Uncomplicated but Meaningful: A Simple DEI Initiative Can Attract Community Participation

smccormack
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Teaching at a community college in a “blue” state I have been fortunate to be part of a positive and affirming response to diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) initiatives, which have ramped up significantly since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Prior to the Pandemic our college had a growing Gender Equity Initiative, which has now been merged into our larger DEI projects. As we have been constantly brainstorming how best to engage our college community in DEI conversations, we decided to start this calendar year with a simple program: a film and discussion.

 

For anyone seeking to expand DEI initiatives at their college I strongly recommend reaching out to existing institutions in your geographic area for collaborative efforts. In the case of my college, we reinvigorated a pre-Pandemic partnership with the largest historical society in our area to share resources. We recently held our first joint event: the showing of Warrior Women With Lupita Nyong'o, a Smithsonian Institution-produced documentary that examines the history of the women portrayed by the Marvel “Black Panther” films. Many historical societies have relationships with the Smithsonian that enable the sharing of film resources for public history events. We hoped that by choosing a documentary connected closely with a successful feature film franchise we would attract students to a DEI event without even having to explain our true mission: to explore and discuss issues of race, history and identity.

 

We were thrilled with the response! Our college marketing department advertised our free event to students, faculty and staff, while the historical society publicized the event to their members through email and social media. The result was that on a gloomy Thursday evening just before the start of Spring Break we had fifty people in a small auditorium on our campus to watch the film and share in discussion. It’s not an overstatement to say that our discussion was better than even we had imagined it could be. A breakdown of the audience told us that we had approximately 15 students joined by numerous staff and faculty, as well as several members of the general public who had come as a result of the historical society’s publicity efforts. 

 

The best part: not a single person left the room before the discussion ended. We had two faculty (English and History) lead the post-film discussion alongside a staff member who is also a student at the college. The audience required almost no prompting for discussion – we were treated to nearly thirty minutes of people sharing observations on the history of western Africa and the female warriors studied by the film, in addition to the telling of personal anecdotes about individual audience members’ cultures and heritage.

 

Response to our event has prompted us to plan a series of DEI-related films with the historical society in hopes of continuing conversations on campus and in our community. By partnering our institutions, we are able to benefit from shared resources such as their access to films and our public viewing space. Several students told me after the film that they felt a deeper connection to both the college and the community at large after participating in such a deep discussion with strangers about their personal connections to race and identity. What I personally learned from this experience is that DEI initiatives do not need to reinvent the wheel to be meaningful. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.