When the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak financial havoc in spring 2020, Christina Chang Equity Consulting was not immune. As education institutions went into lockdown, the business lost all but two of its higher education clients.
The president of the firm, Chang is a talent management expert who spent more than 15 years at the University of Washington in Seattle before seeking to assist organizations in transforming their cultures via lenses of equity, inclusion, and belonging. With a lack of clients, she was worried about the business she had begun in 2018, but figured she was “in the same boat” as everyone else.
That changed after May 25, 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, spurring outrage about racial injustice, protests against systemic racism, and heightened concern from education institutions that they were not doing enough in the arena of racial equity. Suddenly, Chang couldn’t handle all of the requests for her services.
“I can’t say yes to everybody now,” Chang says. Systemic racism “has been going on for a really, really long time. But, all of a sudden, everyone needs to get diversity training on the books. They need to hire me yesterday and ‘fast, fast, fast,’ and, ‘Can we get this done by the end of the fiscal year?’”
Kerrien Suarez, executive director of Equity in the Center, has been similarly busy. Launched in 2016, EiC works with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to build a Race Equity Culture. It has seen such high demand that many of the organization’s email accounts have standing automatic replies containing links to resources that organizations can use independently.
While Suarez and Chang acknowledge that institutions’ surging interest in racial equity is positive, both are wary about sustained commitment to transformational change.
“More people are using the words ‘race equity’ and ‘anti-racism,’” Suarez says. On the other hand, “the majority of people using those words still don’t understand what they mean.”
So, what is race equity as it applies to education institutions? How are advancement teams approaching this work, which experts say involves a wholesale transformation of organizational cultures? How are institutions and individuals moving forward in the name of equity?
Definitions are an important place to start. Celebrated professor Ibram X. Kendi—author of How to Be an Antiracist and director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research—discussed the necessity of definitions in his closing keynote conversation at CASE’s All Districts Conference in February 2021.
“In order to speak about anything, you need to share definitions,” Kendi said. “Because oftentimes, when we’re arguing—as we often do—about what’s racist, we’re arguing over what that definition is.”
Institutions, education leaders, and advancement professionals define equity in a variety of ways, although those definitions often share a recognition that outcomes should be equal among people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ability, or race—the last of which is, at present, foremost for many institutions.
Suarez’s definition of equity is simple and direct: “the absence of identity-based disparity in outcomes.”
That’s very different from the notion of equality, which seeks equal treatment on the front end, with no regard for differing circumstances. It’s an important distinction because equality was the dominant buzzword regarding racial disparities in education in the 1980s and 1990s. Research, including Equity in Education: A General Overview, shows that as global conversations around race became more complex, equity became the preferred term in the 21st century—along with the words diversity and inclusion (or a combination of those terms).
Titus Blackmon, senior director of advancement for inclusion, diversity, and equity at the University of Missouri, Columbia, U.S., observes the move toward “equity” as a form of maturation.
“We learned that equality isn’t enough. Equality just means sameness, whereas equity means fairness,” he says. “If you have a majority culture that does not understand and appreciate the cultures of the minority, it’s hard to ever get to equity.”
Chang thinks the arrival of the famous “equality/equity” meme (featuring people of different heights who are given stools to look over the fence at a sporting event) marks the era when equity became the term of choice. Many in education continue to reference a version of that image, which can be traced back to 2012, when speaking about equity.
Jackie Yip, a leadership giving officer at Cardiff University in Wales, connects that meme with her awareness of equity as a term. As a person of Chinese heritage, Yip was in the minority when she attended the university (and received U.K. government support based on her family’s socioeconomic status). Yet the “equality/equity” image crystalized the idea for her.
“I thought that’s actually quite fascinating as a concept,” she says. “I was 21 then. It wasn’t a blindsiding, ‘eureka’ moment. It’s always been there, but now my awareness is so completely drawn to it as I’m learning about it and seeing it in action.”
Jan Abernathy, director of strategic communications at the Browning School, an independent school for boys in New York City, says that equity cuts to the heart of who is in control. As a Black woman who has experience with independent schools as both an advancement professional and a parent, she has a specific understanding of what equity means in this sector.
“If you think your kid is having an equitable experience, you don’t think about it at all,” Abernathy says. “If you think your kid is having an inequitable experience, you think about it all the time.”
Although Suarez and EiC put an emphasis on equity, she says that many terms related to DEI efforts are often used interchangeably and incorrectly, with little regard to the concepts’ separate goals or definitions.
