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Natural Allies: How Diversity Leaders and Community Engagement Leaders Build Democracy Together

Across the country, state legislators have been debating—and in several cases passing—legislation that censors teaching and learning, threatens academic freedom, and limits or eliminates diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and efforts both on and off campuses. Missing in the narrative and discussion are the stories we see on our campuses and in our communities, in action every day. Stories about diversity professionals doing vital work to support the strategic mission of colleges and universities and create a better future for us all.Paulette Granberry RussellPaulette Granberry Russell

As proponents of the “public purposes of higher education,” we focus on ways campuses can and must use their power, knowledge, and resources to create mutually beneficial partnerships that fuel our dynamic economy, foster thriving communities, and strengthen our diverse democracy. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education leads the national and international conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, working to ensure inclusive excellence thrives at the core of colleges and universities. Campus Compact supports higher education institutions to build the knowledge, skills, and capacity needed to be community and civically engaged. Each grounded in a social justice mission, we collectively seek to build communities that work for everyone—fighting to alleviate poverty, providing relief for food and housing insecurity, creating solutions to address public health concerns, and ensuring a high-quality education is accessible and possible for all.

Community engagement requires a holistic and campus-wide approach. Students, senior leaders, community partners, community-engaged scholars and staff, and diversity professionals are all important members of the team. Diversity leaders advance mission-driven efforts through highly specialized knowledge, expertise, and skills necessary for higher education to achieve the educational benefits of diverse learning and working environments. They understand the impact of systems on underrepresented groups and ensure diverse viewpoints are encouraged, acknowledged, and respected. As a result, our institutions prepare all students for participation in a diverse society through inclusive and culturally relevant curriculum; provide students with opportunities for engagement and dialogue which is foundational to a healthy democracy; support academic freedom for faculty; and address the economic, social, and policy issues of the community in which the institution is located, and foster community engaged learning and partnerships that benefit these communities and beyond. Because of these experiences, our students build active listening, bridge building, communication, critical thinking, and empathy – essential skills for building thriving workplaces, communities, and families.

Bobbie LaurBobbie LaurAs partners in student success, community engagement leaders and diversity leaders collaborate with colleagues across the campus to create K-12 partnerships that center college access and success–often in communities and neighborhoods historically underrepresented in higher education. As Richard Guarasci’s book, Neighborhood Democracy, describes, place-based university-community partnerships require a long-game approach and the deep investment of faculty, diversity professionals, community engagement leaders, and student success professionals to create mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships with K-12 schools and the communities they serve. Further, evidence shows that community-based engagement correlates with student learning gains. These transformational educational experiences, and their associated outcomes, should be available to every student from every background. Diversity officers and community engagement professionals work together to ensure this access is within reach. We see examples across the country of campuses creating new collaborative structures that bring together these essential professionals. A few months ago, Campus Compact organized a webinar highlighting how several campuses seek to structurally and operationally align diversity, equity, and inclusion functions with community and civic engagement. The challenges in our communities are vast and urgently need addressing—growing wealth gaps, gun violence, food insecurity, climate change, mental health crises, and the list goes on and higher education must act. We must unite across our campuses and communities to forge a path toward a just and equitable future. This can only be accomplished when we ensure all voices are heard, difficult conversations are encouraged and supported, and we prioritize creating inclusive and welcoming communities on campuses and beyond. In this time of divisiveness and loss of social cohesion, collaborations between diversity leaders and those invested in community engagement are more important than ever. Leaders and practitioners of this work should seek out and prioritize these partnerships. The stakes are too high for our students and democracy to do otherwise.

Paulette Granberry Russell is president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

Bobbie Laur is the president of Campus Compact.


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