Exploring Strong DEIA Foundations

diverse team, cropped

Two recent experiences have me thinking about the foundations of DEIA work within educational organizations. While this topic is being discussed across our profession, and that is an incredible thing, I want to be sure that DEIA is anchored in transparent and clear footings. While I cannot speak for all organizations, even from my privileged position as a white, cisgender, male library director, I have seen issues I want to discuss in every setting I have worked. To be clear, I am not necessarily speaking of intellectual foundations; for that I would point readers to any number of scholars. Instead, I want to discuss related structural issues through the perspective of two recent research projects.  

In a research study I was lucky enough to co-write, titled “Leader Responsibility for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice in Academic Libraries,” my coauthors and I examine the ambiguity of these concepts and how that might influence leaders’ perceived responsibility. We concluded that clarity is essential to building a shared experience. As Marta Tienda writes, “Diversity is a sufficiently neutral term to accommodate myriad dimensions—cultural, political, economic, and of course, racial. Perhaps it is too neutral. Increasingly, the term diversity is paired with the term inclusion as if both terms imply each other.” Something as simple as defining your terms influences your potential outcomes. Luckily, a controlled vocabulary appeals to many of us.  

Working as a policy fellow recently for the Colorado Department of Higher Education, several fellows and I began a scan of institutions of higher education (IHEs) to see what they have in common when it comes to DEIA. This scan included publicly available websites and documents, such as strategic plans. While we hoped to build a far-reaching set of conclusions and recommendations for best practices, we settled into a project that recommends getting some of the structural issues correct first. There are several recommendations to come in our report; however, one thing I can share is that part of our project is a simple checklist for IHEs to make sure their DEIA content is visible and findable. The checklist will ask questions such as: “Do you have a DEIA plan on your website?” “Is your DEIA plan integrated into your strategic plan?” “Do you have institutional definitions for diversity, equity, and inclusion on your website?” While we began with a broader vision, we found that many IHEs need to start with transparency, visibility, and foundational definitions.

A management post by Stephanie Creary makes it clear why visibility and clarity are essential to ground DEIA work and elevate those who do it. “The lack of consistency in codifying and treating DEI work as a merit-worthy endeavor for all employees—that is, worthy of investment, visibility, and other rewards—threatens its success,” she writes. As she further contends, “Claiming that DEI is important—while penalizing those who are more apt and willing to engage in it (i.e., women, women of color, racial minorities) is a racist and sexist practice.” If DEIA is part of the plan, it must be unmistakably clear that it is part of the plan, for instance through funding and rewarding those who do the work. This is achieved systemically by assuring that DEIA work is reified in strong foundations and policy.

For me, clarity is key. Clarity of goals, definitions, and standards. In our article, cited earlier, my coauthors and I write, “Clarity can only help reach the aforementioned ideals of libraries and higher education, and equity and justice should be the goal from our perspective. Whatever the goals are, they should be clear to everyone in the organization, and leaders have the best opportunity to define these ideals and take responsibility.” While you might work in an organization with clarity and shared vision, it is well worth revisiting those foundations. Without strong and transparent building blocks, transformative systemic change will not happen.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.

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