‘Ripple in a pond’: DEI and justice work at universities just beginning

College leaders say anti-racism efforts must be expanded, including engagement on campus and within communities.

“In order for growth to happen, there has to be some pain. It’s so difficult to be in the eye of the hurricane and to also have an understanding of the magnitude of what’s going on.”

That statement from Ashley Patterson, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State University, during a session at the American Association of Colleges and Universities annual meeting summed up the long road that higher education has navigated over many decades in addressing sociopolitical and racial challenges. But perhaps now more than ever awareness has been heightened, especially after George Floyd, the pandemic, the war over critical race theory and so many other hot-button issues.

Colleges and universities always have played a critical role in helping provide forums and ideas for change—including the latest charges for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) and the expansion of campus global and civic learning—but some have also helped perpetuate the plight faced by people of color through continued legacy admissions and failures to enroll and hire and promote Black, Hispanic and Native American people into top positions.

With that as a backdrop for discussion, several leaders including Patterson came together to discuss how higher ed can be a real force in helping reverse patterns, uplift neighborhoods and families through better community outreach and train their own people on campus to better understand systemic racism and ways to help heal. As Patterson and other panelists noted, there has to be pain if they are to grow, and it will not be fixed overnight.

“Someone asked me, ‘What do you think is the next phase of DEI work?’ as if we’re on this trajectory that has multiple phases,” said Nicole Webster, associate professor of youth and international development and Patterson’s colleague at Penn State. “I was taken aback a bit because this is continuous. Think of it as a ripple in a pond, where we’ve just released that pebble, and now we’re seeing these concentric circles begin to bloom out.”

That’s because, as Glenn Bowen, associate professor and executive director in the Center for Community Service Initiatives at Barry University in Miami, put it, “There is widespread agreement that racism is systemic; it is institutionalized. This country now wears the label of a backsliding democracy.”

By increasing the dialogue through forums, boosting study abroad opportunities and paid internships (not just work-for-free opportunities that might be exclusionary) and the training of administrators and faculty, colleges are making some inroads. But expanding that network of knowledge and response has been challenging.

“There need to be conversations that center on why these problems exist,” Webster said. “Far too often, higher education institutions see themselves as a beacon of learning and not necessarily a beacon of listening and working with our community partners as they should. First and foremost is understanding where they are within the context of creating change.”

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Milad Mohebali, a graduate research assistant at the University of Iowa, says real change starts with movement, not just lip service. “It’s not just what do we do to address racism, but how do we come to do it?” he says. “How do we come to be in a relationship with each other? And how can we actively listen and learn from each other from the conflicts that exist?

“One of the principles of this work is trying to stop being surprised. Something happens; people act as if it’s surprising,” he continues. “There will be some sort of acknowledgment, but it’s usually very outcome-oriented… as if racism is an issue that we can surgically fix and move on.”

He suggests colleges and universities ask a number of questions:

  • “How do we reframe it to think about racism as endemic to these institutions?
  • How can we continually be in conversation with each other, so that we can tackle various policies and structures that exist? These issues are not going to go away—just do five things and it’s over.
  • How can we engage the whole community so that there will be some healing happening?
  • How can we be in a relationship without necessarily agreeing with each other all the time?”

Community partners can help

Roni Bennett is Co-Founder and Executive Director of South Florida People of Color, a nonprofit racial healing group and one of the community organizations that helps push the conversation while partnering with institutions, including universities. She said their interactions can assist colleges and universities in their own DEIJ efforts by understanding what is happening both inside and outside campus walls.

“One of the things we do with universities is DEI [education], and that includes the leadership, the faculty, the admins and the students,” Bennett said. “We try to plant the seeds of transformation. We do a lot of truthful storytelling and deep dialogue. They all really need to go through experiential DEI training so they can understand their own biases. Even more importantly, we need to learn the historical formations of these inequities and injustice.”

Webster agrees with Mohebali and Bennett that colleges must do more to get involved and drive the narrative through DEIJ work. “It really is about action,” she says. “How do our community partners see themselves as a part of these change-making activities? How are we helping our students to push boundaries and push their own ways of thinking through their actions? How do administrators begin to learn how to lead with those types of action steps. One of the pieces that we’re seeing now more frequently is a lot of these [DEIJ] positions that have been created.”

At universities across the country, there is movement. At Bucknell University, associate provost Nikki Young says there are sustained community dialogues occurring that both foster sharing of stories and the development of curricula around social justice. At Penn State, Patterson says, administrators are engaged in yearlong self-discovery through an anti-racist lens. And those discussions are filtering into the classroom and back out into the community through a social justice and education minor.

“We have students thinking of different ways that they can incorporate advocacy into their work,” she says. “We strongly believe that social justice without action is not actually social justice. It’s something, but it’s not social justice. So the opportunity for students to influence action is really what we’re trying to do here. Years after they’ve participated, we’re seeing these ideas really take hold in ways that sitting in a classroom listening to lecture, turning in papers, doesn’t have.”

The goal, Mohebali says, is to provide at minimum a more welcoming and open environment.

“How do we help Black and brown folks arrive at institutions, which is just such a low bar to begin with?” Mohebali says. “The paradigm shift needs to be, how can we help them have a good experience, which would require everybody to be part of that solution. It’s not going to be one training for a specific group of people, or changing one set of policies. It’s going to be everybody being part of that solution.”


Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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