The Racial Equity Summit, an international gathering of scholar-practitioners and policymakers was hosted in the Netherlands in January 2020 in efforts to tackle the challenge of identifying important considerations for establishing a global strategy to advance racial equity in higher education. The first Racial Equity Summit was a collaboration between ECHO (Center for Diversity Policy in the Netherlands), Interdisciplinary Research Institute for InEquality (IRISE) at the University of Denver, VRIE University, Hague University of Applied Sciences, and The Ohio State University. The Summit was convened by Dr. Frank Tuitt, professor of higher education at the University of Denver, and Mary Tupan-Wenno, executive director of ECHO.
We were a part of a small contingent of U.S.-based scholars, including faculty, graduate students, and practitioners, who partnered with colleagues from institutions and agencies in the Netherlands. As participants, we had the opportunity to learn from our colleagues in the Netherlands about efforts they have engaged in toward increasing access and equity at the local level. In addition, we shared practices and discussed policies and related issues from a U.S.-based context through presentations on diversity and inclusion research and practices that promote access and equity for racial and ethnic minoritized communities in education.
The Summit spanned four days and included partnerships with local universities and organizations. Collectively, we engaged in the following: spending time with and learning from colleagues about the Dutch educational context through educational panels and viewing documentaries, sharing meals and reflections, and taking tours and visits to various sites throughout Amsterdam and The Hague to provide insight on local history and experiences, and brainstorming ways to continue our efforts after the Summit.
In the following sections, we reflect on several of the panels that we participated in and share knowledge and insights from our conversations. Through sharing our reflections, lingering questions, and creativity, we call on education stakeholders and readers to consider ways to improve our institutions toward racial equity. Collectively, we consider ways that racial equity can reshape our relationships to higher education, research and praxis, as well as to each other, our students, and our communities. We offer our reflections and considerations for educators and administrators working to enhance racial equity and inclusion efforts and outcomes in higher education.
Enhancing Institutional Commitments to Racial Equity and Inclusion
Our panel discussion focused on translating diversity, equity and inclusion praxis to transform policy and practice in education. As part of our discussion, we outlined the need for institutions across the world to create more equitable structures for the success of those who are disproportionately impacted by power and oppression, specifically racism. Since the overarching theme of our summit was about advancing racial equity in education, our conversations centered on the development of global strategies that would position us to do this effectively. As a result, we discussed the importance of acknowledging racism and the power structures that collectively influence the demise of racially minoritized populations, and actively seeking to disrupt and shift the responsibility from these groups to institutions of higher education.
Although disrupting racism is everybody’s business, we specifically called for a shift in the placement of responsibility because it is important for institutions and their stakeholders to take a more active role in creating more equitable and inclusive campus environments. To that point, there was a call to action for institutions of higher education to recognize that placing the responsibility on one department or a chief diversity officer is not only passive but also is dismissive and reflects irresponsible leadership. In order for global racism in higher education to be overhauled, there must be an institutional commitment to employing systemic interventions that challenge, dismantle and transform oppressive systems into equitable and inclusive ones.
Another main discussion point was about the role we play as researchers and practitioners in developing discourse and practices that seek to advance principles of equity and inclusion. Collectively, we agreed that our research, policies and practices need to be focused on asset-based solutions that are tangible, can be easily implemented, and will enact meaningful change. Furthermore, utilizing more qualitative data in our work as researchers emerged as a tool which could be used to provide depth and meaning to quantitative approaches; as quantitative work is itself a useful tool, but does not always tell the whole truth or honor the multiplicity of truth-telling. Qualitative research can complement quantitative work by adding a humanizing component beyond numbers. Thus, by striving to eliminate biases in our methods and procedures, we help to stop perpetuating racist principles and practices. In addition to leveraging qualitative methods, we discussed the importance of calling out racism for what it is, and not “beating around the bush” in recognizing racist ideologies as horrific, inhumane, and harmful.
We acknowledge that doing “race” work is hard and taxing, and oftentimes feels as if our goals of change are lofty; but, we encourage individuals working in systems of higher education to reflect meaningfully on their own positionality, and consider how positions impact our actions and/or inactions and ultimately contribute to the shaping of discourse. Naming racism and recognizing how it continuously permeates institutions of education is important in the disruption process; it holds institutions of education accountable as we seek to decolonize educational systems.
