Exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at EDUCAUSE

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a central priority at EDUCAUSE, one the organization has undertaken with careful forethought and planning and initiated through multiple strategies.

Exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at EDUCAUSE
Credit: Franzi / Shutterstock © 2019

Whether it involves a classroom, school system, or workplace, creating a welcoming and equitable environment requires deliberate effort and commitment. Establishing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as an organizational priority involves internal and external stakeholders and can have a broad impact. Here are just a few examples of DEI in action:

  • Setting goals to attract and retain candidates from underrepresented groups
  • Respecting gender identity across employee services
  • Understanding the benefits of multidirectional mentorship
  • Advancing leadership opportunities for underrepresented groups
  • Ensuring generational inclusivity in strategic planning
  • Enhancing accessibility through websites and tools that incorporate universal design principles

DEI is a board priority for EDUCAUSE, one the organization undertook with careful forethought and planning and initiated through multiple strategies. A member-based task force shaped one set of strategies. The association also emphasized DEI in its annual conference speaker concierge program and highlighted DEI sessions for attendees. Another strategy included identifying internal advocates to advance DEI initiatives across programs and services.

EDUCAUSE tapped Sarah Luchs to help lead the internal work. Luchs managed K–12 grantmaking strategies for Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), which supports new and continuously evolving learning designs beyond college and career readiness. "As we funded next gen school designs, a commitment arose to define this learning as equitable learning," she said. "Equity is an innovation. If you view personalized learning through the lens of reimagining schools and meeting students where they are, that gets us into a mind-set of seeking what's best not only for individuals but also for communities and social justice."

It was familiar territory, as NGLC had been engaged in DEI work in major metropolitan areas across the United States. "We'd been learning from and with our regional K–12 schools and nonprofit partners for over a year and had co-created a DEI toolkit," Luchs said. 

Building competencies around DEI carried over into NGLC's operations and, eventually, to its broader professional network. "EDUCAUSE leaders worked with us to explore the revision of recruiting policies, position descriptions, and hiring practices to support and encourage a more diverse staff," Luchs explained. "While our policies were certainly against discrimination of any kind, we hadn't established language explicitly stating we would deliberately create an environment welcoming to those of diverse or minority backgrounds and affiliations. We drafted our statement with support and insight of colleagues from Project 54."

"In addition to the EDUCAUSE DEI task force, which was focused at the leadership level and more formal in nature, we believed nurturing a set of internal advocates was valuable. They could build the mind-sets, awareness, and capacities to shape EDUCAUSE culture inside out through staff-owned goal setting in our day-to-day work," Luchs added.

She acknowledged that leaders play an important role in modeling behavior and setting tone; however, without building internal capacity it can seem as if only those in high-level roles are capable of or responsible for making progress—which is at odds with a true culture of inclusion. "A culture of inclusion is fundamentally a learning culture; it creates belonging, invites ideas, and welcomes shared ownership and action. DEI work is about our ways of being in the world, the quality of our relationships, and how we learn with and through one another. These are complicated issues happening at many different levels, yet they remain largely invisible to those in positions of power and privilege—especially white privilege. So this is an opportunity to embark on our own learning and unpack what we weren't previously aware of, for the betterment of the organization and ourselves."

To begin, staff were invited to engage in two half-day workshops organized around onsite meetings. Activities examined issues of identity, the definition of privilege, unconscious bias, and inclusive culture, and participants explored multimedia resources curated by Luchs.

"Creating a library was purposeful on my part," she admitted. "I wanted to get folks out of the required training mentality; reductionist, technical information doesn't typically inspire new mind-sets or behaviors. DEI is a real-world issue, and it should feel real! This isn't just due to recent political events, but because our sociocultural interactions are constantly changing, we're constantly evolving."

Along the way, she uncovered some powerful misguided beliefs about DEI that are worth dispelling.

Myth #1: You can't learn about diversity unless your group is already diverse.

