This past week I went back to Oakland to see some friends and get in some of the sights and sounds I dearly missed. In retrospect, I miss the northbound 880 freeway getting jammed past 66th Avenue, the crazy Walmart on Hegenberger Road, Fenton’s Creamery and Zachary’s Pizza, and sitting in the bleachers at the Coliseum hoping my beloved A’s would decide to finally make the playoffs. As I was talking with old friends who taught in the Oakland school district or did social work with the school district, they asked about how I was transitioning back to higher education. More specifically, how was I dealing with not being in a diverse area like Oakland?
I told them I had two main struggles. First, I missed some of the action I had with my work there. You’ll never know the impacts 6 and 7 year olds will have on you until you leave. Second, I missed being in an urban area where all my creature comforts were available. My barber was 10 minutes away, my favorite kimchi restaurant was in Berkeley, and the midday lunch music mix on 106 KMEL was always slappin’. As I kept thinking, what I really missed was the diversity of the region. You could interact with different people from various backgrounds and learn a lot from their lives.
But, here’s the thing as we talked about working in Oakland…we wanted to be MORE diverse. We strived to make our schools and neighborhoods open and welcoming, and we thought of unique and unorthodox ways to do that. Got a school that has an influx of Muslim families? Offer space to hold an iftar during Ramadan and work with the students and families to make sure your event is following religious guidelines. Seeing that many of your families are immigrating from Cambodia? Invite family members to volunteer at the school and serve as guides to newer folks to help with paperwork, getting school supplies, and finding transportation to and from school. We wanted to provide that environment, even if it meant we had to feel uncomfort and had to work a little harder to get there.
But, as I told my friends, in higher education the topic of diversity could be considered politcally sensitive. Make no mistake, we want a diverse campus, with students, staff, and faculty from all over the globe, and everyone having dialogue about different things. But, depending on your campus and the politics that surround it, you might either devote precious resources to recruiting and retaining a diverse student body or tread very carefully, lest a state legistlator or irritated tuition-paying parent decides to create a fuss. It’s all relative to the campus you work at. We all want it, it sounds fantastic, and it makes our misson statements look powerful. It’s the action part of achieving diversity where we get stuck.
A while ago, I was at a meeting with some division Deans and Directors and they said they wanted more diversity programming. They used the words “intentional” and “impactful” and the other words we in student affairs like to throw out when we want something great to happen. I thought it was a fantastic idea; I do diversity programming, so it’s right up my alley. I bluntly told them, “I can do that…no sweat. It’ll be fantastic, and I’ll get a great crowd. But it’s going to make some people uncomfortable, and they’re going to question why we need it. I need you to back me up when those questions come and not be afraid to stand up for this.” There was some chatter amongst the group, and one of the Deans said “it’s my job to back you up, and I believe in the work you do. I got your back.”
Given our country’s political climate, it would be easy to retreat from voices telling us that “diversity isn’t important” and “things are fine”. We don’t want the headache and the unwanted publicity. But, if we as professionals are committed to a just and equitable society, we’ve got to put our mission statements into action. We need to challenge our administrations to ensure funding is strong for LGBTQ services, Women’s Centers, Multicultural/Ethnic-themed centers, Early Outreach Programs, Veterans Services, Counseling Centers and Disability Resources. And, we need to support these units, in word and in presence, when they program and outreach to students. We know these offices are vital to the success of a vibrant campus. And, the hardest part is challenging ourselves to seek more knowledge, realize when we don’t know everything, and have the courage to admit when we need help in understanding difference.
I’ll be real…standing up and challenging administration to support diversity initiatives is tough. There have been times where I was sure I would walk out of a meeting with a pink slip for my supposed insubordination. And, self-reflection can be a very painful task, particularly if you are challenging beliefs and values you grew up with or learned over time. But, as my friends reminded me, I was working on creating more open and inclusive environments in way tougher situations in Oakland, so standing up to a Vice President should be “hella easy”.