‘From Equity Talk to Equity Walk’

Rhetoric alone about equity, diversity and inclusion won't get the job done in higher education, say the authors of a new book.

October 6, 2020
 

Everyone in higher education has had the experience of hearing a college leader expound about the values of diversity or equity, or condemn a racist incident on campus. The statements are often eloquent and moving. The follow-up? Not so much.

This is the subject of From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education (Wiley). In the book, the authors focus on how to turn the talk into walk. The authors are Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and executive director of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers, also of AAC&U; Estela Mara Bensimon, University Professor and Dean’s Professor in Educational Equity at the Rossier School of Education of the University of Southern California; and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, chief institutional research officer of the California Institute of Technology.

They responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Many colleges and college leaders seem to have mastered the first part of your book's title, equity talk. The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted numerous statements, but not the real changes being sought on many campuses. Why is it so difficult for many leaders to walk the equity walk?

A: Leaders often invoke equity, diversity and inclusion as values they hold dear; however, their espoused embrace for equity often fails to turn into action and transformation because many leaders lack the knowledge to enable them to “see” the production of racialized consequences through everyday practices they take for granted. They have not acquired the habit of considering who is advantaged/disadvantaged when a new policy or a practice is introduced and have difficulty recognizing and acknowledging when institutionalized racism runs through the arteries of their institutions’ practices, policies and structures. Doing racial equity work requires that leaders admit to not always knowing how to address racism.

To “walk the equity talk” leaders need to examine their own perceptions of equity and to develop new language; they need to learn to frame racial inequality in educational outcomes as a problem of institutional underperformance; they need to stop skirting around race talk by only using terms like “underrepresented,” “vulnerable” and “first-generation” when they are actually speaking about Blacks, Latinx, Indigenous peoples and other racially minoritized students. They have to be specific about which groups are experiencing inequities. They have to be willing to acknowledge that when the term “all” is used, it typically privileges the experiences of white students as the norm and undermines efforts for racial equity.

They have to elevate antiracism as an institutional priority by calling out institutionalized racism, whiteness as the accepted norm and white supremacism. They have to develop an agenda to repair for past exclusionary practices. A good example is the University of Chicago’s English department decision to only admit Ph.D. candidates in Black studies during the next academic term. In our book we describe 10 obstacles to equity talk and the strategies to overcome them.

Q: Many elements of campus culture are criticized for promoting racism and not equity. How can colleges change their campus culture?

A: Building on the answer to the previous question, we believe that cultural change requires a collective effort among leaders, faculty, staff and students to take on the role of “anthropologists” and identify how their familiar routines, practices, policies, documents, language, values, etc. reproduce racial inequality and privilege. Campus leaders need to understand and examine the narrative about race at their institutions and be honest about what needs to change. Needless to say, if this was as straightforward as it sounds, it would have already happened. Through our work, we have learned that cultural change requires facilitated approaches and tools that help individuals decipher, from a racial standpoint, the assumptions, implicit theories and values underlying their ways of doing things. There are no best practices for cultural change nor technological solutions.

Q: A chapter in your book is about communicating data. Why is that important?

A: It is sometimes said that you can’t fix what you can’t see. Typically, institutions present student outcomes data in the aggregate, obscuring whether and where inequities exist. Institutional data, disaggregated by race, is essential to making the equity gaps commonly experienced by Black, Latinx, Indigenous peoples and other racially minoritized students visible. However, as we explain in the book, shining a light on racial inequities is the starting point in the pursuit of equity -- not the end goal. Examining disaggregated data is intended to spur equity-minded sense-making among practitioners -- a process of critical reflection and meaning-making through which practitioners come to interpret equity gaps as a sign that their practices aren’t working as intended and need to be altered to redress these racial inequities.

Through our work, we have developed tools for communicating data in a manner that will promote equity-minded sense-making and inspire practitioners to continue inquiring into the causes of racial inequities within the institutional environment. For example, communicating data using simple visualizations of descriptive measures increases the likelihood that practitioners will find the data accessible. Similarly, presenting data that are "close to practice" ensures that practitioners see a connection between the quantitative measures that they are observing and how they engage with students on a daily basis.

