See more of the story

Steve Humerickhouse doesn't shy away from difficult conversations. He invites them in to take a seat and stay a while. Humerickhouse is executive director of the 32-year-old Forum on Workplace Inclusion, newly housed at Augsburg University and believed to be the nation's largest hub for learning and development for diversity practitioners worldwide. As the forum gears up to welcome about 1,500 people to the Minneapolis Convention Center on March 10-12 for its annual conference, Humerickhouse shares his thoughts on the importance of creating safe spaces for difficult conversations and why it's more important than ever for workplace executives to lead with empathy.

Q: What precipitated the move from the University of St. Thomas to Augsburg University last July?

A: We'd been at St. Thomas for 23 years and at Minneapolis Community and Technical College before that. St. Thomas did some reorganization so we were looking for a new home. Northwestern, Cornell and Georgetown universities all were interested in picking us up but my goal was to stay in the Twin Cities because one, this is our home and two, I wanted to protect my staff. It didn't make sense to abandon their experience and history. We're now located in the old science building at Augsburg, which was built in the 1940s. It's nearly three times the size of our previous space.

Q: Which you need. How did the Twin Cities become the hub of the nation's largest workplace diversity, equity and inclusion organization?

A: Part of it comes from our belief in Minnesota exceptionalism. Maybe it's in the water here. It's something about commitment to issues of diversity and equity. This is why refugees come here, why international adoption began here. This is a place where people feel deeply about issues.

Q: Yet, it's important to acknowledge that Minnesota has some of the most stubborn racial inequities in the country. How do you bring that reality into your daily work?

A: At the forum, we're about workplace inclusion, but there is nothing that happens in the workplace that isn't affected by society at large. We talk about people who have committed felonies and what that means in terms of hiring when they get out of prison. We talk about unconscious bias. It's easy to exclude people because we're tribal. We are the way we are for a reason, but how do we overcome that?

Q: What resources do you offer to meet that lofty goal?

A: We hold a breakfast series three times a year and offer a series of 10 webinars attended by upward of 500 diversity and inclusion experts from around the world. We also create 24 original podcasts each year and blog out articles on social media. The conference is our flagship event, bringing in global speakers from Australia to England to South Africa. Our entire annual budget of $1.5 million is made in the three days of the forum through sponsorships and registration (

Q: Diversity is a hot-button topic these days. What does the word mean to you?

A: It's difficult to define. Different, yes, but different from whom? White males? Straight white males? Is that our point of reference? It really depends on your perspective. For our upcoming forum, we received 228 proposals, from which we chose 99. We're bringing in more voices from Indigenous, Latinx and the disability populations.

Q: Language is shifting, too. How do you address that?

A: Seventeen years ago, "diversity" was the word. Now there's some backlash against the word "diversity" because some people think it's all about affirmative action and quotas. Many people prefer "inclusion" or "belonging." There's the expanded LBGTQ and we have added our pronouns to communication at the forum. Differently abled is preferred over disabled. Words do matter and they continue to shift.

Q: From which sectors do you draw most of your participants?

A: Human resources, health care, law, higher education; corporate and government are our two biggest sectors.

Q: What voices are missing in this discussion?

A: Socially and politically conservative voices. That's where we're falling down. If they don't feel included in this conversation, then we're not doing our jobs. At this year's forum, we've got a Republican Latina activist who is a Fox News commentator talking about immigration, a woman from Russia talking about diversity and a hip-hop artist who is critical of Israel. That's the kind of igniting thinking we're taking about.

Q: What drew you to this work?

A: I trained as an orchestral oboist and I still perform with the St. Paul Civic Symphony. I was doing legislative and government work before attending the forum in 2002. They hired me at the conference. I worked three days a week then with no staff and no office. I want to learn from our past and understand where we are going. To be better, greater.

Q: Describe the best qualities for an effective 21st-century leader.

A: Empathy — being able to put yourself in another's position. Transparency and vulnerability. If you're going to expect your people to do what you want them to do, you have to be able to call it out for yourself: "Here's where I am biased. Help me with this." That will garner the kind of support you want to get the job done.