CRT and the Tensions between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – What Leaders Need to Know

By Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are often conflated. These are three separate concepts that are inextricably connected. Many leaders confuse these terms, treat them as one concept, or only focus on one at a time. A great leader will work on all three at the same time, understanding the nuances of how they interrelate, and engage in equity-minded practices. – June 2018

I want to further reflect on the natural tensions between these three concepts.

More colleges are beginning to explicitly value diversity, equity, and inclusion in mission statements and board policies. Many are genuinely changing procedures and practices to transform their institutions to truly reflect the diversity of their communities, create equitable outcomes, and foster inclusivity. Few know how to achieve these goals: move from written policy to social justice in action.

To better understand and acknowledge the tension and often contradicting nature of these three concepts, we need to apply a critical framework. For example, critical race theory acknowledges that race and racism are ubiquitous and are problematized even more when looking at the intersectionality of race with class, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities; it challenges the dominant ideology; and it centralizes the experiential knowledge of those who are oppressed. Applying CRT, we can then ask interrogating questions to understand the complexity of these terms. The current dominant ideology centers the white, heterosexual male. It is through this dominant ideology that diversity, equity, and inclusion are traditionally defined.

Diversity refers to representation based on myriad individual/group identities (e.g., counting the population). We should ask ourselves: As we add different people to the group, at what point is the group diverse? How many women do we need? How many people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds do we need? A common myth is that diversity is a zero-sum concept. For example, if we were to hire more African Americans, then this inevitably means we hire less of another racial group (i.e., white people – those at the center). This misconception stokes fears of “reverse discrimination” or “bias” from the dominant majority, which contradicts their own orientation of inclusion. Proponents of diversity argue, as I do, that representation needs to be responsive to historic and contemporary needs of the community that is being served. For example, if your institution is designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), and your Hispanic student population is 33%, then there should be at least a proportional representation in the faculty, staff, and administration of that same demographic. By the way, a white person actually asked me this question, “Does this mean the institution should not hire more white people?” No. What it means is that the institution should be gathering and evaluating data and being responsive to the rich diversity of its community. Decisions will need to be made to increase the diversity of faculty, staff, and administrators. Also, it may have been acceptable thirty years ago to hire someone who is “sensitive” to diversity, but current equity gaps and inclusion efforts require higher standards, beyond sensitivity.

Inclusion is the notion of welcoming all people. It implies that “others” are “allowed” to participate. The dominant group still controls the rules and the culture of the group or organization. However, from a CRT perspective, it means that everyone in the community has a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the decision-making and learning process. Thus, a new ideology is created through a collaborative process, uplifting formerly marginalized voices and experiences and centering them in the process. In relation to hiring, being inclusive means that the composition of the search committee not only has a meaningful representation of racial and ethnic members, but that each of these members is respected and whose contributions are validated and equally weighed alongside those of others (i.e., white members). The token person of color on the search committee is indicative of a diversity framework centered in the traditional definition of inclusion. An inclusion framework expands on diversity to truly create the conditions and culture within the search committee to allow for meaningful participation and perspective. For example, an inclusion framework allows for a diversity of perspectives to engage and challenge the dominant ideology, thus allowing a new and co-created culture.

While diversity and inclusion can be superficially achieved, it requires conscientious effort and action to achieve equity (not to be confused with equality). The PolicyLink research and action institute define equity as, “Just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” Equity work is about removing barriers. It is about possessing equity-minded competencies such as being culturally competent, implementing race conscious principles, analyzing disaggregated data, approaching equity systemically, and taking responsibility as an institutional agent to remove barriers. In this respect, equity-mindedness is a characteristic that can be learned; a skill that can be assessed. Equity work leads to results that transform students, institutional agents, and institutional structures. If we are looking to change inequities, we need to apply an equity framework to address historic and contemporary issues for our diverse student populations. This work is both individual (e.g., practices) and institutional (e.g., policies, procedures). This work can be practiced by anyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background. Someone asked me, “So, when it comes to hiring, does this mean that we don’t need to worry about diversity? No. Although the concepts of diversity and equity are seemingly different and contradictory, they in fact interact. For example, while the race of an applicant should not be the determining factor of whether they should be hired, a search committee that seeks equity-mindedness will more likely hire a candidate that is not in the dominant majority (i.e., white) based on equity-minded competencies.

In education we are very concerned with the performance of minoritized student groups. We tend to frame education through a liberal lens, where everyone is treated equally, and everyone has the same opportunities. Yet, the reality is that minoritized students are not experiencing the same outcomes. In another example, if we look at the racial diversity of faculty in higher education, we see that despite the commitment of colleges and universities to diversify their faculty, there is little success of the past several decades to significantly increase racial representation. In both cases, we frame the problem around diversity. That is, we blame the outcomes on the minoritized students and faculty. Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon makes the case to reclaim the racial justice meaning of equity, because this will allow us to reframe these racial issues through a racial action-oriented and systemic approach. She states that race is missing in equity conversations and definitions because leaders take an “ALL! Students matter” approach and avoid discussing race, even when the data clearly show a racial opportunity gap in outcomes.

