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Inclusion Illusions
Inclusion Illusions

A come-one, come-all strategy alone may not work when engaging alumni whose experiences and identities revolve around race and sexual orientation

By B. Denise Hawkins


Trina Dalziel

When the K-State Alumni Association relaunched its multicultural advisory council in 2011, members shared their reasons for serving. I love K-State, said one. I bleed purple, said another. Then one candid reply changed the entire conversation.

I did not have a great time as a student, said one alumna. As a minority on the predominantly white Kansas State University campus, she'd felt unwelcomed and unsupported by her academic department. The story was an eye-opener for Jessica Elmore, who as assistant director of multicultural programs plans the biennial Black Alumni/Greek Reunion, among other events.

"When you're inviting multicultural alumni to get involved, providing a safe space for them to be honest is where you're really going to get the information you need to be better," Elmore says. "It freed the council to talk about how we can make improvements."

Mark Forrest, associate director of clubs and groups at The George Washington University, experienced a similar moment in 2008. He helped convene a group of African-American graduates to explore the formation of an advisory council to inform the Washington, D.C., institution's black alumni outreach and assist with initiatives to support black students, faculty, and staff. The volunteers were tasked with building upon the goals set at a reunion earlier that year and the foundation established by the GW Black Alumni Association's launch in 2004.

So Forrest was surprised when alumni vented about their student experiences at GW. Forrest listened, pointed out how the university has changed, and asked for their assistance in ensuring that current and future students from diverse backgrounds would not endure similar struggles.

For many alumni of color who matriculated when campuses were newly or barely integrated, the sting of racism and isolation still lingers. For this group, diversity matters. Whether you reach out with targeted programming like K-State or sanction identity-based alumni groups as GW does, diverse alumni need to see a concerted effort to involve them in the life of the institution.

Embarking on an honest discussion about the institution's perhaps not-so-hospitable past is a challenging, but necessary, step toward successfully engaging diverse alumni. Other requirements: commitments from both the institution and alumni, sound volunteer-management techniques, and inclusive alumni programming.

Ask for help

The courting process should begin by recognizing that a campus wasn't always a welcoming place, says Nelson Bowman III, co-author of Engaging Diverse College Alumni: The Essential Guide to Fundraising.

"Don't discount what alumni are saying. Acknowl­edge it and listen to their stories," adds Bowman, who is also executive director of development at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

After an institution gains the trust of its alumni, Bowman recommends posing this challenge to them: "How do you want to get involved with your university?"

When Marquette University in Wisconsin asked that question in focus groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender graduates, it received an unexpected answer. About 50 alumni had planned to form an LGBT alumni affinity group, but the focus groups helped them realize that wasn't the best strategy, says Stacy Mitz, managing director of engagement and affinity-based giving.

LGBT graduates wanted to receive the same alumni programming offered to all Marquette's more than 100,000 graduates worldwide, but they also wanted some LGBT-focused topics and interests. In response to the focus groups' findings, Marquette's Gender and Sexuality Resource Center held an open house during reunion weekend, showcasing the programs available to students.

Focus groups of alumni of color, however, raised concerns that Marquette's existing Ethnic Alumni Association casts too wide a net by including both African-Americans and Hispanics. The university is now considering niche groups that speak to the specific needs and experiences of both sets of graduates.

Affinity groups and beyond?

Creating more affinity groups may sound like a great idea, but managing them requires resources. At Marquette, Mitz worries about the strain on staff and volunteers.

Dan Gould, senior associate director of alumni relations career and affinity programs at the University of Chicago, has similar concerns since the institution's 11 affinity groups aren't as low-maintenance as university officials expected. Gould is working to streamline such groups, which UChicago introduced in 2009 as a way for alumni to organize around an industry or professional interest or a shared identity or student experience. But the job of shepherding about 200 volunteer leaders and 9,500 members involved in 53 affinity group chapters, including the LGBT Alumni Network's Asia-Pacific chapter, has grown unwieldy for two full-time staff members, says Gould.

