When you hear the word JEDI, you might think of lightsabers and a galaxy far, far away. But Harper College’s JEDI Faculty Fellowship isn’t focused on “the force,” but being a force for change.
Harper’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Faculty Fellowship began this fall semester as a leadership and professional development opportunity for full-time faculty to gain experience in the administrative realms of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice work at the Illinois college. The fellows are working hand-in-hand with Harper’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as well as receiving mentoring and coaching from Tamara A. Johnson, vice president of DEI, who led the creation of the new fellowship.
The JEDI faculty fellows collaborate individually with Johnson weekly to stay abreast of institutional DEI initiatives and programs, refine or update professional goals, and to acquire guidance and support for the projects that they are spearheading.
The first fellows
The program’s first two fellows are Alina Pajtek, professor of ESL and linguistics, and Markenya L. Williams, assistant professor in early childhood and education. Although the two educators have markedly different backgrounds, both were driven to apply for the fellowship by factors that span their professional growth and personal interests.
“I feel privileged in many ways: I’m a professor and I have a great job,” Pajtek said. “But in my experience as an immigrant to the U.S., I have not always been privileged. I’m excited to change part of Harper’s culture so people feel they belong here as much as possible.”
Born and raised in Romania, Pajtek immigrated a couple of decades ago because of her educational pursuits. After gaining a bachelor’s degree in her home country, she earned a master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), then a doctorate in applied linguistics in the U.S. – all before becoming a Harper instructor 11 years ago. Attracted to the college because of its academic ESL (English as a second language) and linguistics offerings, she has helped double the number of linguistics courses. The college now offers a full ESL endorsement for educators, a credit to her leadership.
Williams’ background also speaks to her passion for education and talent for leadership. Born in Chicago, she began her postsecondary education at Richard J. Daley College before earning her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, her master’s in curriculum and instruction, and a doctorate in educational leadership. She worked for several years in the nonprofit sector and as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Williams has taken on leadership roles throughout her career related to equity, inclusion, justice or literacy enrichment for at-risk populations. After working as a school administrator in the Northwest suburbs for a few years, she switched gears to take a faculty role at Harper in the fall of 2021.
“I felt as if I was starting my career over. I was no longer managing people, but I remember [Harper President] Dr. Proctor saying last year that you don’t have to have a title to lead. Her statement reminded me that I can always be a catalyst for change,” she said. “DEI offices are often the smallest departments in institutions and organizations, yet they have the largest responsibilities. Harper’s DEI office is new. I’ve always enjoyed being part of new things – it’s hard work, you’re grinding all the time, but it’s fresh, exciting and I have multiple opportunities to be innovative in this role.”
Getting to work
As the JEDI Faculty Fellows for the 2022-23 academic year, Williams and Pajtek received a three-hour course reassignment while being expected to work 10 hours a week on a range of DEI initiatives that will impact students, faculty, staff and the Harper community as a whole. Both have hit the ground running.
During her first year at Harper, Williams noticed many equity gaps and systemic barriers among the historically underrepresented and marginalized communities. Fees and materials for her Black and Latinx students constitute one such barrier.
The fee for a background check, required by state law before observations can begin at any childcare facility or school, is $90. Some students have struggled to pay the fee, which can halt their educational progress. Knowing that there may be many other fee-related barriers for Harper students, Williams has been meeting with other employees to identify issues and seek solutions as one of her JEDI Fellowship projects.
“Harper is one of the top 25 community colleges in the nation,” she said, referring to the college’s stature as a semifinalist for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “There are lots of resources here. We’re actively collecting this data to ensure equitable resources are allocated for students to address common financial barriers related to fees and course materials.”
Keeping the conversation going
Williams and Pajtek are collaborating on equity dialogue sessions at Harper that, Pajtek said, will provide opportunities for sustained conversation, learning and growth for employees. The plan is to encourage reflection among faculty and staff as it pertains to integrating equity into their daily work. Additionally, Williams said the equity dialogues should raise more awareness and concern for the sense of urgency that is needed campus-wide to minimize inequities and reduce systemic barriers.
Pajtek is also working on student focus groups to help Harper staff and faculty better understand the experiences of Asian, Black and Latinx students. The hope is that this qualitative data will provide insight into the college’s persisting equity gaps for Black and Latinx students. She is also looking at hiring practices that will diversify the makeup of Harper’s employees.
“As an immigrant woman, I don’t always feel like I belong or understand the unwritten rules of the college,” she said. “It’s important to me to make everyone feel like they belong, like they have a future here.”