At a diversity dialogue convened by the Greater Washington (D.C.) Society of Association Executives, one participant said he didn't usually attend association meetings because "he didn't see anyone who looked like he did," recalls Susan Sarfati, GWSAE president & CEO. His feeling, she says, underscores why it is crucial for association CEOs and meeting planners to become more proactive in encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to join associations and participate in meetings.

Toward that end, the GWSAE board of directors passed a diversity policy several years ago, Sarfati says. The board's commitment, combined with Sarfati's own strong personal interest in diversity, has resulted in several initiatives, including the diversity dialogue series for association CEOs mentioned above. GWSAE's contributions were honored recently when Sarfati received the 1998 Brotherhood/ Sisterhood Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews).

In addition to the dialogue series, GWSAE sponsors a mentor/protege program, where association staff from diverse backgrounds who show leadership potential are matched with mentors to foster their career development. The participants are given complimentary registration to all GWSAE and American Society of Association Executives programs--something she says meeting planners can do to encourage more members of diverse backgrounds to attend conferences.

There are other ways meeting planners can play an important role in encouraging diversity, Sarfati adds. Since speakers are role models, Sarfati suggests planners book people from "diverse backgrounds and differing viewpoints."

Next year, Sarfati plans to organize a one-day celebration of diversity. The program, she says, will address the emotional side of diversity issues, showcase associations that are successfully encouraging diversity among members and staff, and include a multicultural celebration.