Regarding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), some educational institutions seem to tick all the required boxes without meaningfully engaging with the topics on a deeper level. They welcome students from diverse backgrounds but expect them to assimilate into the dominant community without ever understanding what their diversity can truly bring to the table.
GoodCourse spoke to Michael Benitez, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver about how diversity initiatives need to not simply be about inclusion but rather actively work to give minorities both a voice and the ability to help steer an institution — and, by extension, society’s — future course.
I’ve cared about this work since I was a teenager, based on the circumstances of how I grew up. I was a first-generation student who moved to the US from Puerto Rico at the age of seven and came from humble economic means. When I went to college, I originally wanted to return to my community and give back that way, but eventually, I saw the value in helping students transition into institutions created without them in mind. Students of color, students from the LGBTQ+ community, first-gen students, low-income students, students with disabilities — whatever those identities are, they weren’t woven into the fabric of foundations for higher education (HE) at large. I saw a space for me to act as a support service for them.
The way we understand cultural competence is outdated. We normally focus on awareness, knowledge, and skills, but we rarely focus on advocacy. What good is gaining the former if you’re not going to be a good advocate? Right now, it’s framed as a cross-cultural theoretical understanding that teaches us how to be responsive to each other or build relationships. But that doesn’t address power dynamics, historical mending or reckoning, and many reasons we need cultural competence in the first place.
Most institutions simply react to crises or things brought to their attention. But that doesn’t allow us to get ahead of the issues as we need to. When it comes to DEI, you have to be proactive and intentional.
With respect to what I’m doing at this institution — also for faculty and staff — it includes everything from very intentional, inclusive teaching development efforts, building cohorts, and creating trainer opportunities and peer-to-peer learning opportunities. That’s so when faculty are doing good, inclusive, culturally responsive teaching they have a space to be able to share that with others and be recognized for it too. For students, we also provide events, programming, support, and spaces for conversations. Most institutions simply react to crises or things brought to their attention. But that doesn’t allow us to get ahead of the issues as we need to. When it comes to DEI, you have to be proactive and intentional.
I first started the Diversity Monologues for my fraternity brothers back when I was an undergrad at Penn State. We did it to create a fun space where students could tell their stories to each other and we could build community. When I got into HE as a professional, I remembered how successful they were and realized that I now had the resources and capacity to integrate the Diversity Monologues into the fabric of an institution. They offer students a platform to engage artistically and unapologetically about their experiences and journeys — both the wounds and winds they bring — and tell the university how they can support them. The Monologues became a way, through friendly competition, for students to build community by working together, sharing stories, practicing with each other, and leaning on each other for feedback and development. And it’s now been implemented at several institutions, and it’s helped create a welcoming, supportive environment for students who are finding a deeper sense of self and community, contributing to retention, persistence, and success.
The most pressing issue is DEI itself: the erasure of it, the ongoing absence of it, and the ways in which we don’t critically look at diversity as something inherently political. All DEI began with resistance, with people not being allowed into the door or contribute their voice. We’re going to have leadership that is very open and welcome to that conversation and will do everything to support it through resource and capacity, but administrations change depending on society and citizenry. As a result, we have some state leaders who aren’t only anti-DEI but are defunding the capacity and resources for students, faculty, staff, and the community at large to engage in this work.
The deeper issue is we don’t understand DEI in its entirety. We recognize the need for it, but far too often, we’re still privileging the majority. If you invite me into the kitchen, if you’re telling me I’m part of this community, I don’t only want to eat; I should be allowed to help cook. If there are certain ingredients that I also want to bring to the table, those should be on the platter too. That’s what being inclusive truly means. In the past, my voice has been entirely absent from the conversation due to national policies that have nothing to do with me. It has to do with how my identity is Otherized or put in margins and what you hope I become vs. you allowing me to show up as me.
The piece we fail to understand is cultural cultivation. We can’t continue to invite marginalized people to HE communities under the premise that we’re inclusive and welcoming if we don’t have platforms, mechanisms, and resources in place for said students to not only belong but be allowed to contribute to the systemic transformation of these institutions.
Truly show up with a sense of openness, compassion, and respect. We’re not always going to like what we’re going to hear, but we have to be open to listening.