Diversity officers take on higher profile

Faculty members at Portland Community College participate in a pre-pandemic equity workshop. (Photo: PCC)

As community colleges respond to the renewed calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed, colleges’ chief diversity officers (CDOs) have taken on more high-profile roles.

In general, CDOs work to advance diversity on campus. They review college policies to ensure equity, work to improve the student experience and campus climate, and promote collaboration with community organizations.

Things have gotten a lot more hectic in recent weeks for Doneisha Posey, vice president for diversity, equity and belonging at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. For example, the college recently held a Day of Solidarity with a speaker presenting a message of hope in a Zoom session.

That event was “the first step as an institution to start the discussion on what we’ve been seeing across the nation on racial injustice,” Posey says.

“Having that message of hope and solidarity has really changed the narrative at Ivy Tech,” she says. “Both our rural and urban campuses have been having open conversations about race and systemic inequality.”

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Those sessions, which are are open to students, faculty and staff, have sparked more thought about “our role in dismantling systemic injustice,” Posey says. And because campuses are closed and everyone is at home, “these conversations are really bringing us together, creating a sense of belonging,” she adds.

Ivy Tech also hosted a Juneteenth Netflix party on Zoom geared for students and featuring the new Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods.” Students could comment in a chat box during the movie, then participate in a more thoughtful discussion afterward.

In addition, campuses are organizing their own events. At the Ivy Tech campus in South Bend, for example, the chancellor hosted virtual talks on racial injustice.

Erasing racism

Posey sees her role as ensuring diversity, equity and a sense of belonging at all 18 Ivy Tech campuses. Now that all meetings and programs are virtual, “we’re much more nimble,” she says.

Ivy Tech’s strategic plan has a goal on diversity, calling for the development of more equitable policies and procedures. The college is looking at how to better implement that goal.

As a result, Posey’s office is preparing to examine the college’s policies and procedures to make sure they don’t contribute to systemic racism or inequity. For example, it will review hiring policies to ensure hiring committees include a mix of races, genders and sexual orientation, as well as a diversity lead and people from different academic departments.

Equity during the pandemic

Posey also runs a statewide council with the campus diversity leads and hosts weekly lunch-and-learn sessions. The most recent session focused on managing mental health during the pandemic.

“As a result of the pandemic, we’ve had to learn to be more thoughtful” in addressing equity issues, she says, such as ensuring everyone has access to the internet and closed captioning.

Armenta Hinton, vice president of inclusion and diversity and Title IX coordinator at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, is also deeply involved in ensuring equity during the pandemic.

As HACC was transitioning to remote learning, Hinton’s office played a critical role in the conversations about how students without financial resources could access laptops, hotspots and emergency funds for basic needs.

The renewed national attention on race and social justice “has enhanced the significance of the work we have already been doing,” Hinton says. “It has truly given voice and opportunity for our work to be infused in everything the college does. It’s invigorating.”

“Diversity officers are valuable to all institutions that are hoping to create inclusive environments,” she says. “They bring expertise and perspective to mobilize institutions to effectively create environments that signal this is an inclusive institution.”

At HACC, “we’re reviewing our polices to make sure they are as inclusive as we think they are,” she says. “We’re rolling out more training and programs for faculty and leading departmental initiatives on inclusion, diversity and belonging.”

Support for Black Lives Matter

“There has been some evolution of my role in the past few weeks,” says Latricia Brand, chief diversity officer at Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon. She’s been working 12-hour days in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.

There have been many conversations about race, as “communities, private companies and organizations are recognizing that they have a lot of work to do to understand racism and white privilege,” Brand says.

PCC sent a message to the community on May 29 acknowledging that communities of color are especially hurt by the pandemic, as well as the murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans at the hands of the police.

“Students of color are not okay now, and we need to be in solidarity with them,” she says.

According to Brand: “We are talking about the current moment, and BLM is a way to talk to our initiatives: that equitable student success matters, that developmental education reform matters, that high school transitions matter – and how you build on the BLM movement by talking about all the ways the college can and should push to do better by students.”

An equity lens

In one early effort to affirm African-American faculty and staff, the college acted quickly on June 18 to acknowledge Juneteenth and made it a paid holiday.

PCC “has a fairly progressive approach to our work,” Brand says.

The college added critical race theory (CRT) when it adopted a strategic plan in 2016 as part of its approach to consider all policies and initiatives through an equity lens.

As defined in the strategic plan, CRT “challenges the dominant discourse on race and racism as they relate to education by examining how educational theory, policy and practice are use to subordinate certain racial and ethnic groups.”

“We need to be consistent and resolute in redirecting our energy and resources into a broader conversation around racial equity,” Brand says. “Because we’ve been talking about this for so long, my job is to quickly accelerate this, which can be challenging at a multi-campus college.”

PCC already had an umbrella group for faculty of color. It is now creating “affinity spaces” for faculty and staff – for African-Americans, Asian/Pacific islanders, Latinx and Native and indigenous employees. Brand says it’s a recognition that PCC needs greater diversity among employees.

The affinity spaces offer an infrastructure for people in particular groups to come together, provide mutual support and identify unique ways for the college to support success for the group’s members.

Brand sees these groups as a way for employees to get to know one another and present proposals to the campus leadership. They will have a budget they can use to have a lunch meeting, bring in a speaker or go on an outing.

Understanding white privilege

Two PCC campuses have informal, grassroots “white ally groups” comprising white faculty and staff interested in promoting diversity and inclusion.

“Those groups had started to fizzle a bit in terms of participation,” Brand says. “But now they want to revitalize.”

One group, a closed cohort called Transforming White Privilege in Leadership, is working on facilitating changes in the curriculum. It wants to become more engaged in talking to staff and faculty about racism, she says. “We think they can help with college-wide efforts.”

That group held several training sessions for staff. A session in 2018, led by Shakti Butler, president and founder of World Trust Educational Services, focused on the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Participants learned how to think through their day-to-day interactions and understand how those actions could be harmful to people of color.

This kind of work is intensive and requires a yearlong commitment. But Brand believes “it could have the greatest impact in the shortest period of time.”

Monitoring the police

Clyde Pickett, chief diversity officer at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, had been convening monthly meetings for CDOs at the 30 community and technical colleges in the state. They started meeting more frequently to address equity issues during the pandemic.

Pickett expects more protests on racial justice when students return to campus. He urges campus leaders to get involved. “As we think about students deserving the right to have peaceful assembly and exercise their right to protest, how can we support that?”

Pickett encourages colleges to hold education and competency training around anti-racism and develop strategies to review policies from an antiracist lens. He also suggests college leaders participate in ongoing engagement with campus and community police departments and monitor exchanges with police to make sure they are respectful.

“It’s important to have proactive and productive relationships with law enforcement and public safety,” says Pickett, adding that college leaders should not wait until there’s another incident.

Before the protests, CDOs in Minnesota were reviewing culturally responsive law enforcement curricula, and now that work is taking on greater urgency.

“We are working with our colleagues in the faculty on an inclusive review of the curriculum and pedagogy to prepare law enforcement officers with cultural competency,” Pickett says.

Community college presidents in Minnesota understand that work is important, he says.

Engage students

Meanwhile, many CDOs are seeking new opportunities to form sustainable partnerships with community-based organizations, Pickett says. And they are providing additional resources to students, especially those traumatized by the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed.

“That incident was tragic, but it didn’t stop the pandemic, it didn’t stop their education,” he says.

“It’s an opportunity for academic change,” he says. “How do we use this opportunity to further inform and engage students?”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.