Tag Archives: equity

Embracing the edge

Scariest momentI still can feel the butterflies I felt as I drove to compete in my first triathlon. I knew where the race was, I had ridden my bike before, ran in my shoes, knew how to swim but I had never actually done a tri. It was new to me and I didn’t feel comfortable – at all. I was on a learning edge! Yet if I wanted to grow as an athlete I needed to embrace the scary feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next.

Leaders who want to be successful in our diverse and changing workplace also need to embrace their cultural or diversity learning edges. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive,  calls it your place of “productive discomfort.” We all lead from our own experiences and backgrounds. This means that our learning edges are different but that we all have an opportunity, and an obligation, to step into a new situation or explore a new perspective and learn more about different cultures, different histories, different experiences and different ways of thinking.

When we are on a learning edge it is easy to feel defensive, awkward, uncertain or confused. Be prepared for that feeling and continue to push yourself. That is where the true growth happens. Not only will you be developing your cultural competence, you will also be role modeling inclusion.

Some examples of learning edges are:

  • participate in cultural or community events that are not your own
  • get together with colleagues or students who are different than you, and spend most of the time listening
  • involve people with different backgrounds and different experiences when you are solving problems or making decisions
  • actively include discussions of diversity and inclusion in your meetings and work events, even if they are not “diversity” events

Where have you embraced your learning edge of diversity and what did you learn?

Todd Thorsgaard




Joi and pain: lessons in life and leadership

Dr. Joi Lewis is a leader in higher education and an example of a change agent for social justice. She graciously agreed to share some of her passion and energy on leadership, diversity and inclusion. I hope you find her words as powerful as I have found my conversations with her!

I am honored to write about what I believe leaders in higher education should know about diversity, inclusion, and social justice. These issues are foundational to my life’s work and my core values.  As a Student Affairs practitioner-scholar and a social justice activist one thing I know for sure is that as human beings we were created to be in community and be connected with each other, the earth and the universe. I also know for sure that systems of oppression hurt all of us, regardless of our privileged or marginalized identities.

Storytelling is a great way to share the complicated nature of these issues and help us to embrace their contradictions. Our stories connect us and remind us of our humanity; they prompt us to build the muscle in our heart that allows us to forgive, heal and experience the hurtful feelings that oppression produces.  Here are some of my life lessons in: Life, Love and Leadership.

Lesson 1:  I will share an often hidden secret: we all have both privileged and marginalized identities but we are most practiced at organizing around the places where we are marginalized. We are keenly aware of the places where we get targeted. For example as a Black Woman, I am very aware of how my intersected identities of race and gender often set me up to get targeted.

Lesson 2: Even though I possess some identities that have historically been marginalized, I still have much more work to do around interrupting the places that I have privilege and run my oppressor patterns. The term “oppressor patterns” sounds so harsh; it is not an identity that we are eager to take on.  The lesson is that we all have oppressor patterns.

Lesson 3: The good news is that even though we all possess oppressor patterns we can use our “special powers” for good and employ our cultural capital to influence institutional decision making that brings greater equity to everyone. That is better than “super powers” and we all have the ability to do it. Decisions we make about budget, who gets promoted, what programs get supported, or what policies are adapted can be used to positively support more people.

Many years ago I attended a diversity workshop at Metro State. The topic was spirituality and the facilitator was Dr. Jamie Washington. There were about thirty folks at the workshop. I was one of only three persons of color in the room. Jamie asked us to raise our hands if we were Christian. I raised my hand. He then said for the rest of the workshop, which was scheduled for three hours, he only wanted those of us who raised our hands to speak from our identities as Christians. I quickly raised my hand again and said “No that will not work for me. I am black.” Jamie, who is also African-American, said to me, “I see that you are black, but for the next three hours I am not interested in that identity.”

