Stop running diversity campaigns without a culture change
When you hire Diversity Officers, or recruit minority students, the rest of the organization must be prepared
Recently I was hired to write for a client regarding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) officers. I didn’t know what that title meant initially, but as soon as I started reading more about the role, the lower my head hung thinking of how diversity programs continue to start and fail. Although the diversity titles have changed, the attitudes toward diversity programs and recruiters too often has not, and that includes how students are treated.
When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I wasn’t altogether sure which college I wanted to go to. I was hell bent on going to an out-of-state college. I’d already seen a few students from my elementary school head to my high school, and I wasn’t thrilled about it. So I damn sure was going to make sure I picked a college that no one I knew went to.
Why? Going to a college where you know everyone can too easily feel like High School 2.0. I actually liked high school, no major complaints. I was reasonably popular and hung out with two sets of girls (and a couple of guys) who were from completely different worlds. No bullying. Grades were good. I ended up getting suspended for 10 days, but that’s another story entirely.
Still, I was determined to find a new world of my own outside of the South Side of Chicago, where I was born and raised. One university (Northern Michigan University) that stood out among many talked about its diversity program, diversity mentors, and its persistence about becoming a more diverse, inclusive community. While Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, it’s also the third largest. Although I went to a predominantly black elementary school, my mother purposely sent me to a more diverse high school with white and Hispanic (Mexican, Guatemalan and Puerto Rican mainly) students. (The latter also made it much easier to study Spanish, which was a degree focus for me in college.)
So I thought this second school would be an upgrade from my high school years and was persistent about going. But in a student population of 8,000 students, there were less than 100 black people — and a sizeable portion of those were boxers training for the Olympics. They were at the university but not necessarily for the university.
There was no BET, no black newspaper options (nor coverage in the school newspaper), no black history courses nor black literature courses, and definitely no black beauty supply stores or hair salons. It was culture shock for someone who was used to being in a major metropolitan area.
All I kept thinking was, “Why did this school market itself as encouraging diversity but without really doing anything to change the culture of the school or the town?” There was a total of one black adjunct professor, who was constantly at odds with other faculty members and even teachers in classes he signed up for.
I also joined a minority mentorship group. I learned far more about Native American culture than I ever expected, and it was mind-boggling to learn some of the most unapologetically racist treatment that tribes are subjected to and treated as “patriotic” behavior. But it was unsettling that this school, pushing for diversity, still would not bring up these talking points in their newspaper. (The school newspaper editorial team wouldn’t even let me join as a writer.)