Early in my professionalization to EDI work, I would often speak up during event Q&As to ask the experts my most pressing and challenging question: how do we engage the folks who aren’t present today? At the time every EDI space I entered at the university was full of the same familiar faces. The folks who always said yes to the work, the folks whose formal roles centered inclusion, equity and broadening participation for underrepresented groups. While I appreciated the camaraderie, I also really wanted to be connecting with other stakeholders, particularly those with positional power and influence.
The answers I received a decade ago were equivocal. Some shared in my discontent that we were so often preaching to the choir. Others gave me unrealistic advice to connect with higher level administrators who could take up the cause. Such advice failed to recognize that my staff role in the women in STEM center hardly afforded me connection points with deans, the chancellor or vice presidents. I could barely connect with faculty and chairs in the STEM fields that my role was designed to support. And as a young, racially ambiguous, ciswoman, the dismissiveness was real.
My impatience and annoyance with the lack of guidance on how to think about engaging a broader constituency led me down a path many of us know well. I had to figure out my own approach. An approach that I am still refining, but one that I hope can guide others who want to broaden the impact of their work.
I used my sociological training to help me to create a simple three-part typology of university stakeholders.
Allies/Advocates (also known as “my people”): This is the choir. The people who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk of promoting equity, access, and inclusion. They respond to your emails. They are committed to lifelong EDI learning. They share information and opportunities. You become mutual mentors in identifying solutions to reduce barriers. And let’s face it, they’re usually marginalized within the academy. These folks are my go-to for advice and I am careful not to overburden them with requests because I know their service commitments are great (and that they don’t often say no).
Clueless, but well-intentioned (also known as “most administrators, faculty and staff”): This group is the largest by far. These are folks who are willing to act, but need guidance. They’re not necessarily committed to learning on their own, but they are open (and sometime eager) to being guided and encouraged towards action. They might say the following:
“Oh when I introduce myself I should just get into the habit of sharing my pronouns? Got it.”
“If someone could just give me a list of professional associations where I could post this job announcement to broaden the applicant pool, I would.” Email them the list. “Thanks, I’m on it.”
“I didn’t realize that saying hi to my colleagues in passing played an important role in fostering an inclusive climate.”
“I really didn’t think I would gain anything from this training, but I learned a lot of useful strategies.”
I do my best to keep in mind that we are all in different places in our EDI journey, and their willingness to do the work provides me the motivation to guide them. While I’d love for all stakeholders to make EDI a priority, I know this is not realistic. Cultivating trusting relationships with this group is a priority, so I am attentive to the ways I might antagonize and instead express appreciation for their budding commitment. I am drawing them in, unlike my desire to strikeout the final group.
You’re not worth my time (also known as “please retire or move on”): These are the naysayers. In my experience, they are often older, white, cismen, but not always. They always have power and privilege. These are the folks who derail the conversation or the work because they aggressively remind their colleagues that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. They’re the ones that are silent and often apathetic when EDI topics emerge. And perhaps most insidiously, they’re the ones whose performative statements create more harm than good because they grow mistrust among colleagues and students who quickly become tired of the contradictions in what is said and how one acts.
I actively avoid engaging this group. I will engage them if they engage first, but mainly to minimize their negative influence. I simply don’t have time and don’t want to invest my energy in stubborn entrenchment in the status quo. If you can’t see that systems need to be fixed, then there’s nothing I can do to find common ground with you. Even though I have cultivated dialogue skills and grown my capacity for empathy, I refuse to share these gifts with people who do not want them. I have given myself permission to remain steadfast in my commitments to equity and inclusion, which means that those who actively seek to undermine these commitments cannot distract me. I vent my frustration to my spouse, therapist or trusted confidant, and then I move on.
Putting this barrier up allows me to instead prioritize working with the middle group, the ones who are willing to put in the effort, so long as the effort is fed to them in easy to digest pieces. I save the nuanced, holistic effort and conversations for my people. I also focus my energy in expressing generous gratitude to those who work alongside in the battle to reform our antiquated (read: racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist and the list goes on) structures to rapidly transform the university to the shared vision of inclusive excellence. And if I’m lucky I can guide the transition from being well-intentioned to allyship, and grow the collective effort needed to create sustained change.
Dr. Crystal Bedley is the Director for Faculty Diversity Education and Outreach for University Equity and Inclusion and the Division of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at Rutgers University.