Commitment, Community and Curriculum

Kavitha Chintam and Alexis Prybutok describe in some detail how their STEM department’s committee on diversity, equity and inclusion is actualizing real change.

September 16, 2022
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At the close of the past academic year, we sat down around some chocolate chess pie and reflected on the journey our department of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University has taken over the past two years. Along with Jonathan Chan and Carolyn Ramirez, we are graduate student co-founders of the Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ARDEI) Committee in the department.

In the midst of pandemic anxieties and the growing visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, we spent the summer of 2020 in meetings with our department’s faculty members, passionately discussing the need for extensive DEI efforts beyond those involving recruitment. We’ve all grown since the committee’s inception, which admittedly began with fraught tension and difficult conversations between faculty members and students but has since blossomed into a safe, productive space.

Our committee has engaged in many successful initiatives, including implementing new course content, assessing and revising department policies, deploying climate surveys, hosting events, and developing a website to share initiative details and resources. Throughout our work, we’ve learned that the success of actualized change in DEI derives from focusing on three points: commitment, community and curriculum.

Commitment

Sustained commitment to this work is crucial for lasting improvements as students graduate, external factors arise and priorities change. For us, such a commitment has required a specific focus on the committee’s attitude, structure and focus.

Committee attitude. As in any working group, disagreements will arise about what directions or actions to take. We faced particular hurdles due to the range of backgrounds and perceived power dynamics within our committee, as well the politicization that can be attached to antiracist topics. However, we overcame those challenges through open, honest and empathetic communication and collective group learning. Faculty members, students and staff members alike all reckoned with how our own experiences and perspectives shaped our desired committee goals and areas of personal improvement.

In particular, we found that we needed to strike a healthy balance between realism and idealism. In our experience, realism spans a spectrum from productive realism—or recognizing the hurdles that need to be overcome and having the patience and persistence to do so—to paralyzing realism, where the fear of those obstacles prevents fighting for change. Meanwhile, idealism spans a spectrum from obstinate idealism, where lack of regard for hurdles hinders progress despite goodwill, to inspired idealism, where one seeks to challenge assumed impossibilities and find motivation to achieve progress.

We as graduate students approached this committee’s work leaning toward obstinate idealism. In contrast, most faculty members tended toward paralyzing realism. In the early days, for example, we were determining how best to acknowledge Black Lives Matter protests occurring on campus, particularly targeted against the police departments of the university and our town of Evanston, Ill. Graduate students did not feel we could truly show full support for Black students in the movement and people harmed during the protests without openly condemning the police, while faculty members were hesitant to take such an explicit stance for fear of repercussions. As tensions on campus escalated and protests began to directly involve other minoritized groups and the university president, tensions also rose between graduate student and faculty committee members, each fearing inadvertent harm but grasping for an agreed-upon way to support department members.

It took considerable time, effort, transparency and trust to leverage both productive realism and inspired idealism for our committee to create lasting, radical change. We want to stress that such a collaborative attitude does not mean you need to settle for lesser standards; rather, it means you should confront systemic issues head-on by fully recognizing apparent boundaries and determining how to strategically circumvent them.

In the case of a statement of support for Black students, we reached an agreement to focus the statement on the students themselves as well as the tangible antiracist actions our department had previously lacked but would now take. That culminated in a statement that was ultimately less performative and set us on a path of action.

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Committee structure. Our current achievements have required a grassroots approach to committee structure, rather than the hierarchical system traditionally found in academe. First and foremost, all department members—including faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, staff members, and postdocs—are welcome and have an equal footing and voice.

We have also explicitly addressed power dynamics, such as those between tenured or tenure-track and nontenured faculty members and those between faculty and students, postdocs, and staff members. Typically, tenured faculty members are significantly less likely to face repercussions for acting on what administrators might view as radical opinions, while other professors must balance their desire to make change with fear of endangering their careers. Similarly, students who want to participate in committees may not feel the agency to do so because of inherent power structures.

In our case, students with a desire to improve our own learning spaces came up with and implemented most of the committee’s ideas, and strong faculty allies in the department then supported those ideas. We found that such relationships require faculty groups, particularly when they are predominantly white, to trust students. Establishing trust requires a willingness from all parties, regardless of identity or department status, to grow and admit where problems exist. That involves critical reflection, opportunities for sincere apology after causing harm and mitigating performative action.

For example, our committee initially planned to send “breaking news” emails—for example, messages of support for communities affected by hate-induced incidents—until a student of color on the committee commented on the potential harm of retraumatization and the performative nature of those emails. By stepping back and asking, “What are we hoping to accomplish?” we’ve been able to redirect resources and time to initiatives that don’t merely show that we’re plugged into the world’s injustices but are also directly addressing those injustices. Now, we send monthly emails that provide a deep dive on a topic—such as the challenges, accomplishments and journeys of Black chemical engineers, historical and current, during Black History Month, with information on local events and resources already available through affinity groups on campus.