While it is all the “buzz” to say “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” think twice before you string these three words together. I have noticed that some college leaders have created the acronym DEI to further conflate these concepts, which ignores their tension, and simplifies their significance. We tend to create acronyms in higher education, which is detrimental in this case, if leaders do not fully comprehend these terms. Understand and acknowledge the tensions between these terms. The three concepts can coexist and help you achieve your goals, but there are too many misunderstandings around these concepts to effectively advance your mission. Clearly communicate the complex nature and relationship of these three concepts to your constituents. Utilize a critical framework to interrogate these concepts. Help everyone understand the differences between these concepts and how these three concepts will strengthen your capacity to serve your community.

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.

Community Colleges and Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity – What Leaders Need to Know

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Many community colleges are grappling with the notion of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Often, these three words are strung together, as if they are one thing. Leaders must be clear on these terms and steer their institutions so that they reflect the needs of their students. Clarity comes from understanding the history of higher education in the United States, especially the development of America’s community colleges.

The roots of community colleges are a mix of seemingly opposed grassroots and elitist movements in higher education to create access to the populace and also maintain the intellectual rigor of the university, respectively (see Cohen and Brawer). Community colleges now have a multi-pronged mission to serve the community through workforce development, associate degree and certificate attainment, preparation for university transfer, and lifelong learning. Over the last century, the American community college has gained prominence in contributing to local workforce development and creating greater access to higher education for minoritized communities. For instance, in 2009, president Barack Obama announced “The American Graduation Initiative: Stronger American Skills Through Community Colleges” that called for five million additional graduates by 2020. Thus, recognizing the strength of community colleges in advancing economic prosperity to millions of Americans.

There are roughly about 1,200 community colleges in America. Half the students in higher education in the United States are enrolled in a community college and the majority of students in the community college are non-white (see the American Association of Community Colleges Fast Facts 2018). Across most measures (completion, degree attainment, etc.), community colleges and four-year institutions struggle to close the racial achievement gap. Shapiro and colleagues (2017) found that “while almost one in four Asian students and one in five white students had completed [a] transfer pathway by the end of the six-year study period, just one in 10 Hispanic students and about one in 12 black students did” (p. 2). In other words, when disaggregated by race, retention and completion outcomes for minoritized students are less than those for white students. These data points are critical in understanding why community colleges are grappling with the notion of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Some colleges are beginning to close the racial achievement gap. For example, with the support of the Achieving the Dream Network (ATD), Texarkana College has dramatically increased graduation rates for their Black students (by 18 percentage points from 2011 to 2017). They attributed their success to “an institutional commitment to evidence-based decision making, part of a holistic change model the team learned from their work with Achieving the Dream” (para. 7). The ATD’s vision, mission, and values are grounded in a commitment to equity. ATD “expects colleges to dismantle the barriers facing underserved students” (para. 12). While some colleges are making a difference in regard to equity, many are not. Yet, the equity movement is on the rise.

Have you seen this image before?

equity

Three people reaching for some apples hanging from a tree. One person is tall, then second person is of medium height, and the third person is the shortest of the three. Only the tall person can reach the apples. The label on this image is equality. It demonstrates that all standing on the same ground equally, yet only one can reach the apple. The picture labeled equity shows the same three people. However, in this image, they all attain the apple. The shortest person receives two additional crates to stand on and the medium sized person receives one additional crate to stand on.

If you search for images related to the word “equity,” you’ll see a variety of interpretations of this concept of equality vs. equity. What also appears in a search for the term equity is a definition stating that equity is “the quality of being fair or impartial.” One of the synonyms listed is “egalitarianism.” The fiction that higher education is egalitarian is rooted in the idea that by providing access to higher education is enough to create present and future opportunities for a student willing to put in the effort to be successful. As a primarily open access institution, the community college has prided itself on providing opportunities for communities that otherwise would not have access to higher education (e.g., minoritized student populations such as Black/African American, Latinx, and Native American students). However, in the age of accountability (since the 1980’s), institutions of higher education have been pressured more and more by outside forces such as the public, legislatures, and accrediting agencies to be more accountable to outcomes including graduation, transfer, and job placement rates. The equity movement seeks to scrutinize these outcomes further and decidedly change the structures that create these outcomes.