Our conversations also addressed the need for institutions to bridge the gap between communities and academia by placing an emphasis on co-creating, and (re)defining knowledge production and distribution. Institutions must commit to bridging this gap in a meaningful way that does not exploit communities (by way of tokenism, essentialism, and financial gain). In many instances, institutions of higher education ignore the differing needs of various populations and simply group individuals together for the sake of simplicity. This approach, geared towards appeasing demands or placating the needs of these communities, is not about equity but is more aligned with an institution’s desire to “save face” and use a band aid approach to address complex problems.
In order to enact meaningful change, we must all acknowledge the failures of the past and be willing to move toward racially just institutional environments so that students, faculty, staff can engage in ways they never have, and be pushed to consider the perspectives and experiences of those with whom they may or may not identify. Conversations about how we create structures that allow for opportunities to be authentic and honest are important as institutions often create a culture that prevents its constituents from being their true selves or even working towards a greater level of vulnerability.
Resistance: Our Legacy and Medicine for Educational Liberation
We felt honored to participate in the panel: “Decolonizing Diversity & Inclusion Research and Praxis: What we can learn from Contemporary Social Movements around the World.” Prior to this panel, Pravini Baboeram-Mahes showed her film, “The Uprising,” which focused on historicizing colonialism and situating today’s social movement against racism in The Netherlands within this history. Following the film, we had a discussion about its content, particularly the challenges inherent in creating social movements that cut across multiple geographic contexts. We, along with other panelists, discussed ideas about the conditions and frameworks needed to make a global movement for racial equity a possibility. We were all moved by the film because the history of colonialism and the pain of racism binds us. The film pointed to 5 aspects of colonization: economic, political, social, cultural, and geographical and explained each with examples from colonization in South America (particularly Suriname) and Asia with a focus on Indonesia (particularly the village of Rawagede, and Java). In doing so, the film made evident that hegemonic ideological consent of White supremacy and anti-Blackness anchored the process of colonization. The film also presented 5 lies of colonialism in order to show the colonization included narratives to distort people’s minds and thinking in ways that continue to uphold colonization and white supremacy.
Under these conditions, however, the film, and we as panelists, acknowledged that the legacy and spirit of resistance connects us as well because for every oppressive act the people most impacted rise with revolutionary love in order to resist dehumanization. The film presents Emperor Cuauhtémoc’s (the Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlan) last speech where he said that the sun has gone down and left complete darkness but that it will rise again to provide new light. And, the work ahead for the Aztec people was to continue to teach their children about the goodness of their legacy, including the seeds planted in them by ancestors, so they can one day rise up with strength and make their great destiny come to life. Inclusion of this ancestral wisdom points to concepts and ideas in our legacies that we can draw on today in expressions of resistance.
Initially, we were thinking about social movements as something happening in our society and the communities in which we live (or lived). Yet, as we reflected further on the film, we realized that as first-generation scholars committed to social justice, we are part of a global resistance within and outside of the academy contributing to social movements through our scholarship and praxis. As we shift toward a global “we,” we see ourselves building upon the foundational and transformative work of critical scholars across the world who came before us and opened the path of resistance as well as those with whom we now walk beside in this very effort. One day, we will be the ancestors of those coming behind us. It’s a legacy that we are joining, making, and leaving for the next generation. This latter point became especially clear to us in the student panel that followed. Student leaders from a few of the universities in the area joined us and spoke words of wisdom including messaging how their equity work is inspired by the critical work of scholars in the field (including us, which was a generous and loving statement). As the film aptly points out, colonization through racial violence has been happening for hundreds of years, and it will take hundreds of years to remake our human civilization, including the academy. Given the artistic nature of the film and the thoughts and emotions that ensued, we offer the following as a way to capture our reflections and continue the conversation.
“Movidas for Freedom”
“we’re here because you were there.”
A colonial project still in progress everywhere.
Taken lands, murdered people, but no apology.
Just some reparation to the kingdom for being a colony.
Shifting some of us from colony to “territory.”
Call it what you call it, we’re still not free.
Now we use movidas to shift within the academy.