Additionally, committees must always incorporate the voices of marginalized individuals while simultaneously minimizing the burden they often carry in this work. For instance, the committee adviser role was created to allow only people of color or other marginalized individuals to attend general meetings and give input without the need to join a specific initiative, a requirement for those on the committee with no marginalized identities.

Finally, while DEI committees need and deserve adequate funding, it’s important to realize that significant funding isn’t necessary to make lasting change. Compensation should absolutely be a priority—in hindsight, committee members, including students, should have been paid for their work from the beginning, and we hope to rectify that.

In terms of initiatives, however, while funding opens doors for certain ideas, such as providing scholarships for affinity conference attendance, active allyship is more important for making lasting change. We completed most of our projects with little to no money, including developing and implementing course curricula and content, hosting thought-provoking workshops, and creating our website. We strongly advise departments to adequately provide both compensation and program expenditures, but to not let lack of funding foster paralyzing realism and hinder or thwart change.

Community

In striving to improve our community’s climate, we recognized that equity in the culture brings about inclusion, which in turn brings about diversity as marginalized individuals recognize they are in a safe space. That process cannot happen in reverse; the simple presence of diverse populations does not make a space equitable.

To that end, our committee has focused on retention and climate improvement for current members—rather than recruitment—through climate assessments, valuing service work, policy evaluation and community-enhancing resources and engagement.

For instance, one of our first actions was to design and deploy a climate survey. After carefully developing the survey, we hired outside consultants, for anonymity and objectivity, to analyze the responses. The consultants summarized the findings collectively and comparatively across many cross-sectional identities, such as ethnicity and disability status. We then distributed an honest report of the results to highlight the areas that needed improvement and to provide evidence to those who may be resistant or blinded to injustice.

That process helped the committee identify new initiatives; notably, we have a team that is working to respond to gaps in accessibility and ableism by, for example, creating clear directions and advice on how to receive mental health resources from the university. We plan to reassess our efforts periodically to gauge our progress and the changing climate.

Fostering commitment to this work and codifying it in the culture also requires integrating DEI-focused service activities into the department’s core values. We count DEI work toward faculty service and implemented a student/trainee service award. Eventually, we hope to integrate DEI work into tenure/promotion requirements, properly track and recognize minoritized faculty service, and compensate student service work through payment or course/research credit.

Curriculum

Of the core parts of an academic department, the curriculum is perhaps the most obvious, and modifying it is a priority to ensure codified change. Integrating antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion principles into traditional engineering curriculum, like thermodynamics, makes such content a natural consideration rather than an “other” topic. Our goal for educational changes is to instill the value of those principles throughout our department, fostering a consciousness of injustice and ultimately training engineers and scientists who actively consider social justice in their future careers.

We surmised that one low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry path to immediately integrate antiracist and DEI concepts into students’ learning is through their course problems. For instance, in chemical engineering, those problems often lack societal context and fail to connect classroom studies with the tangible, real-world impacts of engineering on diverse groups. Adding that context to problems encourages critical thinking through an equity lens—such as considering the impact of leaked feed streams on communities of often minoritized groups located near chemical plants.

Since most faculty members aren’t trained in antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion work, we developed a workshop on how to include it and social justice in course problems and projects. Through an IRB-approved study, we found that faculty left the workshop with drafted contextualized problems and students gained awareness of engineering context and motivation from the questions. We then created a public website to share the workshop with other faculty members.

Perhaps the initiative with the most lasting influence thus far is the development of a mandatory graduate course dedicated to contextualizing antiracism and DEI concepts within science, engineering and research. Our key goals are to ensure that students share a common vocabulary and inspire consideration of learned principles in students’ careers and lives. Hence, we successfully incorporated our designed coursework into a pre-existing M.S. and Ph.D. program requirement, the professional development course, which previously solely focused on topics like fellowship writing and research safety. We hope new students see that content as part of their professional development and incorporate such values into their work.

Currently, one of us has graduated, and the other is the only remaining student co-founder of the committee. We are proud of our own tangible contributions to the department as well as those of the whole committee and recognize the need for constant vigilance for continued progress. By focusing on commitment, community and curriculum, our department took significant strides that serve as evidence that change in academe is possible—it just requires a willingness to challenge the system and the humility to grow. We strongly encourage departments at other institutions to consider this approach as well.

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Kavitha Chintam is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University. Alexis Prybutok is an assistant teaching professor in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Washington and a recent Ph.D. graduate from department of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern.

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