Bensimon, Dowd, and Witham (2016) argued that to do equity work, one must be equity-minded. In other words, to be equity-minded is to have “an awareness of the ways in which many groups within US society have been historically excluded from educational opportunities, or marginalized within the structures and institutions that house those opportunities” (para. 1). They explained that this approach “foregrounds the policies and practices contributing to disparities in educational achievement and abstains from blaming students for those accumulated disparities” (para. 1). Thus, equity-mindedness requires educators to recognize that higher education has never been an egalitarian system.

The simplistic imagery of the three people picking apples leaves out a critical step. Leaders and stakeholders must engage in discussions about WHY we are generating inequitable outcomes (e.g., contemporary analysis, historical reflections). We must ask: What institutional structures disenfranchise our minoritized student populations? The self-examination can be performed through hiring external entities or from within the colleges. The results must be actionable plans that fundamentally reshape the institutions and improve the students’ experiences through the college that include instruction, advising, and co-curricular opportunities.

Diversity and inclusion are not pronouncements. They must be action oriented and radical interrupters of the status quo. Diversity must be about reflecting the people you serve (e.g., proportional representation). This is important because in higher education, the vast majority of employees are White, while the growing majority of students are racially and ethnically minoritized students. The disparity is even more so within the faculty and administrative ranks. However, having proportional representation must also be accompanied by a meaningful culture of inclusion. Inclusion requires on-going access to power structures, prominence in voice, and acceptance of difference for and by all members of the community. Thus, to create an inclusive culture there needs to be a foundation of equity principles that drive the work of sustaining a diverse environment. Equity requires dismantling structures of oppression and creating new structures that truly allow for inclusion and diversity. To achieve equity, we need to understand how we became inequitable.

It is no wonder that diversity, equity, and inclusion are often conflated. These are three separate concepts that are inextricably connected. Many leaders confuse these terms, treat them as one concept, or only focus on one at a time. A great leader will work on all three at the same time, understanding the nuances of how they interrelate, and engage in equity-minded practices.

Community Colleges and Racial Equity – What Leaders Need to Know

race

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Twenty-first Century Community College Leaders must account for and understand the impact of race, racism and white supremacy. The foundation of oppression in the United States of America is racial and is infused in our social institutions, such as higher education. Race is central to all inequitable outcomes and is compounded when it intersects with other subordinations (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, disability, age).

Historian Dr. Ibram Kendi writes that racist policies create racist ideas, not the other way around. This would explain why people cannot accept that they are themselves racist. Racist policies create racist structures, which create and maintain White Supremacy. These structures have been imbedded in every institution in the United States. Higher education privileges white students, staff, faculty, and administrators. Leaders of the 21st century must be visionary while also facing our past, learning from it, and dismantling racism and white supremacy.

On a national level, there is little guidance from professional associations.

One of the primary advocacy and leadership development organizations for community colleges is the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). In 2013, AACC introduced a second edition of the AACC Competencies for Community College Leaders. Within this document, meant for the 21st century leader, the word “equity” is only written once. It is recommended that after three years of leadership, the CEO must be able to “create an environment that promotes access, inclusion, and equity for all members of the community.” There is no mention of centering equity or centering racial equity within the document.

In 2016, AACC, along with the Association of Community College Trustees (AACT) wrote a “Joint Statement of Commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Excellence in Student Success and Leadership Development.” Their statement centers socio-economic background: “AACC and ACCT remain committed to programs that improve educational outcomes for all students, especially those representing various socioeconomic [emphasis added] backgrounds including, but not limited to race, gender, and age.”

What would it look like to center race in this equity statement? “The AACC and ACCT remain committed to programs that improve educational outcomes for all students, especially those representing various racial backgrounds including, but not limited to socio-economic, gender, and age.”

It would acknowledge what our students experience: gender, age, and socioeconomic status intersect with race and further compound oppression experienced within a white supremacy structure.

The joint statement acknowledges “that much work is required to provide programs for diverse students and equip current and future leaders with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in an increasingly diverse and demanding higher education environment.” We need the AACC to lead and advocate for change by centering race in equity.

One of the most importance competencies for the emerging leader and CEO in the 21st century is to be able to facilitate bold and critical conversations about white supremacy, its history in higher education, its impact on people (students, staff, faculty, administration), and its legacy on policy (locally, regionally, and nationally). Let’s talk about race, and then let’s get to work on changing our institutions.

 

Reflections on Leadership Communication Styles

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by Luke Lara

I spent Thanksgiving with immediate and extended family. Two family members (husband & wife) are both executives in the banking industry. The wife (I’ll call her Carla) started sharing how her husband (I’ll call him Pedro) is having a rough time at work because of his boss. Pedro is a nice guy, knows the industry, and is well respected by his team. His boss (a man) takes his ideas, gives poor direction, and has little regard for anyone but himself. His boss reports directly to the CEO ( a woman). Carla argued that Pedro is not approaching the situation correctly. She gave examples of how her husband has argued with his boss (i.e., let his emotions get the best of him). Carla also stated that Pedro isn’t building a relationship with his CEO.

