FT: Inclusivity is a practice, not an end-point. It is ongoing and requires constant action. #sachat
Four years ago I was a member of a student organization with a recruitment problem. We were struggling to recruit new members as our university experienced an enrollment shift toward a more diverse student population. It was frustrating because we were recruiting exactly as our campus officials and our national organization recommended, but still we could not meet our recruitment quotas. What we had not yet realized was that it was not our methods that were broken, but our paradigm.
To survive, our group had to shift from recruiting students just like us to embracing and celebrating diversity. The group realized that the only way to recruit a diverse population of members was to create an inclusive community within the organization.
In the last four years, the group has taken these steps to create that community: positive modeling, creating a safe space to live authentically, and systematically empowering all members in personal development.
The first step was to empower all members to develop positively. The phrase, “Power With, Not Power Over” from HazingPrevention.org resonated with the members who had realized that empowerment, inclusivity, and community-building are inter-related. We thought, “If hazing is caused by imbalanced power and exclusivity, could recruitment issues be too?” We removed the older member/younger member power dynamic so organization could move forward as equals. By assuring that new members had the same rights, privileges, and voices as returning members, the organization was able to begin building an inclusive community.
One way the group decided to pursue empowerment was to focus on what made them different from other student organizations. By focusing on their journey to inclusiveness, the group presented empowerment, authenticity, and personal growth as the defining benefits of membership in the organization. This led to an increase in membership from students interested in those benefits.
Once the group felt comfortable in their new practices, the organization’s executive board members began to model inclusive actions. By calling out microaggressions, making sure every member had a voice, and creating mentoring relationships with new members, they began to lay the foundation of reproducible inclusiveness.
It has been over four years since these steps were first implemented. In that time, the membership of the organization has increased by 50% and achieved chapter accreditation, with an increased membership from historically oppressed groups, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, LGBT groups, and students with disabilities. The organization avoided closure for lack of membership, but there is still work to be done to recruit a membership that most accurately reflects the diversity of the student body as a whole.
The main challenge the group now faces is the graduation of its first wave of positive modelers – what happens next will depend on the depth to which the newer members have internalized the value of inclusiveness.
This is why constant work toward inclusiveness is necessary. Due to the constantly rotating nature of student organization membership, the group found that community building can never cease – there is always a new group of members to educate so they buy into the group’s choice to value inclusivity. The group faces the additional challenge of the newest members being predominantly first-year university students, still working through their own encounters with race, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic diversity.
Great memories have been made, as well as many lessons learned, for example- the membership became aware that their meeting room was not wheelchair accessible when they recruited a student who uses a wheelchair. The membership banded together and decided to carry her up two flights of stairs for every meeting until they could secure an ADA-compliant meeting space. With every new member came new experiences and perspectives, and the organization grew because of it.
Even with the gains now being seen in the organization, change did not come easy. There were many shouts of, “But we’ve always done it this way!” It was difficult to abandon standard campus practices, and our organization faces ridicule and disdain for bucking tradition. Even now, years later, the organization still retains some of the stigma developed during the rebuilding years. It is frustrating to see students pass over our organization, even though we can provide better personal development, for organizations with more homogeneous memberships.
It would be easy for the group to abandon inclusivity, to retreat back into the status quo, but at what cost? Not only would the group again face the membership crisis that led them to inclusiveness in the first place, but they would soon be left behind by shifting enrollment demographics. According to the current higher education enrollment landscape, the old status quo is no longer an option. Their only option is a continued commitment to inclusive action.
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Podcast With Amma Marfo on Introversion in Student Affairs