On the Road to Champion

Deborah S. Willis gives advice for how to become a diversity, equity and inclusion leader.

March 26, 2018
 
 
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Last year, I wrote "Getting Up to Speed on Diversity" to share strategies on how graduate students could posit, develop and articulate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. That was primarily in response to students concerned about the changing job market, as employers increasingly value a person’s aptitude for DEI.

Many institutions of higher learning, understanding their crucial responsibility to prepare students for those market changes, have responded. For example, the University of Michigan initiated a Graduate Student DEI Professional Development Certificate Program. The core curriculum provides a solid foundation for increasing cultural competency and developing skills to promote equity and foster inclusion. The program pilot was precisely what participating students needed, serving as a good starting point for some and a way of assisting others with articulating their skills.

I have since been approached by a distinctly different group of students who are deeply passionate about equity and justice issues and who feel that DEI is a part of their lived experience. These students have a track record of DEI engagement and are vocal and empowered.

Their behaviors align with a nationwide trend. An article in Higher Education Today reported that colleges and universities are experiencing “perhaps the biggest upsurge in student activism since the 1960s.” Today, students are actively organizing around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. This new group of DEI champions wants something different, including more formalized recognition for their knowledge, skill and efforts; more advanced training; and professional opportunities for leadership roles.

So I asked diversity, equity and inclusion professionals, what students can do to get to the next level? How can they prepare to become champions for DEI? What better month is there to talk about championship than March? Below, I share four principles for diversity, equity and inclusion development that will assist you as a graduate student on the journey to becoming a DEI leader.

Know the Game and the Players

Once you have a strong knowledge of the foundations of DEI, commit to developing your understanding further. Stay abreast through books, blogs and scholarship on diversity, such as The Diversity Bonus, especially those that explain the key competencies for leaders of diversity efforts, such as The Chief Diversity Officer. Frequently browse websites like Diverse Issues in Higher Education to stay informed and current. This site also features a free digital copy of the magazine and complimentary webinars on topics related to DEI. Know what it means to be equity-minded.

Examine the national landscape and take note of what policies and laws are being considered regarding social justice and equity issues. Also survey the issues on your campus and the key players. Who are the people or centers leading diversity efforts? Introduce yourself to them, build genuine relationships and become familiar with campus initiatives. Many resources may be available for promoting greater equity and social justice on your campus.

After you have become familiar with current initiatives, assess what is missing. Is there a void? Are you passionate about that issue? If so, consider taking the lead on it. Research the issue before you take action, partner with the people who are already doing good work and learn from the successes and failures of benchmark programs. You may not need to reinvent the wheel, and modeling the best practices of benchmark programs can save you time. Also, determine what you want to be known for. Where would you like to establish your legacy?

Evaluate yourself. What position do you aspire to play? What type of leader are you? Several tools are available to guide you. Some are specifically designed to assess cultural competency, like the Intercultural Development Inventory, and others will help you evaluate your strengths in general, such as StrengthsFinder. There are also tools to help you uncover your values, like ImaginePhD and IDI. Leadership is value driven, so it is essential that you know what you value. Leadership also comes in many forms, and each type can be impactful. This video is one of my favorites and efficiently illustrates that point.

Understand the Value of a Team

Establishing a team of people to work with you is essential. Advocacy typically comes with challenges and resistance, and you will need support. Seek assistance from your coaches, supporters, teammates and fans.

Ensure that your team is diverse. People with other passions and identities will bring different perspectives as well as lived experiences and skills that will fill in the gaps and guarantee that your team and the DEI work you do is balanced. The importance of having a balanced team became evident to me when a couple of units on our campus collaborated to create a diversity statement rubric. The rubric listed many identities in an effort to be inclusive, but a colleague who identifies as international made us aware that she did not see her identity represented in the rubric. Our team, which was completely comprised of American citizens, unintentionally had social-identity blinders on and had not realized the omission! As a result of that colleague’s diverse perspective, we were able to adjust the rubric. We added the word “marginalized,” rather than exclusively focusing on underrepresentation in the American higher education context, and made certain the rubric included all identities. So remember that no one knows it all.

Huddle up! At times, you will feel like you have the home-court advantage, and sometimes you will feel like you don’t have a single fan in the arena. Rely on your team during those times. Encourage each other. Practice empathy. That will build a strong foundation of trust among your team and allow your team to form a long-lasting bond. Also, remember to celebrate successes and always recognize people for their great contributions to the DEI work.

Tips From the Professional Players

I work regularly with diversity leads on my campus, including chief diversity officers, who have shared with me the following advice.

  • Pace yourself. A person cannot sustain running at a constant pace long term. Take breaks as necessary. Practice self-care.
  • Remain calm. People are deeply passionate about equity and social justice issues. Tempers may flare, and people may feel attacked. Possess high emotional intelligence and remind and teach others to do the same. Establish emotional intelligence best practices and rules to foster deep and meaningful open dialogue whenever possible to help maintain healthy relationships.
  • Be flexible and adapt. If something is not working, you need to make adjustments. Sports teams often do this during a time-out or at halftime. My team recognized the usefulness of this tip during a time in which we planned a “Space for Healing” event in response to several racist occurrences on our campus. We intended for the event to draw students who desired a safe place to openly discuss their feelings and how they were impacted. But initially only seven students registered to attend. After we adjusted the event, advertising it to be a space where students could gather, eat, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company, more than 100 students attended.
  • Expect opposition. In competitive team sports, you need opponents for a game to occur. The systemic injustices that resonate or infuriate you will differ from what resonates with others. Diversity, by sheer definition, will involve people with different, and sometimes opposing, viewpoints. Expect that opposition and prepare for it mentally and emotionally.
  • Remember success always involves failures. You won’t always get it right, and that is OK. If you don’t prepare for some mistakes, then you may get discouraged and quit. Even those who are deeply committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment have biases and can make false assumptions.

To illustrate the power of failures, let me provide an experience that one of my colleagues gave me permission to share. During a workshop, she failed to note her gender pronouns in introducing herself, and a participant who identified as nonbinary took it upon themselves to introduce gender pronouns into the conversation. It was clear that this lack of modeling the use of gender pronouns unintentionally resulted in the student feeling unwelcome during a crucial time -- the start of a workshop -- when trust is developed among participants. My colleague recognized her failure to be inclusive and wanted to assure that all students felt welcome in the future. As a result, she conceived the idea of producing pronoun stickers and making it a standard practice to have the stickers at all of our workshops.

So learn from mistakes, apologize as necessary, take corrective action and keep moving. Adopt the mind-set of Michael Jordan: “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Stay Committed to Playing

Remain committed to being a lifetime player. When it comes to the cultural competency journey, you never fully arrive. There is no final destination because diversity, equity and inclusion will continuously evolve, and you will always find something different to learn or a new issue that must be addressed. And while it is indeed hard work, it will also often be gratifying and rewarding. Celebrate the victories.

Last, remember that there is power in the student voice, your voice. Students have driven many of the positive changes on college campuses. Keep striving, because in this game of creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive world, there is no single winner. The world needs a never-ending lineup of champions.

Bio

Graduate Career Consortium logoDeborah S. Willis is 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 a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

 

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