Warner Diversity and Inclusion Committee Celebrates Five Years

Over the last half decade, Nancy Ares and her Warner School colleagues, who created the Warner Diversity and Inclusion Committee, have been working tirelessly to increase and support the inclusivity of the Warner School community. Since then, the committee’s efforts have helped heighten awareness of issues of bias in policies, procedures, culture and climate; uncovered unexamined assumptions of faculty around hires; broadened conversations through the inclusion of Warner staff and students on the committee; and fostered reflective self-examination to help make the School more welcoming and vibrant.

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee proudly celebrates its 5th anniversary this year. As founding committee chair, Ares, who along with Warner colleague Dena Phillips Swanson also serves as a University Faculty Diversity Officer for Warner, reflects on the experiences and accomplishments of the committee the past five years, reveals the committee’s vision for the future of Warner, and shares her take on diversity and inclusion in education.

Diversity Side BarWhat led the Warner School to form the committee five years ago?
The Warner Diversity and Inclusion Committee was created in 2007 as part of the University of Rochester’s Faculty Diversity Officers’ (FDOs) efforts to develop strategies that foster the hiring and retention of underrepresented faculty. The FDOs were the impetus to start a formal committee at Warner. Our initial charge was around developing faculty diversity. When you look at the curriculum and projects at Warner, they already give specific attention to diversity and inclusion, so this was a formal setting to parallel the University in terms of structure and policy.

What is the mission of the Warner Diversity and Inclusion Committee?
The committee seeks to blend research and advocacy around issues of social justice, diversity, and inclusion in higher education. Our project is to have Warner be a very inclusive setting that keeps individual and group goals and experiences around cultural and demographic diversity at the forefront. Additionally, we help the Warner community pay attention to these issues explicitly at all levels, from syllabus development and pedagogy in the classroom to recruitment and retention of faculty.

How has the committee been influential in the Warner School and University communities?
At Warner in particular, I think the beginning pushes of focusing and hiring a demographically diverse faculty during the first couple of years have been most influential. Our committee members sit in on faculty searches to act as resources; help identify outlets for advertising positions as a way to attract a broad group of underrepresented candidates; and conduct professional development sessions for faculty focused on issues of diversity and inclusion in hiring new faculty, so we try to expand the pool at all levels. Since the committee formed, we have broadened our notion of diversity to extend beyond race and ethnicity to include ability status, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. At the University level, we have influenced the conversations and efforts of the FDOs by helping others to be more aggressive and have a deeper understanding of what issues of diversity and inclusion mean beyond the color of someone’s skin or the language they speak. We’ve helped and encouraged others to also consider and focus on the sociocultural and sociopolitical dimensions of diversity and inclusion.

What are some of the committee’s most notable successes over the past five years?
We are becoming more and more successful at hiring and retaining faculty of color by paying special attention to what the experiences of faculty of color are in predominantly White institutions. We’ve also been successful at working at unexamined assumptions with tenured faculty by looking at reappointment or tenure cases as well as bringing together faculty, staff, and students to represent all constituencies. Over the 2007-11 academic years, the committee has regularly hosted sessions, including annual Warner lunch hour talks, which foster dialogue among faculty, staff, and students, as well as several faculty forums and 12 professional development sessions for faculty, devoted to issues around diversity and inclusion. So, we try to integrate all of this and involve everybody as much as we can. The Warner School also was among other academic divisions that hosted workshops at a conference in 2012, themed Power, Privilege, and Difference, and has assisted with planning the University’s official diversity and inclusion conference each year.

A hallmark for the committee that has also helped push other units in the University is how we recruit and retain a diverse faculty pool and work toward an inclusive School community. Instead of looking outside to see how we can draw non-dominant people in, we’ve focused our attention on the climate and culture here to look at White privilege as a way to interrogate ourselves and determine what kind of place we are asking people to join. So, rather than asking people to mold to fit us, we try to understand how White privilege and institutional racism operate to prevent institutions from being inclusive, particularly here at Warner. This critical self-reflection informs the ways we work to change practices, perceptions, and experiences.

