At a time when it seems like the title of activist can be procured with little more than a social media handle, it’s refreshing to know of someone who is actually doing the work.
Siham Awada Jaafar has been advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion for more than two decades — or, more to the heart, working to improve the ways in which we communicate. Her annual Images & Perceptions Diversity Conference celebrated its 20th anniversary on Oct. 18, 2023, at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn.
Jaafar is deliberate about inviting a diverse group of speakers and attendees from an array of sectors, including law enforcement, education, journalism, and health care, to have raw, honest conversations.
“The conversation every year seems to be even more important than the year before,” Jaafar says just after 2023’s conference. “People need a safe space to be able to congregate and be with individuals who are like-minded and who understand — and are there to educate themselves and be a part of the solution.”
Every year, Jaafar and her committee put together a speaker and panelist lineup that reads like a who’s who in metro Detroit. Among this year’s participants were Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, Detroit Police Chief James White, and dozens more.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of Detroit’s NAACP chapter and pastor of Fellowship Chapel, captured the 700-person audience’s attention early when he read a poem he had recently written called “Images,” which included references to the less than two-week-old Israel-Hamas war. Jaafar calls Anthony, who has been a participant at the conference for 11 years, her personal hero.
The day was filled with sessions that tackled topics such as “Trust Building & Law Enforcement”; “Fairness, Equity & Our Civil Liberties”; and “Equity & Balanced Justice.” There were no breakout sessions, though; Jaafar believes in everyone gathering in one space, receiving the same information The inaugural Images & Perceptions Diversity Conference took place in 2002, just months after 9/11. Jaafar, a Michigan native of Lebanese descent, recalls that people were angry and confused and struggling with how to ask (and answer) the right questions.
“I thought, ‘We need a space where people can come together and they can ask the challenging questions,’” she says. Just 80 people attended that first conference, but they walked away with the tools to be better able to have meaningful conversations. “I thought, ‘This is magic.’”
McQuade attended that first conference and has continued to participate every year. The former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan says, “If we’re going to live in a country that has such rich diversity, it’s very valuable to learn to appreciate cultural sensitivities and differences. It is more important than ever to recognize our common humanity.” About Jaafar, she adds, “I have a great deal of respect because of her leadership in the community. She is a communications professional, and I think it shows in the way she’s able to facilitate dialogue across difference.”
Jaafar radiates a palpable amount of positive energy. Day-to-day, she heads 3D Consulting and Communications, which brings diversity training to companies and organizations. Jaafar is also president of the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center, which mediates conflicts, whether between relatives or between police and community.
In 2022, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reappointed Jaafar to the Judicial Tenure Commission, charged with ensuring that the judicial community is conducting itself in a fair and effective manner. Jaafar was initially worried whether she, lacking a legal background, made sense as a member of the committee.
Ultimately, she says, “The layman’s perspective is very important. I see things a little bit differently than maybe a judge or a lawyer would.”
The conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion has shifted in recent years, spurred in large part by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Jaafar says it used to be about a celebration of different cultures. Now, the stakes feel higher, and queries about cause and effect are at the forefront. The approach may have changed, but Jaafar’s passion and commitment remain steady, even while some suggest that the pendulum has swung too far to the other side, where filling quotas supersedes all.
To that, Jaafar rebuts, “We’re not asking for any favors. We just want a fair playing field and to make sure that everybody who wants to have that opportunity has that opportunity. Fairness is the only ask, and I don’t think it’s too much.”
This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.