by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Equity work is moving front and center at local colleges. Winona State University (WSU), Saint Mary’s University (SMU) and Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) now all have equity director positions, with WSU’s being in place for several years and SMU and MSC Southeast filling these roles this school year.
The directors aim to improve equity at their campuses and in the community. Some strategies for moving toward a more equitable community center on individual work, or individuals’ own efforts to better understand others. Equity departments work to create opportunities for community members to intentionally seek out, talk to and work with those who look different from them or have different perspectives, WSU Vice President of Equity and Inclusive Excellence Jonathan Locust said. “Until you actually know people and get to talk to people who are different, then you won’t have empathy for perspectives that are different from yours,” he said. Community members who are part of a majority population can intentionally go places where they are in the minority to build empathy, Locust continued. They can also make sure they attend events that highlight the accomplishments of those who have historically been marginalized.
WSU offers free online events featuring speakers who discuss diversity and equity that Locust encourages community members to attend, as well. Last semester, one speaker shared her experiences as a woman who is Muslim and lives with a disability.
Pao Vue, MSC Southeast’s first director of equity and inclusion, agreed that individual work is an important part of moving toward more equity. He is careful to avoid having one group always be responsible for educating another. “Really, we need to educate ourselves; we need to educate each other,” he said.
Other methods involve group work happening at the local colleges. The institutions are involved with a diversity institute coordinated by MSC Southeast this school year, including four workshops on topics from race in education to interfaith dialogue for the three campus communities.
Developing and following through on equity plans is another component of the colleges’ work. Vue is leading an effort to create a three-year equity and inclusion plan in support of the Minnesota State system’s goal of closing equity gaps in academic achievement by 2030. To date, the college’s equity and inclusion committee has drafted an equity and inclusion statement, and Vue aims for the whole plan to be drafted, in large part by that committee, by the end of spring semester. He also plans to include the campus community in the statement and plan completion through the committee and a town hall with some of the campus community.
At WSU, staff are monitoring progress with a plan developed in 2019, in addition to tracking course outcomes in support of the Minnesota State system’s plan to close equity gaps by 2030.
Leon Dixon, SMU’s inaugural vice president for inclusion and human dignity, is surveying students and staff about the university’s climate to start planning for the future. “What I want to do is make sure I’m doing something truly responsive to the needs of the students,” he said. “If it doesn’t bubble up from them, then it shouldn’t be on my list of things.” Dixon hopes to establish a group of students and staff to work with him to consider upcoming trends and how to respond to them.
In addition to planning, WSU staff are reviewing policies to improve how equitable the university’s rules are, developing a glossary for shared language with terms like diversity and inclusion, and taking part in the university’s development of a master plan by asking questions about what an inclusive campus feels like. Next semester, they will present workshops on financial topics, such as budgeting, investing, and paying back student loans efficiently, to address socioeconomic gaps.
SMU staff have undergone training sessions with Dixon. He also regularly meets with students and faculty and attends classes to speak with them. “If we really are going to be responsive to student needs, they need to be able to put a face with a position,” he said. “And they need to be able to be in proximity with this face that’s taking this position.”
The campus community at MSC Southeast celebrates holidays such as the Hmong New Year and Lunar New Year and marks months such as Native American Heritage Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Additionally, Vue is supporting the development of affinity groups, such as groups for students who are Black or members of the LGBTQ community.
Meanwhile, the directors hope to engage with the community. WSU plans to offer study groups to local companies about diversity and equity issues that it has used with faculty. MSC Southeast helped sponsor a symposium about equity recently and has collaborated with local organizations Project FINE and the Winona Advocacy Center to educate students about welcoming those who immigrate to the community and helping those facing domestic violence. Dixon has met with local school leaders and worked with Project FINE, and he wishes to be a community resource.
As the local colleges all have equity director positions, staff are able to collaborate on inspiring societal shifts and draw on one another’s strengths, Vue said. “If you’re having that conversation with yourself, you’re not going to really create real social change,” he said. “And so, we have to engage with each other. We have to be strategic with how we’re going to affect the broader community.”
The colleges having the roles speaks to the need for such positions, Dixon and Locust said. “Sometimes you need somebody with a skill set in these areas to help process, because … I don’t think anybody is intentionally wrong or intentionally bad on an issue,” Dixon said. “Sometimes it comes from lack of information, sometimes it comes from fear, and sometimes, it’s just poor communication.” These positions create space for conversations that might not have happened otherwise, he said, while moderating those discussions in a way that does not make people ashamed if a mistake is made with offensive speech or actions.
The positions represent an acknowledgment by colleges that there are equity gaps in education based on factors such as race and socioeconomic status, Locust said, as well as a level of financial commitment from institutions to address the issue.