What new initiatives is the committee working on?
One of our goals is to increase the visibility of the work of the committee, so we decided to launch a film series that looks at diversity and inclusion as identity work—not one dimensional in terms of identity, but rather intersecting identities. So, for example, we plan to host four film screenings and panel discussions next year, covering a range of topics and themes, including ability status, culture, and immigration as well as gender expression, indigenous cultures, and sovereignty.

Why is diversity and inclusiveness so important to education?
The standard line is that a major demographic shift is occurring and we need to be ready to react. The deeper issue for the committee, and I would imagine for most of the School, is that if you look at children, youth, and adults as a whole, they are cultural people—they have cultural histories, practices, morals, and values—and in order for people to be successful and healthy in terms of cultural awareness, learning, and achievement, you need to take all of that into account. It’s important for people so that they are embraced as a whole person, and it’s important to enrich schools more generally. Diversity defined in these terms provides valuable resources for everybody to draw on and opens us up to all different kinds of resources that often get ignored or denigrated.

Why are diversity and inclusion among the foremost issues facing education today and how is Warner preparing to address these challenges?
Part of it is that schools have not adapted or changed in response to the demographic shift. It’s not just the demographic shift alone as we’ve had demographic diversity in schools forever, but schools have been built and run to produce a certain kind of person that’s a very narrow view in comparison to the kinds of people that come to school. That’s hugely problematic for human and individual rights issues and community welfare. Again, we are missing out if we are marginalizing so many people, we are missing out on a lot of contributions, and we are missing out on learning across differences. As a result, we are falling further behind in schools in relation to where the world is going. Education plays a huge role.

Part of what Warner is doing, similar to what we are doing on the committee, is not ignoring or avoiding difficult issues—we go at them straight on. It can be daunting when you start to realize how big the problems have become. Rather than simply dwelling on how bad the problems are, we acknowledge that these problems do exist but also identify the assets to draw on in communities that are under resourced or oppressed so that we work with communities, families, and institutions to help our schools move forward.

What should Warner do to build on its progress with diversity and inclusion at the School, specifically, and in education more broadly with the local and global community?
We have to remain vigilant. We’ve built some strong foundations and done great work, but that’s not work that’s ever done. We also have to be critically reflective so that we can see if and how we may be losing track of where we are. We need to continue to listen—or do better at listening—to all kinds of voices. And, we have to hold our feet to the fire and continue to change for the future. At Warner specifically, we need to continue to involve students and staff and at the University level we need to continue the collaborations and share our successes in this area.

I think the work of the committee is one way to keep our growing reputation as an advocate and partner in the community, where we can be seen as not stepping away from difficult issues. And, the most pervasive impact we can have on the community is to prepare all of our graduates—teachers, counselors, and administrators—to bring these same values to their careers and do well in sort of the ‘Warner mission’ of life.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to accomplish in the future?
One of our more practical goals is to do a careful analysis of the curriculum across the School and look at where these issues are being addressed in classes. If we take a closer look at our work, we will be able to identify patterns and see where we are going and how we can incorporate and integrate issues like this. We did some work on addressing diversity and inclusion in the classroom and we’ve held workshops on micro-aggressions and managing difficult emotions in the classroom when tough issues come up, so we have looked at classroom practices, but in terms of the actual content of what we are teaching, we haven’t done that yet. This will be a future move. Another goal is to broaden the notion of diversity and inclusion. We need to pay more attention to ability status both in terms of awareness, like through film series and workshops, and helping faculty look at their own teaching and what they do or what they can do.

What’s been your experience being the first diversity chair at Warner and University Faculty Diversity Officer for Warner?
It has been a way to live my politics and commitment to social justice in diversity and inclusion in a way that impacts practice. All of my research is around this, too, so it gives me another venue to work so that my research, teaching, and service are all lined up. Together with my Warner colleague Dena Phillips Swanson, I really appreciate being involved in the University Faculty Diversity Officers group, to learn what other divisions in the University are doing, help push us all forward, and position Warner at the forefront. We’ve been able to get our work out there and that’s been satisfying to represent the School.

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Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
(585) 275-0777; (585) 278-6273 (cell)

Tags: Dena Swanson, diversity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Donna Harris, Julia White, Nancy Ares, Susan Hetherington