Inclusive by Intention
The Office of Equity and Inclusion weaves webs of connection across differences
From the number of programs, virtual events, and communications on the flagship campus related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s surprising to learn that the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) at UMass, headed by Interim Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Nefertiti Walker, has a staff of only four. Walker’s superpower is not the ability to be in many places at once—it’s actually her ability to create and support an interdisciplinary network of people who are responsible for inclusion across campus.
The university’s profile as a destination of choice for talented students from across the country and around the world means the campus draws people of all stripes, hues, and creeds. Supporting this very diverse population is a key part of the OEI’s mission. As Walker says, “We have to ensure that the campus feels like a place where everyone belongs.”
She explains, “No one knows a particular department or micro-culture better than those people living in it, so we try to empower our partners campuswide and connect them with resources.” The office has launched dozens of events and programs with partners in every corner of campus. “We think of ourselves as the connecting point of a matrix of people doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” says Walker.
Everyone is recognizing that they are actually the ones responsible for changing systems of inequity and creating inclusive spaces.
Campus community members apply their own initiative to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion with the support of Campus Climate Improvement grants. These small project-based grants, ranging from $250 to $2,500, support a variety of creative ways to engage the campus community in conversations about difference and enrich the cultural life of the campus. Since its inception in 2017, the program has supported nearly 60 projects, including a Food Justice Symposium that educated students about food insecurity and increased access to nutritious food, an Asian American Film Festival that brought filmmakers to campus, and a collaboration that produced 3D models to assist blind and low-vision students in STEM fields.
Another example is the OEI’s partnership with the Office of the Provost for faculty recruitment. STRIDE (Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence) workshops bring research-driven best practices to faculty who are on search committees to help them run effective searches and find diverse pools of qualified candidates. In the past two and a half years, more than a quarter of the university’s faculty members have been trained.
Inclusive excellence is something that will always be constantly evolving.
The office continues to innovate in response to campus needs—the Learning Community book groups are now in their third year, a Student Advisory Board was created this fall, and a newsletter and podcast are freshly launched. All of these programs and more help put into action the university’s stated value of “freedom of expression and dialogue among diverse groups in a community defined by mutual respect.” Walker acknowledges that it’s a complex task. “As a society, we’re constantly evolving. … The idea of inclusive excellence is something that will always be constantly evolving and we will continue to evolve our work toward it.”
Walker’s enthusiasm for her work is fueled by “the immense energy on our campus from students, faculty, and staff who are absolutely engaged in developing an inclusive environment rooted in social justice and anti-racism. Of course, we have lots of work to do—but, many people are on board.” She also notes, “Will people stumble? Absolutely. People struggle with the best way to be inclusive and lead from a place of social justice. And they will struggle with understanding how to deconstruct systemic racism and what it means to engage from a place of anti-racism.” But, she says, “I think the fact that people are so engaged and wanting to learn is cause for great optimism.”
More from Interim Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Nefertiti Walker on the journey to inclusion:
We encounter far fewer people saying they aren’t familiar with discrimination issues, or they didn’t realize how prevalent they are. What we encounter more is people for the first time recognizing their responsibility for ensuring inclusion in their particular space. I think that realization is happening all over campus—among student groups, staff groups, faculty—everyone is recognizing that they are actually the ones responsible for changing things. Part of our job is to work with them to talk through these issues and empower them to work on them. We see less of “Oh, I didn’t realize this existed” and more of “Oh, I didn’t recognize that it is my job to think about this.” Part of our job is working people through that process of recognition and awareness.
The first part of that journey is the acknowledgment that people in this country and in this world experience life very differently. Some of it is because of things that have happened to them. But a lot of it is because of who they are and the identities they hold, and the spaces they have access to, and the spaces they have far less access to because of those identities. The place to begin is with understanding that these inequities absolutely exist. … I think if you’re trying to fix something that you aren’t completely convinced of, it becomes difficult and it comes off as performative. I think once you’ve acknowledged that people don’t have equitable access to resources, the next step is understanding how you are situated in that. Where do you sit? That influences how you interact with underserved or marginalized folks. All of that work should be supported by education.
Everyone is recognizing that they are actually the ones responsible for changing things.
For instance, this summer after the nationwide protests in response to the unjust killings of numerous Black people such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we were encouraged by the number of people—alumni, but also students, faculty, and staff—who said, we are upset, and we want to do something, and where can we start? So we created an anti-racism resource guide for people to start their journey toward anti-racism. Constantly educating yourself is part of the process, but it does not end there. Intentional action towards a more equitable, just, and inclusive world is the responsibility of us all.