"There was the assumption that our affinity groups would be really driven and that our volunteers' enthusiasm would create infrastructure without staff involvement," he says. "That's not the case at all."

As an affinity group became successful, each chapter established its own board. "We were spending all our time managing a portfolio of boards, separate identities, communication challenges, and individual requests for communication and event support," says Gould. Meanwhile, activities like creating connections with the university got short shrift. "That wasn't using our resources wisely."

Gould is transitioning the university's affinity groups to national and international platforms—with one governing board for all and with outreach to individual areas through board representation and technology. The overall platform will also help correct perceptions that individual affinity groups exist separate and apart from UChicago or that the interests of any group and the university aren't necessarily the same.

"That can't be the case for alumni relations to succeed," says Gould.

Setting expectations and establishing what the university requires of the affinity group and what level of support it will provide are important, says Durice White, associate director of alumni engagement at Elon University.

Several years ago, when African-American alumni who met annually at homecoming approached the North Carolina institution about formalizing ties, the university said yes. But Elon took steps to ensure that the network would be successful.

To determine if interest was strong enough to sustain a formal group, the alumni office hosted an African-American alumni summit to explore what the group would look like and what it could do. Such front-end due diligence is essential for successfully engaging affinity groups, says White, who educates alumni about strategic ways to work with Elon, influence change, channel their philanthropy, and cultivate leaders.

"We're very clear: You're an extension of Elon," White says of the expectations given to Elon's two affinity groups, which include a network for LGBT alumni and allies. "We're all here No. 1 because of Elon and No. 2 because of our affinity."

The Elon Black Alumni Network is thriving, raising more than $100,000 in scholarship money, mentoring students, hosting homecoming and commencement events, and even engaging its members through book club discussions.

Bring diverse groups together

At GW, Forrest delivers a similar message: An affinity group's first priority is to the mission of GW's alumni association. He backs up that statement with a set of parameters that are defined in a handbook for affinity groups. In addition to maintaining a minimum membership of 10 alumni, groups must host at least one program per semester and submit bylaws for university approval. GW has 13 such groups, including the environmentally conscious Green Alumni Network.

While some diverse constituents will respond only to events specifically tailored to them, such as a black alumni reunion, engaging alumni based on their identity doesn't mean that the groups are exclusive. Regardless of billing, alumni events tend to be open to all graduates, which increases the exposure of successful graduates of color to the broader university community and introduces them to additional avenues for engagement, including serving on the alumni board. "Once you get involved, you want to see what's next. What else can I get involved in?" says Elon's White.

So how can you bring graduates of all races and interests together? By scheduling a diverse slate of speakers for events, ensuring that event marketing reflects the diversity of the campus, sharing affinity network news with all alumni, and creating opportunities for multicultural and white graduates to interact.

During homecoming, Elon's various alumni groups tailgate together in a common area. At GW, affinity organizations' leaders are required to represent their respective groups at general alumni events, in part to find graduates who may not know about their programs.

After almost six years of consistent engagement, Forrest established a giving requirement for GW's affinity group leaders, just as there is for other volunteer or governance boards. He had good reason to anticipate fundraising success: Without prodding, GW's New York/New Jersey chapter of black alumni had already started a scholarship fund for local students.

(Don't underestimate diverse alumni's ability or willingness to give, Bowman says. Some 63 percent of Hispanic households give to charity, according to a 2012 W.K. Kellogg Foundation report. And by 2015, a recent Nielsen Company study predicts, African-American buying power will hit $1.1 trillion.)

The groups are proactive as well. The GW Latino Alumni Association discovered that its members were conspicuously absent from the university's list of Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winners. This prompted the association to research prominent Latino alumni and submit names. Since then, two Latino alumni have won the award.

