"Diversity is the presence of differences. Equity is removing structural barriers so people have a clearer path. This does not mean giving away anything, but providing opportunity and access," Ramone Pastrano with the YMCA Equity Innovation Center explained to the audience of the first Equity Innovation Lab session in Hastings.

The session, which saw over 50 participants, was hosted by the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Initiative on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

The theme for Tuesday's session was empathy. The night focused around what community members have seen or heard around the community in terms of diversity, inclusion and equity, as well as discussions around bias.

Part of getting the ball rolling on discussion is defining what is exactly meant by diversity and equity.

The meeting's primary goal was to dig deeper and identify areas of challenges in which the community could later develop solutions to help make a more welcoming Hastings.

Like many Initiative events before it, the labs allowed community members to do hands-on exercises and involved reflection to help develop understanding of the community's challenges.

One such exercise kicked off the night, by having participants write down things that they have seen, heard or observed around Hastings in relation to equity and inclusion whether good or bad.

These challenges were brought up and discussed last month at the Community Think Tank event where about 40 leaders in the community met for an eight-hour day.

Leaders with the Innovation Equity Center like Pastrano work with communities around Minnesota to help find the challenges communities face in diversity and equity.

The labs are designed to help open the minds of community members as well as brainstorm ways that a community can create more opportunities for everyone.

Leaders from the Center will act as the facilitators in helping the community of Hastings reach diversity and inclusion goals. Those goals and the plan set in motion at the end of the process is completely up to the people in the community.

There are five sessions in total taking place over the next four months.

"We realized we needed help. We needed someone to come in and help us systemically," Mark Zuzek, former Hastings Middle School principal, said. "We are lucky to have the Y here, which has experience in this region, to help guide us."

To help get more people involved in the process, the Initiative offered some services for those who volunteered their night.

The engagement session was held at the newly renovated Dakota Pines Banquet Facility and offered accommodations for food and child care. While the buffet option was $10, child care was free of charge through the YMCA's KidStuff program. Both of these options will be available for the following meetings.

If you are interested in participating, mark your calendars. Upcoming sessions will be held on the Tuesdays of Nov. 27, Jan. 15, Feb. 19 and Feb. 26 at the Dakota Pines Banquet Facility from 6-9 p.m.