We realize that the approaches to communicating data outlined in the book run somewhat counter to many data-related trends in higher education. Within institutional research, for example, increasing emphasis is placed on techniques that aim to estimate causal relationships between student characteristics, behaviors and outcomes (e.g., predictive analytics, propensity score analysis). While these methods have value in certain contexts, they can, by their very nature, spark deficit-minded thinking where students of certain backgrounds may be viewed as “at risk.” Similarly, including race as just another control variable in a statistical model minimizes the systemic racism that minoritized populations have experienced since this nation’s inception.

When communicated effectively, data disaggregated by race can serve as an impetus for the critical examination of institutional practices through practitioner inquiry and the identification of specific actions needed to realize equity.

Q: Are there some colleges you would identify that are doing a particularly good job at the equity walk? What makes those efforts successful?

A: AAC&U and the Center for Urban Education have worked with several hundred colleges, in varying ways, to advance their equity walk. Specifically, the Center for Urban Education has introduced racial equity tools that support practitioner inquiry into their practices. AAC&U’s signature initiatives Inclusive Excellence, and more recently, the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers, focus on identifying and being responsive to patterns of inequity that stratify students and communities and perpetuate educational and systemic disparities that are a result of racialized practices.

There are institutions that are making progress on the equity walk in certain areas, but none have fully dismantled institutional racism. This transformation is ongoing and requires higher levels of intentionality and full engagement of educators, accountability, honesty and healing.

For example, progress has been made at Fresno City College; San Diego Mesa College; Pasadena City College; Mendocino College; California State University, Los Angeles; Santa Monica College; Long Beach City College; Tulsa Community College; Community College of Denver; Aurora Community College; University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and several campuses within the Pennsylvania state higher education system. In some of these colleges, in particular Mesa, Fresno, Sacramento, Community College of Denver, and Community College of Aurora, changes in practices to be more race conscious were made possible by presidents and other leaders who were committed to racial equity and were willing to learn.

In addition, the campuses that are hosting TRHT Campus Centers are examining the narrative on race at their institutions to identify key leverage points for change and engaging in racial healing and relationship building to prepare the next generation of leaders to build just and equitable communities. Of course, this progress is not possible without institutional leaders who have an equity talk and an equity walk. For example, some presidents have formed leadership teams that include vice presidents, faculty leaders, staff, students and trustees to study their curricula, syllabi, hiring, data, transfer services, assessment practices, advising, etc. The teams are engaged with in-depth inquiry to identify the many ways in which their practices and language do not prioritize racial equity. They are making changes because the president is invested in racial equity. Presidents must be willing to participate in the inquiry processes and get their hands dirty (i.e., participate in a structured observation of what goes on in the transfer center) in the work and be open to coaching when made aware of language that undermines equity aspirations.

Q: How do you answer the question posed in your book of "Equity for whom?"

A: One of the ways in which we define racial equity is as “corrective justice” for the educational debt owed to racially minoritized groups who have suffered deprivation from enslavement, Jim Crow, colonization, genocide and theft of territory. Racial inequity -- unlike income inequity -- was born from slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and mitigated opportunity for African Americans. It was born from genocide and land grabbing that diminished the population and territories of Indigenous peoples, as well as out of the colonization and assimilation projects that sought to “civilize” the "savage natives." It was born from waves of Asian, Latinx and Pacific Islander migration, some of which was sanctioned by the American government (e.g., through the Immigration Act of 1965 and asylum seeking) and some of which was not. For all people of color, racial inequity was born from policies and practices that were not designed for their benefit but for the dominant population of whites. Racial inequity was also born from policies and practices that actively sought to exclude, marginalize and oppress people of color. Our focus for this book is on addressing racial inequity as an act of justice that demands system-changing responses and explicit attention to structural inequality and institutionalized racism. This focus does not diminish the need to address equity for others with differing identities.

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