Managing the groups "is a lot of work, but it's worth it. I've seen lots of growth—in the number of alumni attending affinity-based events and increased interest across the university in engaging former students through their GW affinity," says Forrest. Fortunately, he's getting help: In recent years GW has hired two staff members to work on affinity group and club engagement. 

‘It has to be us'

Diverse alumni engagement can start with staff hired for that purpose, but it must include the rest of the university community, says Miguel Sapp, executive director of development and alumni relations in Syracuse University's Office of Program Development, which reaches out to the New York institution's 15,000 African-American and Latino alumni.

"Diversity as a principle should be an essential element of any institution. All your personnel should be engaging all alumni," Sapp adds.

Since 2011, Elmore's cultivation of diverse alumni has resulted in a 50 percent jump in dues-paying multi­cultural members of the K-State's alumni association. But like Sapp, Elmore says that increasing minority participation at alumni events is not her job alone.

"If you're trying to convey that your association is genuine about engaging multicultural alumni, your presence matters," she says, noting that all alumni personnel, as well as institutional leadership, should attend events targeting diverse alumni. "It can't be, ‘That's their thing over there.' It has to be us."

At Rice University, Multicultural Community Relations took the lead in incorporating diverse alumni in the Texas university's centennial celebration. The alumni office was in transition, so the multicultural office, which is in the public affairs division, worked with the Association of Rice University Black Alumni, the Rice University Community of Asian Alumni, and the Society of Latino Alumni at Rice. The Multicultural Centennial Weekend Celebration, held in September 2012, included:

  • The screening of the 80-minute documentary Young, Gifted, and Black: Reflections from Black Alumni at Rice, which was created for the centennial and paid for by alumni.
  • A symposium and luncheon featuring a PowerPoint presentation on Asians at Rice and an international Asian student panel discussion about life at the institution.
  • The Latino Experience at Rice, a gala that also premiered a short documentary on the same topic.

Many alumni had not returned to campus before the centennial celebration, and their attendance re-energized the alumni groups. Since then, ARUBA has twice hosted receptions for black graduating students to encourage them to become engaged alumni. Both ARUBA and SOLAR, the Latino group, have held career fairs on campus.

"It was a win-win situation for everyone to broaden the opportunities to work together," says Jan West, assistant director of Multicultural Community Rela­tions at Rice. "It's been exciting to see the continued growth.

"We're working even closer," West says, noting that her office and alumni affairs have collaborated on several events, including on-campus workshops where alumni authors of color discussed their recent books. The offices are planning a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the enrollment of Rice's first black student.

The responsibility for ensuring that alumni of color are engaged, says UChicago's Gould, belongs to many—the alumni association, the multicultural and LGBT student life offices, and others. But opportunities for outreach and engagement "can only be done by having critical conversations with volunteer leaders and educating ourselves in inclusive recruiting practices."

Targeted outreach works

Alumni staff members who work with diverse groups regularly field queries about the necessity of their work. "Why would we have something separate? Isn't it supposed to be about unity? Isn't that going backward?" says K-State's Elmore, recalling some of the questions she receives.

Syracuse's Sapp doesn't understand why such outreach is questioned. Institutions target alumni based on athletics or professional interests.

"What is important for any school is to show [its] commitment and support strategies that engage all people equally and treat people with respect," he says. Affinity reflects the way people live and work in communities. To think otherwise, he says, is disingenuous.

The short answer to those who question the existence of affinity groups is that targeted outreach is effective. Sapp reports that alumni and students who decades earlier felt marginalized and pushed for racial parity in student and faculty ranks and for the establishment of Syracuse's program development office are now proud, contributing members of the alumni community. They return to campus for the triennial Coming Back Together reunion and since 1987 have contributed $3.1 million to the "Our Time Has Come" scholarship campaign.

"My constituents," Sapps says, "have power and a presence."

Adds Forrest, "It's not about separation. At the end of the day, it's about being a part of the overall alumni association but also finding a home within it."

About the Author B. Denise Hawkins

B. Denise Hawkins is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern Virginia.




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