Building Our Inclusive Community – A Conversation on Equity and Belonging with Tia McNair

Continuing our work of inclusive excellence, on Wednesday, October 3, 2018, Valencia welcomed Dr. Tia McNair, vice president in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Tia engaged with us — at our newly named Leadership Forum meeting — on our journey to build an inclusive community and explore the meaning of equity and belonging at Valencia.

Beginning last year, Valencia leaders facilitated a number of Inclusive Community Campus Forums in an effort to find new ways to further our vision of fostering an engaged, diverse community of students, faculty and staff. Those forums centered around four key questions on what worked well for students, what we could do better to help them feel welcomed, what is working well for our colleagues and how can we help our colleagues to feel welcomed and included. Building on that work and feedback, reading circles on equity and belonging, as well as forums on student outcomes were recently hosted across the College.

To continue this work, Tia was invited to help us develop a framework for organizational change related to equity and belonging. Amy Bosley, vice president, organizational development and human resources, ushered in the conversation by asking these questions:

  • How are we going to think about the concepts and notions of equity and belonging?
  • How are we going to start to change the institution, change ourselves, change our college to become more equitable, where everyone feels a true sense of belonging?

“Today, we are going to spend some time thinking about what we believe,” Amy shared, after providing context for the presentation and discussion. She then introduced four agreements — guides for engaging in our equity and belonging discussion. A reference from “Beginning Conversations about Race” by Singleton and Hays, the four agreements are as follows:

  1. Stay engaged: Commitment to remain emotionally, intellectually and socially involved in the dialogue.
  2. Expect to experience discomfort: This norm acknowledges that discomfort is inevitable, especially in dialogue about race, and that participants make a commitment to bring issues into the open. It is through dialogue, even when uncomfortable, that healing and change begin.
  3. Speak your truth: Agreement to being open about thoughts and feelings and not just saying what you think others want to hear.
  4. Expect and accept a lack of closure: This agreement asks participants to expect and accept a lack of closure as there are no quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding, which requires ongoing dialogue.

Preparing participants to engage in conversations, and what to expect as we continue on with this work, Amy also shared that, “there are other conversations that will need to happen to facilitate our progress on this journey. Those include talking to and engaging students, as well as additional focus groups and conversations with employees to learn more about each other’s views and how we experience equity and belonging at Valencia.”

“This is our work,” she shared. “This will be our work forever. If you read our mission statement, this is our work.”

Following Amy’s introduction, Dr. McNair dived into her presentation — Intentionality by Design: Diversity, Equity and Belonging — by asking the audience to think about promising strategies to help educators (an inclusive term to describe anyone in the college community) design campus environments where inclusivity thrives through constant reflection, analysis and accountability, and to consider what it means to be an equity-minded practitioner. She also asked participants to consider how to embed students’ “cultural wealth” — understanding and valuing their individual identities inside and outside the classroom — into our educational designs to promote diversity and address inequities in student outcomes. “There is value in our students’ stories,” she expressed, that can help to guide us toward creating our ideal environment for equity and belonging.

Drawing from her work in higher education and specifically during her time at AAC&U working with programs on equity, inclusive excellence, high-impact practices and student success, Dr. McNair stressed that vocabulary is important. Using words such as “underserved students” rather than “at-risk” or “underrepresented” students is preferred as the latter two descriptors place the lens of focus on the students, whereas the first — underserved — puts the ball in our court to positively affect change by actively providing service to those students who need it most.

Knowing who our students are and will be is data that we can use to inform the changes and decisions we want to make to create an equitable environment where students feel at home and can thrive. She encouraged us to begin collecting data on our high-impact practices for underlying themes and to determine if they are equitable and fostering the participation of underserved groups. “High-impact practices,” she shared, “often have bias in their design to the detriment of those who we want to serve.”

Before breaking into small groups for further discussions, Dr. McNair addressed some next steps for us to consider in order to move to a culture of equity and belonging. Specifically, she encouraged Valencia to:

  • Define what equity is – individually, on campuses and collegewide. Having and developing an understanding and shared meaning of equity and what that means for us at Valencia is very important. For example, exploring the differences between equity and equality, and making sure we know the difference.
  • Have conversations about who is excluded. Determine who needs specific help and where. Include real-talk pedagogy in these conversations. Identify where barriers exist, and explore our aspirations versus our realities. These gaps need to be explored in order to create our vision of equity and sense of belonging. “Transparency is crucial in equity and belonging,” she espoused.
  • Translate our aspirations into practice.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to engage in this work,” Tia championed. “All work should be looked at through an equity lens.”

Before, ending her conversation, she left attendees with this quote by Angela Davis: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

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