honor the invaluable contributions of Black women to society, culture, and progress. This observance is crucial for several reasons.

Firstly, it acknowledges and amplifies the often-overlooked achievements of these women across various fields, including civil rights, arts, sciences, business, politics, and community activism. From trailblazers like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to modern-day icons such as Maya Angelou and Serena Williams, Black women have consistently broken barriers, challenged norms, and inspired generations with their resilience, intellect, and leadership.

Secondly, Black Women's History Month sheds light on the unique struggles and intersectional challenges faced by Black women. It provides a platform to address issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, economic disparities, and systemic barriers that disproportionately affect these women. By raising awareness and fostering dialogue, we can work towards creating more inclusive and equitable spaces where Black women can thrive and contribute their full potential. The month and others like it serves as a call to action for individuals, organizations, and communities to actively support and uplift historically marginalized people groups. It's an opportunity to recognize the importance of representation, empowerment, and allyship in advancing social justice and promoting and projecting the voices of Black Women. Black Women's History Month and other affinity months are a good time to celebrate achievements, honor legacies, confront challenges, and recommit ourselves to building a more just, equitable, and inclusive society for all.

3. What does living at the intersection of race and gender look like today?

 Living at the intersection of race and gender today involves navigating complex challenges and opportunities shaped by historical legacies and contemporary realities. It means confronting systemic inequities and discrimination that affect people's access to resources, opportunities, and social recognition based on both their race and gender identities. For Black women, in particular, living at this intersection often means facing unique struggles such as stereotypes, and limited representation in positions of power and influence. It also can sometimes involve dealing with disparities in healthcare, education, employment, and the criminal justice system that are compounded by other hidden biases. However, living at this intersection also encompasses resilience, strength, and community solidarity. It involves advocating for equity and justice, amplifying marginalized voices, and fostering inclusive spaces that honor the diverse experiences and contributions of individuals across race and gender spectrums.

4. While in some ways we have made progress in recent years, current events can be discouraging—including the removal of DEI programs at institutions like the University of Florida. How do we push for progress even in light of these challenges?


I recognize that setbacks like the removal of DEI programs at institutions such as the University of Florida can be disheartening. However, it's crucial for us to remain resilient and proactive in pushing for progress. At the end of the day, there is a large population of disadvantaged people fighting for access and opportunity, fighting for a living wage, and still believing in the hope for a brighter future for themselves and their families.  We can achieve this by engaging in meaningful conversations, advocating for inclusive policies, practices, systems changes, and supporting initiatives that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. We must continue to lead by example within our own families, organization and communities. By prioritizing diversity in hiring practices, promoting a culture of inclusivity, and providing resources for education and training matters that provoke disruptive thinking, we can create environments that celebrate and empower individuals from diverse backgrounds.

5. The racial wealth gap remains a major thread running through our culture, defining so many of the struggles faced by Black women. How does your work with the T.D. Jakes Foundation address and narrow this gap?

We recognize that the challenges faced by Black women, often exacerbated by systemic inequalities, contribute significantly to this gap. Our work focuses on creating opportunities for economic empowerment and financial inclusion, which are crucial steps in narrowing the racial wealth gap. Through our workforce development programs, community engagement initiatives, and strategic partnerships, we aim to provide pathways to economic stability and success for women and their communities. We prioritize access to quality education, skills training, and career advancement opportunities, recognizing that these are key factors in building generational wealth and breaking cycles of poverty. Additionally, our efforts in promoting entrepreneurship, homeownership, and financial literacy and inclusion empower Black women to take control of their financial futures and build assets for themselves and their families. By addressing the root causes of the racial wealth gap and providing resources and support where they are needed most, we are working towards a more equitable and prosperous future for all individuals impacted by systemic inequalities.

6. Reflecting on the achievements and contributions of Black women throughout history, what inspiration do you draw from their resilience and trailblazing spirit, and how do these inform your vision for the future of DEI efforts?


I am deeply inspired by the resilience and trailblazing spirit of Black women throughout history. Both my grandmothers where SHERO’s in their own way. Their elegance, tenacity, and willingness to challenge the status quo with grace, inspired me to reach for higher heights. The spirit of both of them never left me!   Their achievements and contributions, often in the face of systemic barriers and discrimination, serve as a testament to their strength and determination. The resilience of these women reminds me of the importance of perseverance and tenacity in the pursuit of equity and inclusion. It inspires me to push boundaries and advocate for meaningful change in in corporate America and beyond. These historical figures teach us valuable lessons about the power of resilience, perseverance, and solidarity in the face of adversity. They remind us that progress is possible, but it requires unwavering dedication and a commitment to challenging the status quo within our own communities and in majority communities. Informed by this legacy of resilience and trailblazing spirit, our vision for the future is one of continued advocacy, empowerment, and meaningful action. We strive to create a world where every individual, regardless of race or gender, has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed. This vision guides our work in building bridges to opportunity, fostering inclusivity, and promoting social and environment justice for all.

7. On a final note, where do you draw hope? What safeguards your optimism and determination in the face of systemic barriers and setbacks? And what successes from recent years do you consider worth celebrating?


My hope is rooted in the resilience and progress we witness every day. What safeguards my optimism and determination is the unwavering belief in the power of collective action and meaningful change. Despite systemic barriers and setbacks, I find hope in the countless individuals and communities who are dedicated to creating a more just and equitable society. The successes from recent years that I consider worth celebrating are the moments where we see tangible impact and positive change taking place. This includes the increased awareness and prioritization of initiatives related to leveling the playing field for individuals across industries, the collaboration and partnership among organizations to address social, environmental and economic disparities, and the strides made in empowering marginalized communities through education, workforce development, and community engagement. These successes remind us that progress is possible, and they fuel our determination to continue pushing for meaningful change. They are a testament to the resilience and strength of individuals and communities who are committed to building a better future for all.


Cornish gives us perspective on the hard work that still lays ahead of us, and Black Women’s History Month is an essential reminder that the struggle is real and worthwhile. Through efforts large and small, positive change is happening.

The discussion encourages us to stay committed, by staying vigilant about setbacks and celebratory about victories. And all the while, trailblazers like Kelley Cornish will be leading the way.


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