Campus Highlight: The First Step Toward Equity and Inclusion: Using Critical Dialogue to Unfreeze

Chantae Recasner, Dean, Faculty and Instructional Development, Austin Community College

Editor’s Note: At the time of writing, the author served as director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. This piece represents her personal experience at the institution; as with all issues of our newsletter, we welcome generative conversation, which may express a different perspective.

2016 was a banner year for change in the United States. We witnessed the rise to presidency of a nontraditional candidate, and with that came upheaval about status-quo politics. The nation spoke, and what it said was, “We want something different.” Yet, that desire for difference was, somewhat ironically, gilded by a mantra of longing for the past: “Make America Great Again.” If the country’s sociopolitical realities are understood as macro representations of who Americans are, then educators should understand how profound and prolific contradictions are in organizational operations. Moreover, we should recognize that change—especially cultural change—is a process. Lewin’s theory of change suggests organizational behavior undergoes unfreezing (recognizing and letting go of established behaviors that may have impeded growth), changing (deploying efforts to shift practice), and refreezing (establishing and sustaining new practice as normal).[1] Thus, for Cincinnati State, our journey toward creating a more inclusive and safe campus had to begin with conscientious “unfreezing.”

Background

Cincinnati State Technical and Community College’s receipt of a Bringing Theory to Practice Greater Purposes Campus Dialogue Grant in 2016 was the starting gun for our efforts to grow a more inclusive and safe community. But first, we had to unfreeze.

The context for our grant proposal highlighted regional disturbances that had (have) potential to impact our campus. Particularly, we acknowledged racist and ethnophobic incidents on nearby campuses as catalysts for our work. The 2016 campus-based headlines read as warning cries to the Ohio higher education community. The story of a “free speech” wall at Ohio University that included drawings of a lynching and a rallying cry to “Build the Wall” became a topic of discussion on our campus. Just north of Cincinnati at the University of Dayton, two black students’ dorm room doors were vandalized with racial slurs. And just south of Cincinnati at Northern Kentucky University—one of Cincinnati State’s transfer partners—students were confronted with fliers that welcomed them to “White Week.” The challenges faced on these campuses aroused concerns about safety on our own. Moreover, these incidents conjure memories of civil unrest that continuously haunt the residents of Cincinnati. Since the early 1900s, the sinister underbelly of Cincinnati has been its racial tension. From the 2001 riots that ensued after an unarmed teenager, Timothy Thomas, was killed by a Cincinnati police officer, to the killing of unarmed Sam DuBose in 2015 by a University of Cincinnati police officer who stopped him for a minor traffic violation, the city has lost its identity as the beacon of Northern freedom.

Community identity and the sociopolitical challenges of our communities inform our campus realities. Our first concern is always our students and their well-being, but we often ignore how directly employee satisfaction is related to “customer” satisfaction. Thus, for our grant project, we focused on faculty and staff impressions of inclusion and safety on campus. Particularly, our goal was to use counterstorytelling as a framework for unearthing truths about our organizational culture that have systematically and historically been overlooked.[2] The plan was to host five critical dialogue sessions to reveal concrete opportunities for growth that would inspire action steps for a diversity and inclusion strategic plan. Invited participants included faculty members (adjunct and full time), associate deans, the director of human resources, the director of student activities, the provost, and transfer partners. Years of service to the college among this group ranged from three years to more than twenty years. Thus, this change effort was strengthened by the presence of a healthy cross section of perspectives and institutional power.

Thawing Out the Frozen—Stories of Race-Based Exclusion and Incivility

Our approach to dialogues was intentional: we would examine master narratives about our campus and talk about how true they were for our experiences. Master narratives are dominant claims about an organization that are often encapsulated in mission statements, accreditation reports, branding campaigns, and cultural norms of the organization. These narratives can, even if they are unintentional, hegemonically silence those whose experiences don’t affirm them as truth and create barriers to building a just, inclusive, and safe community.

Here’s an example: Cincinnati State has had an African American president since my hire (eleven years ago). This matters. On the surface, this visual representation suggests that Cincinnati State values diversity and always has. With a more critical eye, however, we can recognize that tokenistic positional representation is NOT synonymous with inclusion and equity. In fact, in response to an internal 2017 employee satisfaction survey administered to sixty-four African American employees at Cincinnati State, one respondent shared, “You have to do more than pay honor to diversity and inclusion in words. Systems must actively engage change that makes everyone feel included.”[3] In addition, only 21 percent of survey respondents believe that Cincinnati State is committed to including the voices of all employees in key decision making, and only 27 percent of respondents believe that promotion and advancement opportunities are equitable. By opening spaces for true dialogue, we also learned that our international colleagues’ cultural identities are not always honored. We all gasped in one of our dialogue sessions as we heard our facilitator share a quote from campus interview data: “I am American at work and [my cultural identity] at home.”

So from the beginning, our intention was to use the campus dialogue grant to have what we understood as uncomfortable conversations. Uncomfortable, but purposeful. The grant helped to call attention to the need for these conversations on our campus, and it helped to contextualize the value of such dialogues to quality educational leadership and practice. We gave each dialogue a theme to provide focus: leading inclusively, inclusive communication, gaining global perspective, and programming for inclusion. Having leadership as the first point of focus allowed us to not only critically examine leadership practice but also to discuss our divergent and convergent thoughts on what the concept means. We established a list of terms that captured the group’s perception and allowed that list to serve as a reminder of how we as leaders of change should work within the space of these dialogues, in our employment areas, and in our communities.  

The lessons learned about our organization from the dialogue participants were numerous, but these were particularly profound: even in conversations about diversity on our campus, (1) the topic of racism is avoided and (2) in-group/out-group politics are real and hostile. If our goal as an institution is to educate our students to thrive in the current contentious landscape—or to shape it through democracy and engagement for the better of all humanity—we must model the very basic elements we hope to instill in students. Thus, identifying that the structure of our college at the faculty and staff level could lack core concepts like civility, empathy, intentional engagement with the “other,” and an understanding of intersectionality, is critical.

So Now What?

Our dialogue discoveries are not the truth about the organization, but they are some truths—truths that cannot and should not be ignored. If higher education is to fulfill its purpose, leaders must attend to the emotional well-being of organizations, as well as their economic viability and sustainability, as they grow. These campus dialogues provided the heat needed to thaw our frozen understandings about who we are as an organization. There is a long road ahead, but it’s one that must be traveled, because too few people feel empowered, and we know that empowered employees are more motivated to engage with change efforts.[4] We must keep talking, and then we must act. The past may well be prologue, but it is not prohibitive. We can do things differently. We must do things differently, not just to advance diversity and inclusion, but to advance equity and social justice.


[1]  Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflict and Field Theory in Social Sciences (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997).

[2]  For more information on counterstorytelling, see Daniel G. Solòrzano and Tara Y. Yosso, “Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research,” Qualitative Inquiry 8, no. 1 (2002): 23–44.

[3]  Data taken from an internal campus survey. This survey had a return rate of 36 percent, which is on par with other survey return rates at the college.

[4]  Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, “Language of Appeasement,” Inside Higher Ed, March 30, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/30/colleges-need-language-s....