Fatal Flaws of Equity Work in Community Colleges – What Leaders Need to Know

fatal flaw

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

When I go shopping for eggs at the local grocery store, I open the egg carton and check every egg. If I find one that is ever so slightly cracked, I put the carton back and begin the search process all over again. One time I went through my routine, bought a dozen eggs, and returned home. The next morning, when I took out an egg, I discovered that there was a very long and obvious crack along the bottom of the egg. I had not lifted and checked each egg at the store. I had only observed the top halves. My fatal flaw was that I did not check the underside of each egg. Luckily, I learned my lesson, avoided salmonella, and have modified my routine.

In this blog I write about my personal observations of leaders in regard to issues of equity (for students and employees). I describe three fatal flaws and provide examples for each one. A fatal flaw reflects a crucible moment in which a leader displays anti-equity mindedness attitudes or behaviors, thus disorienting the equity momentum or movement at their college.

Fatal Flaw #1: All Lives Mattering Issues of Equity

Most community college leaders agree that diversity, equity, and inclusion are worthy goals. In California, there are funds dedicated to improving the retention and completion rates of our students. Colleges have to create and submit a detailed plan of how the funds will be spent. Colleges were asked to identify student populations (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, age, veteran status, socio-economic status, disability) that experience disproportionate impact in areas of access, course completion, basic skills, transfer, and degree attainment. Once a group is determined to experience disproportionate impact, an intervention and plan is created for the specific student group and area. However, we make the fatal mistake of arguing that the resources should provide equity for all students. This is akin to detractors from the Black Lives Matter movement insisting that “all lives matter,” whose claims negate the disproportionate number of unarmed black and brown bodies murdered by police. Institutional data indicate that not all students need more resources to succeed. For example, there is disproportionate impact experienced by Black, Latinx, and other racial and ethnic groups at the community college. Therefore, we must boldly and directly address race, racism, systemic racism, and White Supremacy. When we “all lives matter” issues of equity, we conveniently ignore issues of race, which also intersect with gender and socio-economic status.

Bottom line: Leaders, lead bold discussions about race, racism, systemic racism, and white supremacy. You may not be the expert, but you are the leader. Reach out to those that can help you deliver the message to the various constituencies on campus and off-campus. Avoid “all lives mattering” equity work.

Fatal Flaw #2: Not Protecting the Community

Free speech is a hugely debated topic in higher education. Many college leaders hide behind the rhetoric of protecting free speech, while alienating students and employees affected by vile speech (e.g., not harsh enough to be a hate crime, yet enough to create harm to the community). In many instances, these leaders’ responses are reactionary and are often done because an internal community pressures the administration for a response. Leaders and institutions of higher education are averse to negative publicity.

The University of California, Santa Barbara is a great example of how a university has been proactive in an age of hate. In the summer of 2016, campus leaders came together to discuss creating a discourse campaign that would be a positive and proactive measure in the heat of the presidential election season. They called it: “Resilient love in a time of hate.” As soon as student leaders arrived in the fall of 2016, they were incorporated into the development and implementation of the campaign. A series of events were created with renowned scholars, artists, and leaders. Stickers and shirts were printed. The campaign sought to promote conversation and creative work forged in a love-driven response to hate, hurt, and fear. I heard about this at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in higher education. The workshop presenters shared multiple stories of how issues of free speech were supported, while creating an environment for authentic discourse and diffusing the potential for alienation and marginalization. In essence, a community was created around a campaign of love.

Bottom line: Leaders, if you are only reacting, you are not creating community, you are contributing to the hurt and pain caused by the protection of free speech. Remember, create and sustain community so that issues of free speech can be dealt with in an environment that supports authentic discourse. People come first.

Fatal Flaw #3: Marginalizing Equity

Equity work is often seen as the responsibility of specific individuals (e.g., chief diversity officer, dean of equity programs), specific departments (e.g., student equity office, sociology department), or specific committees (e.g., committee on equity-minded practices). In other words, equity work is not centered institutionally as a core value that is upheld by everyone, every department, and every committee. By relegating equity work to a small few, leaders marginalize equity. This may not be intentional. However, the results are damaging. For example, equity work requires examination of and changes to structural and systemic policies and practices. Few individuals, if any, can make substantial changes to historical structures. The eventual fallout includes burn out and low morale by the individuals involved within this marginalization of equity work. However, it is important to identify a responsible person/committee/department to facilitate the equity work of the campus, but only in an environment where it is understood that the work is collective and driven by the institution’s core values.

Bottom Line: Leaders, agree to center equity as a core value, then present and apply a clear and consistent message to every corner of the institution: We will center equity and everyone is responsible for identifying the changes that need to be made.

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