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Diversity Award to UMKC Research Associate

Derrick Willis honored for engaging youth 

In recognition of his employment, education, and leadership programs designed for urban and minority youth with and without disabilities, Derrick Willis, MA, received the Multicultural Council Award for Leadership in Diversity at a ceremony this fall.

The award was presented to Willis, a Research Associate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Human Development, at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities annual meeting.

AUCD membership is made up of 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Every state and U.S. territory has at least one such center.

Willis has dedicated his 30-year career in human development to bringing about the inclusion and integration of people from many diverse backgrounds, with or without disabilities, in all aspects of their lives.

“Derrick has developed pipelines that connect vulnerable young people to academic mentoring, training, and work experience,” said Carl F. Calkins, Director of UMKC’s Institute for Human Development. “Statewide, he has worked on urban mission objectives with University of Missouri Extension and UMKC’s community partners. This includes a school-based program on self-determination and career exploration for urban youth.”

With support from the Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, Willis developed a 6-week Urban Career Academy that trained over 200 underserved youth. The program focused on career readiness and partnered with a business-to-business network that engaged potential employers. This business network attracted such organizations as the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Another of Willis’s initiatives conducted through the UMKC Institute for Human Development, the Kansas City Summer Transportation Institute, has brought a diverse group of youth from the Greater Kansas City area onto the UMKC campus to explore STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers for more than a decade. Over 200 youth, about 75% of them from a minority population, have benefited from this training.

“The UMKC Institute for Human Development has created a platform that allows me to reach a diverse group of students who have not traditionally experienced a college environment,” said Willis. “My intent is to expose them to an array of options they didn’t know existed and broaden their vision for their futures.”

Data from Willis’s projects shows that his work makes a difference. Over 90% of the minority youth who graduated from his Urban Career Academies are working or continuing their education.

“The importance of the work we are able to do comes from the university and community partnerships that provide opportunities for both parties to learn from each other,” said Willis.

“Our urban mission work is important,” said Willis, “not only because it provides opportunities for youth in the Greater Kansas City area, but also because it creates a gateway for us to engage with our university and community partners, providing opportunities for all parties to learn from each other.”


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