I was furious! What did he mean, how could he expect that of me?  He was asking me to sit in my privilege for those three hours as a Christian and to think about all the privileges associated with the being a Christian (days off for the holidays that I celebrate, Christmas music playing in the malls as early as November, generally no work day on my regularly scheduled worship day of the week, The Bible in hotel rooms, etc.).  This gave me pause for the many things I had not considered. We discussed much deeper issues and folks shared examples of how they and their loved ones had been persecuted for not being Christian and their religious beliefs. I heard about the small things that I just don’t notice, like the way auto-type automatically capitalizes Christian, but does not capitalize Muslim.  This experience changed the way I looked at my multiple and intersecting identities. Although I do not think playing a game of oppression Olympics is useful, it is important to note that all of our identities matter.  It is important for me to do my work around places where I have privilege, not only personally, but also in my role as a leader. This work allows me to have compassion for others who may have a privileged identity that I do not possess and who are sometimes unaware of how their privilege may be running negatively in my direction.

Further, it is helpful to have this lens as leaders when we are making critical decisions that affect our staff and students. We must be aware of how our privilege may make it difficult for us to see how we may run our oppressor patterns towards others.

What can you do to use yourself as instrument:

  1. Build authentic relationships across differences.
  2. Pursue opportunities to place yourself in situations where you are not in the privileged group or the majority.
  3. Read books and articles that will stretch you.
  4. Embrace discomfort, this will spread the discomfort and lighten the load for those who may feel marginalized.
  5. Do take this work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.
  6. Never stop learning.
  7. Make it a point to connect with someone who has a different social identity than you (race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, national origin, etc.)
  8. Take risks.
  9. Be curious.
  10. Have Fun!

Finally, know that this work is a process not a destination. You will make mistakes, get disappointed, have hurt feelings, laugh, cry, get angry, laugh, get upset, laugh and smile, mess-up, laugh again. Just keep at it. Repairing our humanity is worth it. Our institutions, our students and our communities are depending on it.

I am enjoying this journey of Joi and Pain; please join me as we move forward.

Onward, Joi

Dr. Joi Lewis

Rapping and leadership

Recently I spent time with a colleague who works in diversity and inclusion. I asked her what practical advice she would offer to leaders in higher education who want to enhance their cultural competencies. It was powerful for me that her starting point is community building through trust and commitment between people, similar to our leadership competency of relationship building and trust. She shared the work of Jamie Washington, PhD., Washington Consulting Group who lists two foundations for building a diverse community.

  1. Communities are built through building relationships of trust and commitment
  2. We are all doing the best we can (most of the time)

Then we moved on to talk about a specific tool for developing effective dialogue skills that leaders can use with their teams to create an inclusive work space. RAPS (Relating, Asking, Panning and Sharing) was developed by Dr. Kathy Obear, Alliance for Change Consulting, as a way to help leaders open up dialogue and to facilitate inclusion. Examples and ideas include:

RELATE to the person or their comment/behavior

  • I relate to what you’re saying, I…
  • I have felt the same way…did something similar….
  • I remember a time when I…
  • How do others relate to that comment?
  • Who can relate?
  • What you’re saying seems to relate to what so-and-so just said

ASK about the specifics behind the person’s comment or behavior

  • Could you say more about that…Tell me more…
  • Can you give us an example of what you’re saying…
  • Help me understand what you meant by that?
  • What do you mean when you say…
  • What were you hoping to communicate with that comment?
  • Can you help me understand what your intent was when you said/did…
  • Can you give me some background on this situation…
  • How were you impacted when….
  • What were you feeling when…
  • What’s your perspective about…

PAN the environment and yourself; look for the whole picture and describe what you notice

  • I’m noticing I’m feeling…anyone else?
  • I notice a dynamic in our group…
  • I noticed how quiet everyone just got…I’m wondering what is going on for folks?
  • You seem to feel passionately about that…
  • It seems some people were impacted by that statement, am I right?
  • I’ve been noticing that people get interrupted and talked over as they try to share…
  • This response is unusual for you….I’m wondering what else is going on for you?
  • It seems my comment/behavior had an impact on you…
  • You seemed to have shut down…
  • The energy in the discussion seemed to shift after…

SHARE about yourself ~ self-disclose a story, example; your feelings or reactions

  • When I hear you say that I think/feel….
  • Just last week I…
  • I remember when I…
  • I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable…
  • I assume you meant that as a joke, but here’s the impact it had on me…
  • The dilemma I’m in is….

Where can you add a little Rapping to your leadership style?

Todd Thorsgaard

Fight or flight?