“Equity is trendy. [Some] have shifted their language because the ground has shifted,” Suarez says. “There is no catch-all word for equity work. Part of the problem with how folks approach it and why it has not been successful in terms of driving equity…is because people were approaching it as a check-the-box, catch-all exercise. To yield equity in a society, in an organization, in a school, in an advancement office, it requires a total transformation of policy, process, and culture. That’s the only way you yield different outcomes.”
Collaborations and Conversations
Suarez and Chang remain skeptical about institutions and organizations that claim they are making ongoing, focused efforts for transformative change when it comes to systemic racial inequities. These equity experts agree that this work requires not just a commitment to combat inequities, but partnerships with outside consultants, internal collaborations, and conversations at every level of an institution.
Erin Robinson is the middle school principal and DEI lead at United World College of South East Asia in Singapore and has been heavily involved in the international school’s inclusion projects. She says that UWCSEA is looking at issues of equity from every angle (“from recruitment to operations to curriculum”), but acknowledges the tensions present in conversations about race or ethnicity.
“If you have policies in place that embrace equity and embrace inclusion, people know how to ask hard, uncomfortable questions with one another. They’re not hiding behind political correctness,” she says. “Students are oftentimes more brave than the adults. They are willing to say, ‘That’s not fair.’ The beautiful thing about kids is that they have such a strong sense of justice and, for better or worse, they are unfiltered. It keeps us to task.”
In the U.S., Pasadena City College is a founding member of the California Community College Equity Leadership Alliance. Created in 2020 by the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, the initiative offers a continuing series of trainings, seminars, and surveys. The alliance allows a certain number of faculty, staff, and administrators to take part in events, then return to their institutions to share insights.
As the executive director of the PCC Foundation, Bobbi Abram sees the value in an ongoing program prompting conversations about race and investigations into policies that hinder racial equity, especially at an institution where students of color vastly outnumber their white counterparts.
“To start doing equity work, you need to have a level of trust, but by doing the work, it builds more trust,” she says. “You become a better organization because of it.”
Leadership, faculty, and staff at Augsburg University, a private institution in Minneapolis, have been actively working to build that kind of trust for 15 years. Their endeavors were invigorated by the changing racial profile of the institution’s community (which includes immigrant neighborhoods) and students (who are now majority nonwhite).
Paul Pribbenow has been Augsburg’s president for all of those 15 years. He says that the Lutheran university’s ideals of democracy and faith encourage Augsburg’s faculty and staff to listen to students and meet them where they are. Pribbenow says the experience can’t help but change you—personally and professionally.
“I recognized that it was not good enough to say we had that commitment and that we were doing good things in the community,” he says. “We had to do the internal work of a community that truly aspired to be inclusive and anti-racist. We use the phrase ‘equity-mindedness.’ This is the lens to looking at everything we do, whether it’s curriculum, policies and practices, or institutional budgeting and resources.”
Although Augsburg was already on this path, Pribbenow says that Floyd’s murder (which occurred in the university’s hometown) strengthened institutional action. These include assessments and trainings, some of which are mandatory.
While Augsburg, and other institutions, have mandatory elements of equity training, Mizzou’s Blackmon prefers a voluntary approach. As the first person at the university to hold an advancement role focused on inclusion, diversity, and equity (a position created in 2019), Blackmon delivers sessions about his work as part of the advancement office’s onboarding process. Other lunchtime “brown bag” sessions or one-on-one discussions are voluntary.
“Nothing I do is mandatory. People choose this work. They choose helping me with it. They choose it for the betterment of advancement at Mizzou,” he says. “And the reason I make it voluntary is: How else do you get buy-in?”
Training, conversations, and workshops are important—and central to the work that both Chang and Suarez do as equity consultants. But both caution against institutions stopping there, or rushing to communicate about these types of exercises as a stand-alone achievement.
“At the beginning of the work, people will start to do the external stuff, because it’s easier,” Suarez says. “‘Let me put all this stuff out into the world rather than turn the mirror on myself to examine the white supremacy and structural racism that is rampant in my organization.’ When you change your institution internally, the external work follows as a natural extension of the transformation of your internal work.”
Equity Within Advancement
Pribbenow, who rose to leadership through the advancement ranks, sees how advancement professionals can connect the equity work done inside and outside of an institution.
