Career Exploration Through the Lens of Equity

We need equity-minded scholars now more than ever, writes Deborah S. Willis, and she shares some practical strategies for how to become one.

June 22, 2020
 
 
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Over the past few months, I’ve seen an influx of concerned scholars who are worried about an abysmal job market and diminishing employment prospects. Those concerns and fears are not unfounded, as over 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits and the National Bureau of Economic Research has officially declared a recession, which it did in record time. Universities and other organizations are in the midst of budget freezes, layoffs and furloughs, and some businesses will not survive.

It is an unprecedented negative forecast. We hope that the economy will bounce back, so we tell our students to remain optimistic, take this time to develop professionally, be proactive, use your networks, update your LinkedIn, do informational interviews and so forth.

This is sound advice, and these are important steps for people on the job market to take. But these recommendations were not satisfying to many of the scholars who reached out to me, and it even felt hollow for me to say. Especially since, somewhere in the conversation, with a prompt as simple as, “How are you?” scholars also shared feelings of despair, anger and helplessness concerning the current world events. How do you give career exploration, job search and professional development direction in the midst of a pandemic of unprecedented proportions and a highly publicized uprising against racism, with protests in cities around the world? In response to this question, I reframed my advice and suggestions from the lens of equity.

Strategies for Increasing Equity

In a previous "Carpe Careers" article, I wrote about the rapidly growing movement among employers to require job applicants to demonstrate both commitment and contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and I provided recommendations to scholars on how to do so. I later wrote about the rising number of students who are deeply passionate about equity and justice issues, have a track record of DEI engagement, are vocal and empowered, and are active participants in social justice movements. Those two trends persist and have since morphed into powerful movements.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked widespread systemic racial inequities. Marginalized populations are experiencing the negative impacts of the virus at grossly disproportionate rates. Add to that the recent highly publicized deaths of African Americans at the hands of police that have sparked worldwide outrage. Students, faculty, staff and employees in all industries are now actively organizing around issues of racial equity and demanding that universities and other organizations respond. University presidents, CEOs of corporations and other leaders of all kinds will be looking for people to help them address these issues. As future leaders within and beyond the professoriate, scholars must be prepared to promote equity and inclusion both in their current institutions and in their future workplaces. We need equity-minded scholars more than ever. Below are some strategies to focus on EQUITY.

E: Educate yourself. Determine the equity issues that you’re most passionate about and go beneath the surface to really understand them. Given the worldwide protests addressing systemic racial inequities, you should have a solid foundation of education on such issues.

Begin by looking inward. Since several of the most popular books are in such demand that they are difficult to obtain, I suggest downloading them on Audible, as they are immediately accessible and the first book is free. Two highly recommended books on antiracism and racial equity that are available on Audible are How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Also, Kendi’s book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is also free for listeners on Spotify.

As demand for information on this topic has increased dramatically, and more people are asking for suggestions on what they can do, many webinars and resource lists are now available online that speak to racial equity. The University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School recently hosted a webinar with a call to action for student, faculty and staff leaders in higher education, with a corresponding resource list. Coursera provides a curated list of courses on race, inequality and social justice. Many podcasts also address the topic, including those specific to higher education, like The Key. Educational resources abound.

Q: Question how you have been contributing to an inequitable environment. Examine your unconscious biases and how they might be affecting your actions or lack thereof. One book that deals with this issue is The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh. Consider taking the Implicit Association Test to further explore your potential biases. Be aware of the critiques of the test but also open to how your results might influence your behavior.

Take a moment to watch this quick video: P&G: The Look. What did that bring up for you? How do you see yourself in the situations it portrays? Question your silence on issues and consider how it is complicit and may even equate to violence in some instances.

Question the institutions, organizations and industries where you are considering employment. How are they responding? Read the statements from their leaders about the racial injustice that has sparked worldwide protest. Some universities, such as University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis, have compiled these statements on one easily accessible page. Do the statements have specific action steps, or are they simply hollow words?

The American Studies Association Statement on Black Lives Matter and the Rebellion of 2020 provides 10 examples of concrete steps that leaders in higher education can take. This article gives expert advice for corporate America. Read the statements and advice, thinking of how you might assist the universities and other organizations if you were employed there. What suggestions would you have? What needs might you address, given your skills and expertise? What can you do to develop the skills and gain experience to tackle these issues?