"One of the interesting lessons…is that it's common to assume that you can't learn about diversity if you're from a majority group," Luchs said. "Diversity exists on many levels—economic, gender, race. Even the more homogenous groups have basic shared knowledge that can be co-constructed, which we obtained from reflection, small-group discussion, and readings. We conducted lots of identity, relationship, privilege, and unconscious bias work together. You can do this with a single group present, and in some ways that creates a sense of safety early on. That said, it's also likely true that the more diverse the group, the more accelerated the learning."

Myth #2: Placing different levels of employees in groups is the ideal approach.

"I was a bit too idealistic about how this would work," she admitted. "Placing staff and leadership in the same group and expecting total candor is lot to ask. Sharing personal anecdotes to build trust is a core goal—all-inclusive cultures start there—but this was challenging, as power differential made immediate openness more difficult to achieve." What if Luchs were to host another workshop? "I would have separate breakout groups for staff and for leadership. You could also use affinity groups based on race, gender, and other identity-based topics. If you have a more diverse group, creating strategic affinity groups in which to admit learnings and mistakes while getting cross-pollination from a racial or power dynamic mix would be valuable."

Myth #3: If you post compelling DEI content, they will come (and read).

Although DEI's importance is widely recognized, it's important to note that staff have competing priorities. They aren't always in a place to review or discover new content. Luchs realized this after curating a "playlist" that included interesting and digestible podcasts, articles, and other think-pieces. While it can be a challenge to get staff to find time for enrichment, providing engaging resources is a smart way to encourage deeper exploration. "Here, I needed more scaffolding. Rather than posting materials, sending a note and expecting colleagues to pop onto a website, I should have pushed things out to them. This would reinforce the fact that we had daily homework. We also found that enabling real-time exchanges and ideas among staff that could be archived was helpful. Our Slack channel had a lot of productive sharing and dialoguing, where folks regularly made community contributions and brought materials forward."

Myth #4: DEI is a "nice to have" initiative, rather than an integral part of your job.

"People see DEI as a worthwhile but separate piece from their work, rather than integrating it into their work lives," Luchs explained. "Leaders can help make subtle shifts by purposefully having conversations that show it's valued and bringing it into their own meeting structures, which happen on a more regular basis than formal professional development. Leaders and staff both should be patient; they'll need a base before making many applicable connections to their work. Once they begin to experience the shifts individually, then they can implement them in the infrastructure and systems of their work worlds, too."

The cultural elements—making different decisions, altering policies or implementations, or impacting relationships—all constitute individual choice.

"Replicating relationship work is hard, as these things would otherwise arise organically through interactions and experiences," Luchs said. "Knowing that we all have different points of privilege and that the language is changing doesn't necessarily make DEI more accessible either: intersectionality, gender pronouns, and other evolving areas seem rife with 'danger' and vulnerability. But it's okay to make mistakes. It's actually an important conversation to have: how do you foster empathy, both with yourself and others? What about organization-wide?"

When it comes to successful DEI training, Luchs asserted that there is more than one right way to engage in learning, to foster community dialogue, and to grow. It's a complicated issue that isn't "solved" with simple strategies in the short term; rather, the response must be ongoing, nuanced, and layered into social interactions and system-level policies and procedures.

"Our role as facilitators and stewards is to invite more voices and ideas forward," Luchs said. "It's a fundamental paradigm shift in terms of a matrixed organization—one that requires more listening, owning the problem as our own across departments rather than expecting solutions from leadership. The change starts with us. That's why getting and staying curious can make all the difference to an organization's culture."

A traditional lens would feel more like pointing fingers. Instead, the focus continues to be organization-wide and humanistic learning about one another and our work. Luchs asks questions such as:

  • What are you motivated to understand more deeply?
  • What topics are you more curious about?
  • Who is helping you learn about DEI at work or elsewhere?
  • Where do you prefer to collaborate?
  • What shapes your relationships with interdepartmental colleagues?

She emphasized the effort's far-reaching effects. "We want people to think about individual contributions because DEI at its core is deeply personal and very much relationship driven—yet its impact and reach reverberate throughout organizations and societies."

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.

© 2019 Kristi DePaul. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.