“we’re here because you were there.”
But, I can’t breathe in this atmosphere.
Movidas we make just to survive.
Movidas we make to try to thrive.
My family’s movidas, sharp as can be.
The youth’s movidas, the seeds we need.
We make movidas within these walls,
But, the toxicity negatively affects us all.
Relationships with each other, lift us up.
It gives us medicine, when times get tuff.
We lift, we lift, ourselves and others,
Movidas that honor our ancestral grandmothers.
We draw on the spirits inside our stories,
To make movidas that restore our human glories.
Movidas, movidas, to rehumanize.
We are the resistance,
You can see it in our eyes.
Urgency and Co-Option of Diversity
As scholar practitioners the link between theory and practice is not hard to define. However, what happens when the language from which to define equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), antiracist and inclusive environments no longer exists in a familiar U.S. context? In our panel, which was a conversation with researchers and policy makers on racism in higher education, we grappled with how to frame our own contributions to the process and discussion while providing examples for scholar practitioners striving to create equitable environments. Two themes emerged in this conversation: an urgent call for antiracist and inclusive environments and the need to (re)position the ways diversity is taken up in higher education.
Reflecting on our participation in this panel has been a longer process than expected. Partly, this process has taken time because the struggle towards equity for minoritized groups in higher education feels as passionate and honorable as it does exhausting and promising—and, at the same time, it also feels even worlds away. Urgency, as a call to action, was offered throughout our session with a focus squarely on shifting institutional cultures. Urgency is one of those calls that pushes a moral imperative forward. It is the kind of call that with insistence and persistence says we are tired of the institution’s use of flowery words to describe the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion while hedging strategies for action. An individual using a call for urgency is asking: when is enough, enough? When are the accomplices arriving, leaving the allies to their passiveness? What happens after the EDI-related training? When am I done justifying my value to the institution? How can you say it is not political? And, importantly, the urgency for racial equity is a call that brings us all together and is intended to make our institutions better for us all. To say that the demand for antiracist and inclusive environments is urgent in the U.S. is to say that for the Netherlands, decolonizing and owning their history is as urgent.
We also discussed how diversity has been co-opted in ways that will fail to dismantle inequities, change institution’s culture, and eliminate structural barriers. This issue also appears to be universal. Diversity now adorns institutional statements regarding their missions, visions, and values in the U.S. as well as colleges and universities in other countries. As we look at articles in this very medium, reminders exist that “lip service”, “checking boxes”, representational counting, and dilution of groups or meaning are quite prevalent examples. That as scholar-practitioners doing this work, we might not only be co-opted into the very same thing we are trying to fight against, but that maybe our institutions are making us complicit of the status quo. Is this a conspiracy? After all, underrepresented faculty and staff share the burdens of diversity work; by us, for us, and against us. The diversity narrative has been watered down in such ways that there is not even discourse, now just part of a dominant-majority narrative without the mention of justice. I don’t pretend to know how to stop the co-opting, and to consider a different passion is really not an option. At the same time, I am proud for all colleagues who fight for equity and inclusion, who stand with us, and who help us move this work forward. As my friend and colleague Derrick Brooms said, “At the heart of everything we have people. Higher education needs to be about the people and if it is not about that…then it is not about education.”
Based on our experiences, conversations, work, and reflections, we offer the following as charges that can help propel us forward in this work.
Awaken Our Collective Consciousness and Engage in Transformative Movidas
The academy prioritizes, rewards, and socializes toward individualist work. That is not OUR legacy. Our legacy is collective, it is with people and toward community uplift. So, we need to get our source of energy and identity from this legacy. Part of our work is to push back and say, “no, that is not how we do this work.” We need senior scholars who reach back and uplift, we need peer colleagues to lift each other and collaborate, we need the youth coming behind us to keep pushing us toward greater and better. Building relationships and doing this work collectively is one way we can transform higher education for ourselves and for those to come.