U: Use your privilege. In what ways have you actively used your privileges, both unearned and earned, to foster a more inclusive and equitable environment? Author Joy DeGruy demonstrates this effectively by telling a short story, "A Trip to the Grocery Store." It is a simple demonstration of how someone with privilege can change a situation simply by asking a single question.

What consistent actions do you participate in that promote equity for marginalized groups? How do you show up as an ally? All of us can be allies and advocate for a marginalized group that we are not a member of. Be careful that it is really allyhood and not performative allyship. Keep the marginalized group at the forefront. Strive to go beyond T-shirts and posts on social media. Yes, social media does play an important role in movements, but you should not stop there. Please do not expect applause or a pat on the back for promoting a hashtag and “reppin’ the cause.” Remember: #ItsNotAboutYou.

I: Interact with people outside your network. Take a moment to look through the contacts, text and call history on your phone. Who have you communicated with recently? How about your social media outlets -- whom are you following? Whom are you connected with on LinkedIn? What LinkedIn groups are you a member of? Who is missing from those groups?

Be intentional about connecting with people who are different from you. Getting to know just one person can begin to change your perspective and assumptions and minimize your biases. Before you reach out to make these connections, think clearly about how to do so without being intrusive or creating harm. Stop to think about the mistakes you could unintentionally make. Resist the urge to ask too many questions of them or to comment on, correct or debate their social media posts. Perhaps you can initially just listen and learn without interjecting.

This call for authentic black engagement has some good questions to ponder. Also, consider membership in organizations that support equity and justice. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP and the ACLU are just a few of many. Consider donating to these organizations and become actively involved in their causes.

T: Teach others. Once you have taken the time to educate yourself and have become active in moving equity work forward in a way that resonates most with you, commit to educating others. You have a powerful voice and are distinctly equipped to speak to the world in a way that only you can. Take the knowledge you have learned and hone the skills of presenting it virtually.

Such skills are especially important, as many things have moved online in the wake of COVID-19. Become very familiar with online meeting platforms like Zoom and WebEx. Consider offering a free webinar on a topic you are passionate about to demonstrate that you can navigate both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Consider doing short videos on a social justice or equity topic and upload them on LinkedIn. Employers will be looking for people who are comfortable and skillful with video and virtual meetings, and they often search the LinkedIn profiles of the people applying for positions at their organizations.

This will also help prepare you for online interviews. Instead of a writing sample, I recently asked applicants to submit a five-minute video on a topic and provide suggestions to our learning management platform. Anticipate more nontraditional methods of interviewing, and be prepared for them. This will help with your professional development and be essential when you are interviewing.

Y: Yield to marginalized voices. Take this moment to give voice to those who have not been heard. Commit to work in the background to support people of color. Nominate them for awards, donate money or time to their causes, quote their works when you are publishing, promote their ideas, let their bosses know that they are making an impact.

Another important Y is, say yes to a sustained commitment. When the dust has settled and the protests have stopped, will you continue to promote equity? Once the economy rebounds and you are no longer inconvenienced by COVID-19, will you still be an advocate for the equity movement? Research shows that if you write your commitment, set reminders, take the opportunity to reflect and put accountability measures in place, you are more likely to maintain a sustained commitment. At Rackham, my team and I have committed to provide a tool to increase the success of those who are interested. We invite you to opt in. You will receive a monthly email for the next 12 months reminding you that you made a commitment and giving you the opportunity to reflect on it. We also commit to continuing the conversation on racial equity with a one-hour webinar each month for a year.

Striving for equity during this time can be both personally and professionally rewarding. These are challenging times for all of us, particularly those currently seeking employment. Approaching career exploration and the job search with an equity lens can be deeply gratifying, greatly contribute to your professional development, benefit the organizations you serve and make a positive impact in the world. Leaders are in search of people to help inform their decisions and actions to push equity forward. If you have done the inner work, maintained a sustained commitment and can demonstrate your contributions to equity through sustained actions, many institutions and organizations would benefit from having you on their team.

Bio

Deborah S. Willis is senior program lead for the DEI certificate program and program manager for professional and academic development at Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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