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Kelley Cornish: For inspirational speaker, diversity is ‘heart work’

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Kelley Cornish’s marriage to the Rev. Dr. Douglas Slaughter is her “Hallmark moment.”

Cornish, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert and inspirational speaker who has worked in banking, government and health care, and Slaughter, the senior pastor at Aiken’s Second Baptist Church, married three years ago. Cornish had known Slaughter all of her adult life, but it took family – and maybe a little divine intervention – to bring them together just like in a Hallmark Channel movie.

“In November 2015, my great-aunt, Esther Bussey, who had been a member of the church for years – a true Mother of the church – became ill, and he called me to share his concern about her needing a family member to help her as her health declined,” Cornish said.

That phone call started Cornish’s journey back and forth from Philadelphia, where she lived and worked, to Aiken every four to six weeks to assist during her great-aunt’s last years.

“During each visit, I would connect with Pastor Slaughter for any updates that I may have missed about her that she decided not to share with me – she called him her son. An amazing woman, she was my rock,” Cornish said. “The conversations evolved with the pastor with the help of my ‘matchmaker’ of a great-aunt – unknowing to me – and by October 2016, Pastor Slaughter and I were engaged and married in June 2017. As they say, the rest is history!”

Being a pastor’s wife is a perfect fit for Cornish. She’s been involved with the church all of her life and now leads the women’s ministry, called Women of Purpose, and is the Lead Bible Teacher for the Women’s Bible Study at Second Baptist Church.

“Watching God's word change and move in the lives of women is nothing short of a miracle,” Cornish said. “I've seen so many lives edified and changed as women get together and enrich each other's lives.”

Although COVID-19 might have limited church services, the pandemic has allowed Cornish to expand her ministry at Second Baptist, which soon will move from Hampton Avenue into a new facility to serve the Aiken community on York Street.

“We used to meet at the church, but then when we had to go to Zoom, I could invite people from anywhere in the world,” Cornish said. “Our study averages from 30 up to 60 women on any given meeting day and includes women from the local Aiken area; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Florida; and Philadelphia, and we look to continue to grow. It’s allowed me to open up and really share the gospel with women, and anyone can join.”

A new study via Zoom, “Redeemed: Grace to Live Every Day Better Than Before,” by Angela Thomas-Pharr, will start Jan. 9, 2021. The group meets from 10 a.m. to noon every other Saturday, and “it’s open to everyone across the globe,” Cornish said.

The church also helped Cornish develop her passion for diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice and is where the seeds of her life’s work as a diversity expert were planted.

“The Black church was where a lot of our community problems were addressed and solved,” Cornish said. “They would have meetings on Saturdays. They would organize around feeding the needy. They would organize around a problem that had to be solved, and we had a lot of people involved with the NAACP. So those grassroots efforts stayed with me.”

Born in Augusta, Cornish moved to New Jersey with her family when she was 2 but returned to Aiken, where her mother’s family had roots, for middle school, attending with Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and graduating from Aiken High School.

Cornish was a cheerleader with Osbon’s wife, Angie, at USC Aiken, where she majored in business administration with a focus in marketing and a minor in management.

“When I’m out speaking around the globe and people ask where I went to school, I say the University of South Carolina Aiken - Aiken. I have to get that in there. I’m very proud of that,” Cornish said.

Cornish received a job offer before graduating and worked for a while with Tim Simmons at Security Federal Bank. She then went to work for the Minority Development Business Center through the U.S. Department of Commerce in Augusta.

“Our job was to help small and minority-owned businesses become integrated into the mainstream,” Cornish said. “Those centers still exist today."

Cornish eventually went back into banking as an investment officer, working in Florida for a while, and earned a Master’s degree, but because there was no degree in diversity at the time, she created her own.

“So I got a Masters in human resources management and wrote my thesis in diversity. It was a new word. It was a new thing,” Cornish said.

With her degree and at the urging of her brother, who told her she needed to be in a “big city,” Cornish applied for and accepted a job as the first director of diversity for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Back in banking today and more than 30 years after starting in the industry, Cornish, a senior vice president for a global financial institution, leads a team of diversity, equity and inclusion consultants from London to California.

