A few years ago, Laurie Jones Neighbors wanted to know whether the Bay Area's rich cultural diversity was reflected on local boards and commissions, the sort that deal with apartment rents, public buses, air pollution and other realities of everyday urban life.
"There was very little representation of people of color and low-income people," she said after canvassing dozens of agencies. "We're not going to arrive at a just society that way."
The nonprofit organization she works for, Urban Habitat, won a grant to recruit and train low-income minorities and get them appointed. Two years later, the Oakland-based group has placed all of its first class of 26 on local boards and has another group in the pipeline.
Jones Neighbors will tell this story at the sold-out Diversity Leadership Conference on Saturday at Santa Clara University. More than 300 scholars, students and community activists will explore the region's cultural diversity, especially how it plays out in local government, education, race relations and the cultural politics of race and immigration.
"People think the Bay Area doesn't have a lot of work to do because it's so diverse, but the contrary is true," said Lester Deanes, assistant dean for student life at Santa Clara University and a co-organizer of the conference.
Speakers from at least 15 campuses, including San Jose State, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and De Anza College, will lead discussions at
40 workshops. A panel by Google, the conference's main sponsor, will explore the "opportunities and challenges of diversity" in the technology industry.
Ten years after Asians, Latinos and other minorities became the majority in much of Silicon Valley, scholars and other observers say these groups still lack political power, which can't be explained by the natural lag time associated with first-generation immigrants. For example, a recent report by this newspaper based on 2010 U.S. census results revealed that minorities now outnumber whites almost 2-to-1 in Santa Clara County, but whites still hold three-quarters of the seats on town and city councils. The city of Santa Clara, home to Santa Clara University and the conference, has one of the county's four all-white councils.
In a reflection of the topic's heat, the conference sold out weeks in advance.
Jeff Chang, the keynote speaker, said he will touch on the vexing inequality in a relatively rich, economically healthy region. A journalist and music critic on hip-hop and American culture, his "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," won an American Book Award in 2005.
"We've gone backwards in a lot of ways," Chang said by telephone, pointing to one of his themes, the resegregation of public schools.
Among the workshops, one stands out for a unique and provocative approach to a touchy subject: white privilege and racism.
Nancy Arvold, a San Mateo County social worker with a doctorate in white studies, will describe how even liberal whites fail to recognize the privileges they have enjoyed without knowing it, or subtle racial prejudices and stereotypes they may harbor. "We white people need to do some deep work," Arvold said.
Tickets for the Diversity Leadership Conference at Santa Clara University on Saturday have sold out. For the list of workshops and information about future events, go to www.scu.edu/oml/dlc.