Which do I choose? How do I react when I encounter my own biases or the biases of others? What do I do when I am aware of prejudicial behaviors in the work setting? Like other members of the human race, I fight or I flee. Because of my strong feelings on racial humor I may fight and be confrontational when I encounter it. In situations related to cultural or religious differences, my own uncertainty and discomfort can lead me to avoid the issue and hope it goes away. In the long run I am not acting as a role model for inclusion by being confrontational and I am not making a true difference by avoiding! As leaders in higher education, I believe we need to expand our tool box of responses and add a third option, being a proactive “change agent.”

When I am a change agent I am proactively taking steps to promote inclusive behaviors, rather than reacting to situations. I am not on the lookout for unacceptable behaviors to confront or shying away from uncomfortable situations. I am purposely choosing to learn more, share more and take action in a supportive way. I have learned that when I confront a colleague or team member it usually leads to anger or retreat and a short term response. If I am able to give feedback in a more respectful manner we may be able to open up a dialogue and discover options for growth and change, in both of us!

I still find myself wanting to react and confront ideas or actions I disagree with or avoid those “certain sticky” issues related to diversity. It takes work but when I focus on being a role model as a change agent I know I am making difference. I try to:

  • Listen more than talk
  • Reach out and learn more about diverse cultures, backgrounds, perspectives
  • Ask questions to challenge assumptions
  • Include the input and ideas of everyone
  • Remain open-minded
  • Take action to address inappropriate behavior, in a supportive and respectful way
  • Negotiate alternatives to address conflicts
  • Demonstrate inclusive behaviors in my day-to-day actions and language

What causes you to be a fighter or an avoider? Where do you have an opportunity to become a change agent for diversity and inclusion?

Todd Thorsgaard

The institutional dimension of diversity

  • Red tape
  • Bureaucracy
  • Policies
  • Rules

How do you react when you read that list? I know that I am often frustrated by the institutional “red tape” that gets in the way of new ideas or the policies and rules that seem to limit my options. And who likes being a part of a bureaucracy?

Diversity graphic

Yet, because I work in an institution, I am able to multiply my individual contribution to higher education and to students. In the same way, building the principles and values of diversity and inclusion into our policies, rules, red tape, and even our bureaucracy will multiple our personal and academic efforts to achieve equity and excellence in higher education. The culture and infrastructure of our institutions influence the work and the lives of every faculty member, staff member and student. As leaders, our role is to hold our institutions accountable and continually assess the progress we are making in achieving success for all students and all employees.

It comes back to asking, “what can I do?” Each of us can have an impact on the institutional dimension of diversity by taking the following actions:

  1. Share the processes, policies and procedures that promote diversity with your team
  2. Create expectations for your team related to training and education on diversity
  3. As part of your leadership meetings, review and ask if the policies and procedures that promote diversity are adequate and effective
  4. Hold yourself and your team accountable to the policies and procedures promoting diversity
  5. Understand how your institutions commitment to diversity is communicated and use the process

In the end, a little bureaucracy can make a positive difference in our institutions and on all of our students.

Todd Thorsgaard


Leveraging the power of diversity

How can we leverage the power of  diversity to transform our institutions and ensure an extraordinary education for our students? This is a question that we asked of leaders from the MnSCU system and the University of Minnesota last year.

My team and I had the opportunity to partner with the University of Minnesota to help leaders explore how they can achieve excellence through equity and diversity. We started from a shared definition, agreeing that leaders have two primary responsibilities in order to leverage the power of equity and diversity:

1)      Serve, support, and partner with people and communities facing social, cultural, economic, physical, and attitudinal barriers to education, jobs, advancement, and success

2)      Address fundamental issues of bias, discrimination, and exclusion

In our conversation, we challenged each other to think about how we could integrate equity and diversity. Our colleagues at the University created this graphic to describe integration in three dimensions: personal, academic, and institutional.

Over the next week in ouDiversity graphicr blog, we’ll explore each of these dimensions in detail. Here is a quick overview:

Personal – integrating diversity into the work and lives of  students, faculty, and staff members through self-reflection, education, and engagement with diverse individuals and communities

Academic – creating academic environments where students, staff and faculty feel supported, challenged, and included and scholarship reflects diverse ways of knowing

Institutional- setting a vision for the institution’s equity and diversity goals to inform thinking, policies, and practices and measure progress

As you think about these dimensions, what thoughts or actions do they spark for you?