Before the social uprisings of this summer centering the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. I recall facilitating new student orientation in 2013 with 200 boarding school students when the verdict was read regarding the person responsible for killing Trayvon Martin. I recall my students at Bowdoin College protesting the killing of Eric Garner in 2014. I also remember how my students and their peers at the Claremont Colleges staged a mass walkout and protested over racial inequalities in 2015.
In these moments, I was asked to contribute to the institutional responses that the organization would make and help make meaning of these times. While assisting the institution to speak broadly, members of our Black and other marginalized communities were both organizing and seeking support in these times of trauma. This level of care is indeed an aspect of equity work.
Diversity practitioners hold space institutionally and personally for each constituency of the academic operation ranging from faculty, staff, parents, caregivers, alumni, students, and donors.
Many institutions will take the step of introducing new diversity practitioners to their communities this fall. Some of these professionals follow a path of diversity practitioners who paved the way and laid a firm foundation. Others will be the inaugural or the reboot. Despite the journey to the seat, there is one critical tie that must be in place for a successful tenure for the school community and the practitioner.
The diversity practitioner is a trust builder. Individuals will come to the diversity practitioner with stories of joy and success, demonstrating their satisfaction in the work the school has done. There will also likely be stories of profound harm and hurt caused by some institutional factors. Either way, as an institution’s officer, the diversity practitioner holds these narratives and governs as best they can to meet the needs of the people.
Some institutions may not have gone through the process of acknowledging pain and harm that has impacted their communities. In some cases, the diversity practitioner will be the first person within the leadership structure to inquire about these instances. This is where the relationship between the leader at the top of the organizational chart and the diversity practitioner is vital.
The #1 factor in starting the journey as a diversity practitioner is a trusting relationship between the practitioner and the school head. Be it the president, head of school, or chief executive officer. This pairing must be significant, and time must be spent in building this relationship.
If you've recently taken on the role of school leader or diversity practitioner, spend the time doing the deep work of learning each other's equity lens. Start where you are and build.
Christopher S. Dennis, the founder of The Campus Culture Group, is an educator and consultant centering social justice and equity through authentic change management, leadership, policy, and governance in K-12 and post-secondary education.