Claiming the Culture

Faculty initiative amplifies student voices to address diversity, equity and inclusion

A diverse student body is an asset and a point of pride for Eastern Michigan University. So when wounds from past incidents of hate speech on campus were salted with divisive national politics and increased violence against people of color in 2020, EMU faculty were moved to action on behalf of their students. The result is the Creating a Culture of Belonging initiative, launched via a three-part video series created by faculty, for faculty, to help ensure classrooms are safe spaces for all students. Over the past several years, two incidents in particular had put students of color on guard. Racist hate messages sprayed on buildings around campus in the fall of 2016 led to student protests, including a sit-in for which 16 students were originally sanctioned under the student code of conduct. Those sanctions were later dropped. In 2019, a black-skinned doll was found hanging by the neck in a residence hall shower. Though EMU police requested the students involved be prosecuted, Washtenaw County declined, saying there was no malicious intent. The student responsible said the act was a prank.

Protesters gathered outside of Ford Hall in 2016 to protest racism on campus. (Adam Karr, Eastern Echo)

Christine Neufeld, professor of English and new chair of the Committee for Action on Intersectionality, AntiRacism, and Equity (CAIARE)—formerly known as the Senate Task Force on Campus Climate, Race and Diversity Issues—says the faculty was activated by student protests in 2016-17. “There were a lot of us who were doing things [to support students], but we found out our care for the students was not as visible as it needed to be,” Neufeld says. “The faculty’s engagement with these issues needed to be more clear.” Faculty realized they needed to be more intentional in taking on the issues students were struggling with, Neufeld said, and faculty senate was the right place for that effort to begin. It created the task force, which Barbara Patrick, associate professor of political science, agreed to lead. Patrick had already looked at enrollment numbers, and found the tension was resulting in a disturbing trend. “Our enrollment numbers with minority students, particularly African American students, took a major hit during that time,” she says. “Not only were students frustrated and venting to faculty about the problem, they were exiting the University.” As head of the task force, she was ready to jump right in. “I told people I hate talking a thing to death; I like to move things to action,” Patrick says.

Barbara Patrick is an associate professor of political science and chair of the Faculty Senate Task Force for Climate, Race and Diversity Issues. (EMU file photo)

Building momentum

The task force started by holding listening sessions to get clarity on students’ issues, and to let them know they were in a safe space where people would listen. “They shared what it was like to be EMU students, their experiences and their concerns,” Neufeld says. “And from there the goal was to act on what the students were telling us, to be accountable and be able to say, ‘Ok you told us this, we did this.’” The sessions created momentum for the task force, which led to a summer workshop for faculty, Race Matters: Inquiry and Action in Higher Education. Patrick enlisted the help of EMU faculty with expertise in diversity issues as speakers, and recruited two more from the University of Louisville. The workshop was held via Zoom. “When we started we didn’t know how faculty would respond, because it was summer 2020 and a lot was going on,” Patrick says. “We were very happily surprised when we had about 150 faculty show up, voluntarily, to participate.” The success of the workshop, as well as other faculty initiatives including the College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Committee’s policing series that fall, confirmed for the task force that other initiatives were viable. “There was a real eagerness for training, and we realized the things we were hearing from students needed to get out to more faculty,” Neufeld says. “A video series was an opportunity to amplify the voice of students, and start moving toward getting some kind of training going.” The group agreed that videos would have more reach than a one-time event, because they could be shared with colleagues easily, and watched whenever it was convenient. Patrick approached Provost Rhonda Longworth to request funding for the project. “The provost got on board immediately,” Patrick says. The project then shifted into high gear. The team put out a call for students, who answered a few questions about their experiences via video as an audition. Those chosen represented the larger student body, Neufeld said. “They were prepared to tell it like it is, and we chose them in part because they were saying things other students had said to us, too, which was that lousy things happened,” Neufeld says. “I’ve heard things that happened to students, and I’m ashamed that any student would experience them, not just those at EMU.”

“There were a lot of us who were doing things [to support students], but we found out our care for the students was not as visible as it needed to be. The faculty’s engagement with these issues needed to be more clear.”

Christine Neufeld is professor of English and new chair of the Committee for Action on Intersectionality, AntiRacism, and Equity.

Letting it out

Junior Odia Kaba applied to appear in the series after receiving the call for students from Dr. Ann Eisenberg, dean of the Honors College, who thought Kaba would be a good fit. “It’s one thing to think about what you’ll do to change the issues that are important to you, but when it’s actually time, it’s nerve wracking,” she says. “When I was selected, I was excited—intimidated, but very excited.” Kaba, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from West Africa, describes her experience in the first video, Creating a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom.

I was in a business class, and the professor was looking for answers to questions, and I had an answer so I decided to participate even though I was nervous. When I did raise my hand the professor goes, “Um, not you.” That was really discouraging. As a freshman it was already hard enough having the courage to speak up and answer questions, so that was off-putting, and it definitely didn’t make me feel comfortable in that class.” Two years later, Kaba is a standout student who, at least to some degree, got closure by telling her story. “I think it’s really important to confront issues head-on in the moment, and the fact that I didn’t do that when it happened really bothered me,” she says. “It felt good to let that out.” She’s also grateful for the opportunity to let professors know that how they speak to students matters. “I feel like first semester freshman year is critical; it’s like, where the school makes or breaks you. I’m really glad I was able to move past it and use it as motivation, but it’s so problematic,” she says. “That could be the last straw for someone.” Twenty-eight students took part in the series, with dozens of faculty and staff members appearing in front of the cameras, working behind the scenes, or both. All three videos were produced in the summer of 2021, and ready to be released in the fall. “At first we just shared it with a few people,” Neufeld says, “and before we were ready to release it our colleagues were saying ‘we’ve got things we want to do with this.’ People were very excited about it, and word spread.”

Vernnaliz Carrasquillo, assistant professor of engineering, is a powerful voice for women in STEM fields.

Since then, the five-week, Winter 2022 WAC Speaker Spotlight Series focused on the Culture of Belonging videos, and a panel discussion on inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) was held in April. Vernnaliz Carrasquillo, assistant professor of engineering and one of the organizers of the event, says ensuring that people of color are equally represented in the STEM disciplines is important for both ethical and practical reasons. “Diversity of experiences are critical for making decisions that will impact humanity as a whole,” she says. “When underrepresented minorities are not included in the conversation, the resulting products may not satisfy their needs.” One example, Carrasquillo says, is the design of the pulse oximeter that’s become prevalent since the appearance of Covid-19. The light used to measure a patient’s oxygen saturation level—the oximeter’s sole purpose—doesn’t work as well on dark skin as light skin. With the energy around the Creating a Culture of Belonging initiative increasing, there’s a sense that the faculty is laying claim to the University’s educational values, and for some, recommitting to the reason they came to Eastern in the first place. “Many faculty work at EMU because it’s an institution of opportunity,” Neufeld says. “We know that getting a university degree can change people’s lives, give them opportunities and change the trajectory of their families. That’s why we’re here.”

By Amy Campbell

CULTURE OF BELONGING VIDEO SERIES:

Twenty-eight students took part in the video series, with dozens of faculty and staff members appearing in front of the cameras, working behind the scenes, or both. All three videos were produced in the summer of 2021, and released in the fall.

PART I: Creating a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom

Part II: Approaches for the Classroom and Beyond

PART III: Actions Large & Small to Effect Change