Beyond their traditional academic mission, higher education institutions are increasingly recognizing the profound impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Ame Lambert, Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Portland State University, has led the way in creating a campus community that celebrates differences, embraces inclusivity, and empowers students.
Ame met with Kitty Hadaway, Co-Host of the Interview, to discuss issues such as building bridges, advancing cultural competence, and the debate around free speech on college campuses.
I’m in my third year as Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Portland State University. I’m part of a team of around 54 people. It’s an interesting portfolio that includes student-facing units such as our Veterans’ Center, Disability Center, and Native American Students’ Center, Multicultural retention services, TRIO student success, and student legal services. Equity and Compliance handles all investigations, Title IX, ADA among other things. Then, the Office of the Vice President is responsible for developing strategy and embedding operations across campus. I believe what happens here can make all the difference: for our students, staff, and community.
When I think about some of the threads in my life, I’ve always had an interest in the need to own and tell our own stories. That showed up in all kinds of ways, from high school through to college. At school, I wasn’t at the top, but I wasn’t at the bottom either, so I was always bridging between groups. For me, building bridges is the core of DEI work; my mission statement is to close the gap between potential and thriving.
The beautiful thing about this work is that you don’t need to do it alone. I’d love to give a shout-out to our faculty, particularly our staff in the School of Gender, Race, and Nations. Two years ago, our faculty senate approved a six-credit racial and ethnic studies requirement for all first-year students. Before then, our approach was uneven, but we’re now we’re able to embed it directly into the curriculum. I think it’s an important milestone that will have a huge impact on future students. As part of my role, I facilitate a program for our faculty and staff called Intercultural U. It’s about walking a journey, starting by looking at yourself in a cultural context and communicating across differences to build a community grounded in shared knowledge.
First, it’s important to understand what you can’t do. You need to make sure you don’t demean, invalidate, or underestimate students; instead, you need to lift them up. I’m a huge supporter of metacognition, helping students understand themselves in context. Minoritized students exist in a system that wasn’t designed for them, and it’s necessary that they understand that so they can be agents of their own destiny. I’m a huge believer in asset-based approaches: reinforcing students and reminding them that they are fully formed people. We need to ground students in their strengths so they have an anchor for navigating the world. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I am a neuroscience consumer, and the science tells us that our brains interpret social pain in the same way as physical pain. You can’t thrive if you constantly feel under threat, so we need to support people’s capacity for change to create an environment where everyone can succeed.
I’m a strong believer in freedom of speech. People have a right to speak their minds. But in an educational context, you need to think critically about your own assumptions and interrogate where they come from. If you’re coming to a discussion, it’s important to ground your ideas before you bring them to the table. There’s a difference between talking from the heart and parroting talking points from some provocateur. In a classroom setting, it’s important to treat subject topics seriously, unpack them, and put them in context before we can have an open and honest discussion.
Portland State is interesting because so many of our students are commuters. We’ve found that students engage the most with things they feel are relevant to them. Several years ago, I went to a class where the topic was women in the military fighting on the frontlines. It was a heavily male space, and some of the speakers expressed misogynistic views. So I made the point that the conversation hadn’t been about women at all: instead, it was about men and their reaction to women. Hopefully, that changed a few minds. I came there expecting one conversation and found myself in another entirely. As practitioners, it’s incumbent on us to find out what matters to students and figure out how to relate that to what students want to do.
Promote “And/And” thinking. That means interpersonal and systemic, conscious and unconscious, cultural and societal. Humans are highly complex, and DEI work needs to reflect that. Finally, start with yourself. It’s always an inside-out journey.