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Commitment is a personal challenge

What is commitment? How do I recognize it in myself and n others? To what am I committed? At what level am committed?

Commitment is a very personal issue. No one can demand or command
it; it must be offered freely. My experiences have convinced me that we
all have some level of commitment to something. For example, most of us
are committed to doing what’s necessary to earn a living. Being
committed to issues and activities in which we have a vested interest
is easy. The challenge, however, is to be committed to issues and
causes for which there is no vested personal interest – issues and
causes from which we expect no personal gain. It is into the latter
category that our commitment to diversity is likely to fall.

Within the last fifteen years, it has been trendy and politically
correct to express a commitment to diversity. Expertly crafted policy
statements, student creeds, and institutional mission statements
reflect this trend. Too often, however, a lack of action to support
these statements has reduced those words to nothing more than, to use a
Biblical reference, “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” Commitment
can be measured only in terms of action, not words. Such actions
include the following:

Respect the past. Those of us who have been given access to the
hallowed halls of academia as instructors in predominantly White
institutions must not forget that someone probably paid dearly for the
space that is now being occupied by a person of color. No matter how
impressive our credentials might have been, they were rarely our
passport to academia. It has been almost thirty years since the Civil
Rights Act of 1967, and African Americans still make up less than 2
percent of those faculties.

Yes, the door has been opened wide enough for a few of us to squeeze
through. Our responsibility now is to open that door wider so that
others can follow.

Get the facts. For many African Americans, diversity is an emotional
issue that cuts deep into our souls and psyches. To replace
emotionalism with rational thought, make sure you have facts to support
your position.

If you say that your institution has no commitment to diversity,
provide the statistics. What percent of the faculty and students at
your institution are African American? Have the percentages increased
or decreased over the last five years? What percent of African American
faculty are tenured or in tenure-track positions? What percent of
graduate degrees from your institution were awarded to African
Americans over the past five years? In what disciplines were the
degrees awarded? What is your institution’s retention rate for African
American students and for African American student-athletes? Are
African Americans represented disproportionately among the custodial
and service workers? What about their representation among the
supervisors of the service workers?

The more you can paint the picture ‘with numbers, the more likely you can present an argument based on fact rather than emotion.

Form coalitions. It is indeed a rare institution that has only one
person or a single group who has a commitment to diversity. You should
therefore seek out other persons and groups that share your commitment,
recognizing that many of those persons may be White and many of the
groups may not serve, or focus primarily on, African American issues.

While you might want to build your power base within your
institution initially, you should be prepared to go beyond the walls of
academia for support as well. Community leaders and civic and community
organizations – such as the Urban League, the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People, and the Chamber of Commerce – can
sometimes be far more successful in effecting change inside your
institution than you might suspect.

Do what you can do. Unless you are a top-level administrator at your
institution, you cannot assume responsibility for your institution’s
commitment to diversity. In truth, you can only influence your
institution’s commitment.

Examples of actions that can be taken without approval include:
establishing meaningful relationships with students whether or not you
are their advisor; showing respect for, and appreciation to, service
workers on your campus; including issues of diversity in course
content; and questioning policies that negatively affect African
Americans. While such actions may not affect your institution, they can
make a world of difference to the individuals involved.

Keep the faith. The key to Changing any institution is changing the
people within it – usually one person at a time. Unless you decide that
a revolution is appropriate strategy – and sometimes it may be – you
may be unable to take the most direct route to achieving your goal.
While you should never lose sight of your goal, neither should you be
discouraged by detours. Psychologically, you must be prepared for a
long battle with intermittent wins.

As attacks on affirmative action and diversity escalate, the
challenge for each of us is to ask and answer the questions posed at
the beginning of this piece. Those of us who have. benefitted from the
unselfishness of others must now become the benefactors. Failure to do
so will have serious implications for African Americans in particular,
and for our society in general.

DR. ARETHA B. PIGFORD Professor of Educational Administration,
University of South Carolina-Columbia Project Director, Kellogg
Planning Grant (for developing of African American students into
college professors)

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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