We also need to make movidas—take action to improve conditions in our communities and in the academy to achieve equity. Our communities and familias are about movidas—taking actions daily as a form of survival. As scholars we need to see our familias and communities as examples of power, resilience, innovation, and love. And, we need to take those seeds of action, creativity, and resistance into the academy to engage in change with the same type of intention and urgency. Let’s bring that spirit of the possible into the academy and push boundaries on what counts as legitimate knowledge and how it gets produced and shared. Let’s make movidas that take our scholarship in limited access journals to open access outlets, to community magazines, public school board rooms, films, poems, and creative art. For senior faculty with power to open or close the doors, we encourage you to support these movidas: expand what is possible in the academy.
Deep down, we need to know for ourselves that collective movement and action is our legacy, our medicine. It is how we thrive. Let’s push back against silo approaches to our work. Building and working within communities or collectively really puts a check on the ego. If our scholarship is not improving our communities then we need to ask ourselves, “Who am I doing this work for? For what am I doing this work?” Asking ourselves these critical reflection questions can keep folks grounded and centered in their role in doing transformative work.
The journey toward decolonization within the academy is rooted in our power to “change our relationship to…” how we engage in our work within academia, how we conduct research, how we engage with our students, how we connect with the land, and how we partner with communities. And, we humbly share these thoughts knowing that we, including ourselves, are all on this journey. We have to have grace with ourselves and each other. Some days we do better than other days. Some days we work to dismantle inequities in education and on other days we fail to do so. None of us are perfect and given the socialization in the academy we are likely needing to shed some of the imposed ideologies while we excavate for the seeds within us from our ancestors. This is a process of undoing and redoing toward greater good. These are the movidas needed in the academy—ones we are working to more fully embody and enact.
Reimaging a New Academy
Moving closer toward racial equity and inclusion requires transforming systems and institutions into more equitable and inclusive entities. Such moves need an approach that incorporates multiple levels and types of contributions, investments, support, and leadership. In these efforts, we must move beyond talking and take action. Specifically, establishing and sustaining equity and inclusion requires that we challenge practices and policies that are rooted in dominant ideology and discourse in order to make space for multiple truths to be recognized and celebrated. Too often, institutions are rife with hostility, dissonance, and apathy. We must move closer to exercising love and compassion; additionally, we must allow and create space for hope and healing, especially for those of us who have had to operate in marginalized contexts and navigate institutions that were built without us in mind. The approaches we outline here, and in a broader spectrum of our work, pushes us toward rethinking and retooling the ways our higher education institutions operate. “Business as usual” and maintaining the status quo must be challenged, disrupted, and deconstructed so that our institutions are restructured to empower people and communities.
We are writing from a collective standpoint with desires to call in a larger collective in these efforts. What we know from personal and professional experiences as well as from recent and ongoing events across multiple campuses, including our own, is that these efforts require leaders and those in power to improve institutions for racial equity. We do not need to wait on another list of demands from students (our students have offered us so much already and we cannot continue to burden them with being educators); we cannot continue to exert privilege in power waiting on and hoping that issues blow over; and, as opposed to more rounds of listening sessions, we need to put resources in place and work in now to create racially equitable environments so that we can thrive.
As we engage in furthering our efforts regarding the advancement towards global equity and racial justice in education, the following questions could be used to ground our work and help us move forward: (a) How do we translate theoretical knowledge to concrete and practical competencies? (b) How do we prepare faculty members and administrators to engage productively in equity and inclusion work? (c) How do we find balance between urgency and the (re)development of quality and effective equity-related initiatives and practices? (d) How do we prioritize buy-in from higher education stakeholders in an effort to shift oppressive institutional cultures? And, lastly, (e) How do we begin to have dialogues and bust movidas to re-imagine the university as a space that is rooted in a decolonizing perspective?
Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya is an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on Twitter @DrMontoya2.
Johnny Ramirez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) at the University of Denver. You can follow him on Twitter @ProfeJohnnyR.
Dr. Raquel Wright-Mair is an assistant professor of educational services and leadership at Rowan University. You can follow her on Twitter @DrRaquelWrightM.
Dr. Sylk Sotto is vice chair for faculty Affairs, development, and diversity and assistant professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @drssotto.
Dr. Lucy A. LePeau is associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University and associate director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE). You can follow her on Twitter @llepeau.
Dr. Derrick R. Brooms is faculty in sociology and Africana studies at the University of Cincinnati. You can follow him on Twitter @drbrooms7.