For decades, higher education leaders have been working to advance the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on college campuses. The recent civil unrest and call to action from the Black Lives Matter movement has brought these efforts into sharp focus and strengthened the mandate for change. As we work with our clients and partners on these issues, they face a fundamental question: Where should this work “live?”
Establishing a structured position, office, or committee to focus on a DEI strategy allocates resources and accountability to the work. Still, there is a risk that the work will be siloed, overlooked, or de-prioritized by those outside of this structure. Conversely, making equity everyone’s job can lead to it being nobody’s job. Even worse, it could lead to well-intentioned but detrimental changes enacted by professionals who are not experts in DEI and who do not have the lived experience of being Black, Latine, female, LGBTQ+, or otherwise marginalized by American systems and culture.
The staff and board of Growing Inland Achievement (GIA) recently had substantial dialogue about how to incorporate equity as they worked to refresh the organization’s strategic goals for their large, diverse region in Southern California. The Inland Empire is a region of 4.6 million people, the majority of whom are Latinx and Black, and the vast majority of whom are employed in service jobs that are vulnerable to automation and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regional leaders are keenly aware that equitable access to educational attainment is critical to transforming Inland Empire residents’ lives. “The Inland Empire educational network has a long-standing commitment to equity, yet we still have plenty of work to do,” said Ann Marie Sakrekoff, the Chief Operating Officer of GIA. “Barriers must be removed, and systemic changes must be enacted to allow Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized people living in the Inland Empire to thrive.”
When GIA embarked upon examining the educational and economic vision for the region, equity was at the forefront. “Equity is at the center of our work at GIA and is now more clearly articulated in our new regional goals," said Dr. Carlos Ayala, President & CEO at GIA. “As one board member put it during our discussions, ‘we must be unapologetically anti-racist’ in our new goals.” Board discussions about how to best incorporate equity into these goals were robust. One thing was clear: it needed to be explicit. “Just to say we will disaggregate data later doesn’t mean the goal is about equity,” Sakrekoff said.
GIA solicited input from the community broadly through surveys and interviews and sought the council of Talisa Sullivan, a local expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion. When asked about a stand-alone equity goal, Sullivan hit pause. She said that GIA should first make sure equity is explicitly included in each goal and helped to craft language for the goals. Only then did she help GIA think through the creation of a separate equity goal. The formal, adopted goals reflected the “both, and” approach to equity; it should live somewhere and live everywhere.
So, drawing inspiration from GIA, we embrace the “both, and” approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work with other partners.
Institutions should employ dedicated professionals whose primary responsibility is to advance equity, with two conditions. First, these professionals must be agents of institutional transformation, tasked with leading efforts to embed equity into the institution's structures. Second, they must be trusted and empowered to do this work. They should have the ability to influence and modify policy, alter job descriptions and performance metrics across the institution, and inform the President’s priorities.
Institutions should also do strategic planning around equity goals. This is the process that turns caring about equity into doing something about equity - but should NOT be done in a way that separates equity from “everything else,” such as a stand-alone section or a separate DEI plan. Instead, institutional leaders should follow GIA's example, asking first how each section of the strategic plan can orient around equity, then determining what additional equity goals or strategies should be listed explicitly in the institution’s guiding documents.
Employing this approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion in an institution's organizational structure and strategic plan should cascade into strategies, tactics, job descriptions, and work plans. Sakrekoff says it best: ‘"If you come at the problem with a keen focus on something as important as equity, then everything that is articulated after that is going to naturally reflect that focus." When that happens, both students and society win.”