“I’m still doing it. It’s growing. I love it,” Cornish said of her career in diversity. “It’s a good time to be in the work. It’s evolving. It’s a little new because the conversation is new to some people, but I think the conversation now is in the right hands with the right people who have the power to influence change.

“The question is what side of history will you be on: the ones who make the difference to change or the ones who stay the same? It’s a defining moment. To do this work, it’s not just hard work – it’s heart work.”

In addition to her corporate work with diversity, Cornish speaks internationally on the subject.

“I speak a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion: how to move it forward, the history of it. A huge part of that is about being an African-American woman in today’s world in America, in corporate America and in society and what that means,” she said. “I also speak on being a single mom for 10 years and raising two African-American boys.”

Cornish is an author, too. Her book, “It’s Work! How Will You Show Up?,” with co-author Myron Rolle, explains the principles and protocols of professional excellence and excellence in one’s personal life, according to her website at www.kelleycornish.com.

After Cornish and Slaughter wed, she transferred to Greenville, and the couple commuted during the first years of their marriage. But they are together in Aiken now, settling into a new house with Cornish using her interest and skills at interior design to make it a home.

Cornish also is settling into community work.

Over the summer, Cornish got involved with the Umoja Village, a grass-roots community group started by Donna Moore Wesby after the murder of George Floyd in late May.

Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, looks at the quality of life and issues that need to be addressed by Aiken’s African-American community.

“People just came together in the moment, very high-profile people of color here in Aiken, and said now is our time to put some expectations out there on how things have got to be different,” Cornish said.

The group’s members met with the Aiken County sheriff, the City of Aiken’s director of Public Safety, Aiken’s mayor and USCA’s chancellor.

“We looked at education. We looked at criminal justice. We looked at colleges and universities – everything you can think of,” Cornish said.

The group’s work continues.

“It is so rewarding. It’s meaningful work in your backyard. I’m very passionate about it,” Cornish said. “My overall desire as I come back home is to leave Aiken even better than what it is now. My desire is that now – in the place that I call home – I can provide some influence and resources and bring a voice to continue to help make Aiken better, so my kids, although they may not live here, they will want to come here because they’ll know that that’s a place where my mom wanted to make a difference, did make a difference, and will know it is better than the way she left it.”

Cornish also is working to make the public more aware of the role African-Americans played in the founding of Aiken County.

“I learned over the summer from my husband that the efforts that led to the birth and founding of Aiken County included three African-American men – Prince R. Rivers, Charles D. Hayne and Samuel J. Lee,” she said. “Their plaque is displayed at the Aiken County Historical Museum, and their names are also documented on a plaque outside of the Aiken County Judicial Center.

“I'm not sure why this was and is not taught in our local schools and highlighted daily in the county; however, I have a personal desire to bring this to life moving forward to show the power and influence that existed in the Black African American community and anchors us today."

Between them, Cornish and her husband have five “amazing kids,” ranging from age 19 to 34. Like their parents, they all have successful, meaningful careers. One is an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; one is an engineer; one is a business analyst for American Express; and one is an actress. The youngest is in college studying to be a teacher.

“They’ve done well,” Cornish said. “We live vicariously through them. They keep us young, and they keep us on point.”

To recognize her passion for diversity, equity, inclusion and social efforts throughout her life and career, the National Congress of Black Women (NCBW) presented Cornish the 2019 Sojourner Truth Award at the Annual Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., which sets a new direction for the Black African American community each year, she said.

“I'm proud for two reasons,” Cornish said. “First, this award is named after a legendary Black African American woman who lived and served in the 19th century as an abolitionist and women's rights activist. Secondly, one of the co-founders of the NCBW was Dr. Shirley Chisolm, another Black African American woman whose dedication and commitment as a politician, author and teacher led to her being the first Black African American woman elected to Congress, and she served seven terms from 1969 to 1983.

“When I looked at the description of the award, I thought this is amazing. It made me reflect on who I am, the people who came before me, and the shoulders that I stand on.”

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