It’s Sunday, February 19, 2012, and I’m writing this while taking the occasional pause to appreciate the beautiful view of the Pacific Northwest the window seat of Amtrak train number 506 is affording me. This Thursday I found myself in Portland, Oregon for the Green Proessionals Conference 2012. All in all, I’d say the event was fairly successful. Although it didn’t provide the recruiting opportunities we would have liked to see, we made connections that can grow into deep and meaningful relationships. The breakout sessions were solid, including such topics as integrating sustainability throughout the supply chain, social media tools driving sustainability, and others. However, my major critique of these types of events remains—almost every attendee looked the same. Again, the usual suspects, those who treat the increasing number of trade shows and conferences as a circuit they must complete made up the vast majority of those who showed up that day.

However, after about an hour of repeatedly delivering the same elevator speech a young black gentleman from Portland OIC (POIC) approached me. At his side was another black youth, probably around 16 years of age who was interested in just about any opportunity that would secure a positive future. He didn’t really have any questions about BGI, but rather questions about how often I used math in my professional career (he was struggling in math and was hoping that it wasn’t important after school—it is), where I was from, and what types of things he should be doing to make sure he would have a chance to one day go to graduate school.

That young adolescent immediately transported me to my youth. In him I saw a lot of myself: a young man desperately fighting to gain access to the institutions the system is designed to deny him. We interviewed each other for about an hour as we talked about everything from math to life choices and work experiences. At lunch I learned more about POIC when their executive director explaind the program follwed by a speech by one of the students. As forks clanked against the plates I looked around the room to see that, besides the students at POIC, I was the only black person in the room. Yes…really. Even in 2012…

I was planning on leaving Thursday night or Friday morning to head back to Seattle. I decided to stay. I needed to learn more about this program and how they worked. I spoke with the gentleman who originally approached me and found that he was Career Coach and Youth Advocate with them. He thought it was important for the group of kids to attend events like this and even more important for them to meet people with whom they can relate. We arranged a meeting for me to meet with their executive team. We decided the meeting would take place about thirty minutes prior to their first annual talent show so I could get a look the kids begin themseleves, without being an obvious observer. It was magical to see a group of young men and women, who everybody else has given up on, in a completely supportive environment, not to mention that they were truly talented. They were all either amazing singers, rappers, dancers, poets, etc. I remember thinking, “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re forced to be creative your entire life.”

How do we cultivate creativity? I think one of the best ways is by embracing diversity. I don’t just mean diversity with regards to race, but rather diversity of skill, backgrounds, interests, religion, class, etc. With contact with different types of people, we are free to explore things we would never be exposed to otherwise. Of course we need to build into our value structure an appreciation for the arts, play, etc., but for me, it’s been the exposure to other types of people and cultures that have brought me the largest gains in creativity.