Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) measures are important for teaching people the care and respect they need to treat others equitably. When we advance the most marginalized individuals in our society, we are advancing everyone.
This is a belief of Eva Martinez Powless, Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). She sat down with GoodCourse to discuss her experience working in Higher Education (HE), the importance of cultural competency, and the way DEI has evolved over the years.
One of my motivators for entering the DEI space has been my own lived experiences being a low-income first-generation college student. I also identified as an ESL — English as a Second Language — student, having come from Mexico to the United States when I was twelve. A lot of my experiences shaped me and helped me better understand the role of DEI in US society. After my Ph.D., when it was time for me to decide what to do with my life, I thought HE was important because I knew first-hand about the disparities in the US’s education system. I wanted to dedicate my life to this purpose, and now have a total of seventeen years working in HE, equity and inclusion, and with students — providing more access to education and eliminating equity barriers for students from underrepresented populations. I opened the doors for students who have been historically denied access to education. And now my role is more organizational, looking at student retention and success and improving our organizational culture for our employees so they can better help our students.
I work very closely with the Office of Student Life to provide more cultural competency for students. We are still in the process of incorporating this in the classroom. MATC is Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, so there is a high need to educate our students to ensure they can work across cultures and respect differences. We know that when students are immersed in a culturally competent setting in education, they are more likely to take their behavior there into the workforce. And the values of many organizations are respecting diversity and working across cultures. So students must be able to appreciate and work across differences.
We have free speech spaces around campus, so if students are doing peaceful protests or want to share their opinions, be it religious or political, they have those rights. There is a line between free speech and hate speech, so we have a team in place to discuss any type of incident that may arise from events or comments. Our team evaluates and assesses everything to ensure that we are protecting our students’ rights, while allowing freedom of expression.
Back in 2006, when I first started, the DEI space was very focused on opening the gates to HE. We made a lot of great progress in providing access and making sure our admission practices were inclusive and accessible. More recently, the death of George Floyd and other incidents propelled HE institutions to take DEI further. We knew there were issues we needed to tackle, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, it became a much more urgent point. Colleges and universities tried much harder to make sure they were supportive of all communities, minority groups in particular. I have also seen colleges focusing on closing equity gaps — many students are entering college but not graduating, so this is the current biggest challenge. There is more resistance now, and we are seeing DEI attacks across the nation, but whenever there’s progress, there’s resistance, so we just need to keep moving forward.
I had a team of about eleven, and we sponsored over 100 events annually. The main goal was to bring different perspectives to the table, to learn about different topics, and enable dialogue and interaction. We successfully implemented DEI programming and promoted a sense of community for different student organizations that had perhaps not seen eye to eye. For example, we had our interfaith groups come together once a month to discuss any tension. We also had multiple student organizations come in and talk to each other. Intercultural dialogue should be taking place at every campus to ensure we’re reducing silos. Students should be united; there’s power in that. It also enabled opportunities for our faculty and employees to engage with our students via our programs, which focused on things like racism or cultural dynamics.
I would say that we live in a very diverse society and cannot become innovative and creative without diversity of perspective, and inclusion of people who have been marginalized. DEI is beneficial for everyone.