At this point in the conversation, I agreed with her that arguing with your boss is not a wise strategy and that building a relationship with the CEO is a wise strategy. However, Carla began to give an example of how the CEO went on vacation and posted a picture of herself on the beach. What I mean by a picture of herself on the beach is just a frame showing her toes. The unspoken expectation is that people in the office should “like” her pictures. Pedro said he didn’t “like” the picture. I agreed, in fact, that seemed to me like the CEO was creating a hostile work environment and potentially leaning into sexual harassment territory. Carla, and another female family member (also in a leadership position in another industry) began to argue that “liking” the picture of the toes must be done to play the game of politics.

Where do you draw the line? What does politics at work mean to you? Is it different in higher education? What have you done, just to play the game of politics? What are you not willing to do?

Another story came about this interesting Thanksgiving dinner. Carla shared that her leadership style is about the people. To back this up, she gave the following example: One day she came to one of her branches and saw a teller with a wrinkled shirt. She immediately went across the street and bought an iron. She pulled the worker aside and said, “Take this iron and go to the break room and iron your shirt. The good thing is that you now have an iron.”

I asked her, “Was that your employee?” She replied, “No, but technically he works under me.” (She is the boss of the branch managers). Someone at the dinner table said, “Oh, that sounds like you were trying to mentor that fellow.” I think it was said, to reframe the conversation because it was a little awkward there for a minute.

Is that mentoring? Is it micro-managing? Maybe there were more details to the story. Maybe several glasses of gin and tonic may have distorted the facts?

In any case, both of these stories made me think about my own leadership communication style. That night, I tossed and turned, thinking and thinking. I came up with the following acronym: L.A.R.A. That is my last name. Believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose. I also have a counseling background, so it does mirror my counseling training and my understanding of mindfulness communication. It stands for the following:

Listen

Acknowledge

Reflect

Act

So, L.A.R.A. leadership communication begins with listening. That is something I didn’t hear in the stories above. We need to listen, gather information by asking questions, and hear the message behind the message. Listen to learn.

Second, after listening, we need to acknowledge what we’ve heard. Repeat it back to get clarification. Summarize the speaker’s thoughts and reflect it back. Acknowledge to respect.

Third, after acknowledging the message, we must reflect on what we’ve heard. Is it true? Do I need to apologize? What is it that I am being asked to do? How has what I’ve done impacted this person? How can I reply with mindful communication? Reflect to take responsibility.

Lastly, after reflection, we need to act. Through this mutual and collective dialogue, we have listened, acknowledged, and reflected. Now it is time to act respectfully, to commit to an action that represents the appropriate culmination of this process.

California Community College

by Luke Lara

I want to say that the San Diego State University Educational Leadership Doctoral Program is incredible. I highly recommend anyone seeking to better understand the higher education system and the role of the community college to enroll in this program. Follow this link for more information. I mention this first because from time to time I will write about something that is related to what I have learned in the program.

Today, in my Law and Finance course, we discussed enrollment management. As a counseling faculty member and former department chair, I have had to deal with enrollment management at my departmental level. I saw words like FTES, WSCH, and FTEF, but NOBODY ever took the time to train me or define these terms for me. Today, I finally understood what all this meant. Enrollment management affects all aspects of the college. The ultimate decisions may lie in Instructional services, but there are so many gears that need to work together so that the college can provide the courses to meet the student needs and stay within the means of its budget. Sounds easy, but now I understand why it felt like a nightmare every time I had to deal with scheduling courses.

I recommend that anyone in the community college pay attention to the following key elements of the enrollment management process:

  1. Know the curriculum development process.
  2. Know when the schedule is determined.
  3. Know when the budget is determined.
  4. Know the formula for budget allocation (e.g., understand the importance of FTES).
  5. Listen to your front-line counseling and admissions folk (e.g., canaries in the coal mine).
  6. Get census/attendance data from Admissions Office.
  7. Know the college’s goals (e.g., master plan – grow, maintain, or reduce enrollment).
  8. Cancelling courses is a lose-lose situation (find incentives for faculty to fill their courses).

Lastly, as my instructor said today, “Everyone else can afford to be careless, but you cannot.” If you are an administrator, you cannot afford to be careless. Be transparent about your goals and help your faculty members understand them.

A faculty member perspective may be more about the immediate (e.g., the class I am teaching today), and the administrator may be more focused on the future (e.g., how will the college be responsive to projected demands one or two years down the road). Working together, we can provide quality education to students now and in the future.