“Advancement can lean into this work,” he says. “I always talk about how advancement folks are on the boundaries between the internal community and the external community, and they have the chance to be that translator. If they do that well, those things match up.”
Abernathy is on that boundary. In the past year, she’s worked closely with the Panther Mentors, a group of Browning School alumni of color who are guiding faculty and staff in equity matters and mentoring current students of color. Some of these men felt initial hesitation about the Manhattan school’s motives, but quickly became more involved when Browning leaders displayed a commitment to transformation in terms of racial equity. The school also named two of the mentors to its board of trustees.
“You change the conversation by changing who’s around the table,” Abernathy says. “You hear, ‘We can’t find a Black teacher or a Black trustee.’ Well, where are you looking?”
Sinéad Collins, director of engagement and external relations at UWCSEA, is focused on communicating about the school’s inclusion and equity measures, which are outlined in detail as a five-year mission strategy on the Singapore school’s website. The efforts were enhanced this year by an equity-centered installment in UWCSEA’s speaker series, available to stakeholders from students to parents to alumni.
“With our alumni, it’s fair to say their perspective is a direct result of the educational experiences we gave them. Because we developed their social conscience, they hold us to a very high standard,” Collins says. “They help us think about who we were, who we are now, and who we should be.”
As an alumna of the Cardiff University School of Music, Yip is also looking to hold her alma mater to a high standard. New to advancement and a member of the CASE Graduate Trainee Program, she completed an inclusion, diversity, and equity report for the school in February 2021 and included recommendations for more equitable outreach to a greater variety of students.
Yip says that funding plays a key role when it comes to the U.K. government’s widening participation education policy. The Welsh government funds the school’s outreach to all communities within Wales, but not nearly as much for England—which is more diverse than Wales in terms of both race and socioeconomic circumstances. A donor-funded initiative could make a difference.
“If you can’t access ‘widening participation’ students in England, that means fewer people who are coming from lower-income backgrounds,” she says. “There are very deprived areas in England that we can’t access, so our applicant pool is isolated.”
While Chang celebrates those who are undertaking meaningful equity work, she underscores to education and advancement leaders that there are no piecemeal solutions when it comes racial equity.
“You don’t carve out DEI and put it in a corner. It has to be in all four pillars of advancement [fundraising, alumni relations, advancement services, and marketing and communications],” she says. “The challenges are how to laminate it across all areas and how to sustain it…no matter who is in charge.”
A Continuing Process
Chang thinks that—much like Floyd’s murder—the U.S. Capitol breach that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, was a wake-up call for many people in terms of how they view race. That event, along with many other recent moments that illustrate the disparity between how people of different races are treated in the world, was a reminder for some about how much work needs to be done on racial equity.
Robinson says UWCSEA is focused on transformational change, in which everyone connected to the school asks themselves hard questions and embarks on a guided discourse.
“Otherwise, you make some changes here or there, but it doesn’t really make a difference,” she says. “We’re aiming for transformational change, and you’re not going to get that unless you say the issues are pervasive. This requires a systemic response where we prioritize policies and practices that will push the school to be a more equitable and inclusive community. It also means we have to be brave enough to support people along the way, no matter where they are starting in the journey.”
PCC’s Abram thinks that anyone who has worked in development shouldn’t be daunted by equity work, given how campaigns begin—with a big need and a positive attitude to find a way.
“Then you start your work. You make it ongoing work,” she says. “Equity is not something you can put on your list and check off. It’s on the balance sheet of your work, not the income statement.”
Augsburg first made a commitment to diversity in 1989 and has been working with purpose on equity and inclusion matters for the past decade and a half. Although Pribbenow says that groundwork put the Minnesota university in a better position than other institutions during the past year, he recognizes how important it is for the work to continue.
“It’s evolved in the past decade into pretty sophisticated, pretty extensive, and pretty intensive efforts to take it seriously,” he says. “But if you would speak to some of our students, they would say we still haven’t done enough. And I would agree. There’s still more to be done.”
Mizzou’s Blackmon, like so many, has conflicted feelings about the present moment. In the past year, he’s seen unarmed Black citizens murdered by police officers, yet again, and watched Confederate flags brandished inside his country’s Capitol. Yet, he sees progress in the multiracial response to these events and in the reactions of his colleagues. He thinks a greater awareness of racial inequity is building.
“I hold out hope every day, because I know how good we can be,” Blackmon says. “And I like to believe that most people feel the exact same way. It’s a slow move, but we’re moving.”
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