In my elementary school there was one Black teacher, Ms. Terri Moore. I never had her as my teacher, but I knew she existed. She also knew me. We often smiled at each other in the hallway. In 5th grade, Ms. Moore asked me to recite a speech for Black History Month. I stood in front of the entire school, my peers, teachers, and administrators, a sea of majority whiteness, and in February, a month dedicated to people who looked like me, and asked by the only Black teacher at the school, I celebrated my history. I don’t remember what I said. But I remember how I felt. I was full. I was proud, elated, and certain that I mattered.
My high school, similar to my grade school, was predominantly white. I could count the number of Black teachers and staff on one hand and have several fingers left over. Dr. Charlotte Ijei, a Black woman who always rocked a blazer, was my high school’s college counselor. For years we smiled at one another but never had direct contact until my junior year of high school. Dr. Ijei asked about my plans for college. Socrates said it best, we don’t know what we don’t know. My parents did not go to college. People in my neighborhood did not talk about college. I did not know the first thing about visiting a college or applying to college. I never thought college was an option. Dr. Ijei stepped in.
My world became more expansive because Dr. Ijei introduced me to the idea of attending college. Dr. Ijei, like Ms. Moore, saw me. She coordinated and paid the fees so I could attend my first college tour. I traveled to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. This was the farthest I had ever traveled from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. At Bradley, I walked across a college campus for the first time. The buildings were regal. The grass was manicured. People sat outside on blankets, chatting or reading books. This was another world. I sat in on my first college lecture, I sang karaoke with college students, and I spent the night sleeping on the floor of my host student’s college dorm. That experience changed my life. College was real and for the first time, college seemed attainable. Dr. Ijei, and Ms. Moore changed my life. That is not hyperbole, I wrote this text with several college degrees, including a doctorate, in my faculty office.
Ms. Moore and Dr. Ijei supported every student. However, they saw my identities, a Black kid from a lower-class family, and they saw a potential first-generation college student. They saw all of me (i.e., diversity). Ms. Moore and Dr. Ijei ensured that resources and opportunities were available based on my circumstances (i.e., equity). Lastly, these amazing individuals gave me a voice in the processes and activities that my peers were privy to and aware of (i.e., inclusion). Before DEI was a thing, Ms. Moore and Dr. Ijei were practicing its application.
The work of both Ms. Moore and Dr. Ijei was invaluable. I have only attended predominantly white schools. In each school my white peers saw themselves reflected in the curriculum, their history was presented every day within the classroom and in the library, administrative offices, and even in the halls of the school. Their parents paved the way for their college aspirations. I’m not jealous nor do I want to take away their opportunities. I want each and every person to have the same benefits.
Thankfully, I had Ms. Moore and Dr. Ijei.
Because of DEI, before it was a thing, I had access to resources and networks as my peers. I learned of my history, was positioned to excel in school, navigated the college process, and along the way, I collected a few college degrees. By all measures, I did what my right-leaning associates wanted, and pulled myself up by the “bootstraps” they’re so fond of referencing. DEI leveled the playing field, so people in my situation could succeed.
Yet, as others, here and here, have highlighted, competition, equity, and fairness has created a level of uncertainty and panic among some groups. But, why?
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is not the boogeyman. The ideas and values of some groups are not superior to other groups. Social hierarchy is problematic as it upholds division and conflict. DEI counters such assumptions and within spaces, such as education and the workplace, allows all of us to be positioned for success. DEI is going to have enduring value as society becomes increasingly diverse. The question remains, will it always fall on a handful of good-natured people to do this valuable work, or will formalizing DEI efforts and advancing the practice of DEI with intentionality help create the world that we all envision?
Dr. David Stamps is an assistant professor at Bentley University.