Multiple aspects of diversity and inclusion—some on touchy topics—were presented at the inaugural Moving Our Campus (MOC) Forward: An Inclusive Excellence Conference.
Among the topics were how we misinterpret the meaning of skin color, the glass ceilings faced by women in the business world, religion and disbelief, socioeconomic divisions, teaching diversity in the classroom, and Islamophobia.
Diversity and inclusion are among the goals in UTC’s Strategic Plan and the conference was designed to reach that objective.
With knowledge gained at the conference “we might have a great education and employment environment that is welcoming and inclusive and inviting,” Bryan Samuel, director of Equity and Diversity for UTC and co-chair of the event, said in a statement.
Following are a few of the highlights of MOCForward:
Talk to each other: The philosophy of inclusion
By Laura Bond
Ron Harris is known for his friendliness, but he’s not afraid to make you uncomfortable.
As vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, he insists that one of the best ways to have a truly inclusive organization is simple: Talk to each other.
“We need to have culturally competent dialogue,” he said during MOCForward’s keynote address. “That simply means we need to be able to sit down and talk to one another. We need to be able look at one another even if we have to make one another uncomfortable. We have to suspend our right to be offended if we are going to be effective.”
In his current role, Harris provides strategic leadership and counsel for diversity initiatives within BlueCross BlueShield, including diversity awareness training, recruitment, employee development and community outreach.
While many want to center diversity around only race and gender, Harris encourages a more comprehensive definition.
“The way you define diversity is important because the way you define it is the way you will illustrate it. You need to embrace a definition of diversity that everyone in your organization can embrace,” he said.
“Remember that cultural competency includes, but is not limited to, race, sex, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, religion and language.”
He also cautioned against using the words “diversity” and “inclusion” interchangeably.
“Someone defined ‘diversity’ as going to the dance and ‘inclusion’ is being asked to dance once you get there,” he said. “You can have diversity but not have inclusion. They are two different things that require two different approaches.”
Not acknowledging or ignoring diversity is unproductive, he added.
“Sometimes we think that, if we’ve noticed physical differences, we’ve created some type of violation,” he said. “But when you don’t see my color, you have invalidated me. When I pretend I don’t see that you’re differently abled, I have invalidated an important part of you. When I don’t respect your background, your experiences and your exposures, I’ve invalidated who you are.
“So what can you do today to honor the story and the differences of someone who doesn’t look like you? We all have stories. We all come with baggage. And the only way we lighten that load is to admit that diversity exists.”
No such thing as ‘race,’ biologically speaking
By Shawn Ryan
Handed 30 square paint samples in colors such as Colonial Cream, Barrel Brown and Ansonia Peach, the group at each table was asked to line them up lightest to darkest.
Once that was done, they were told to find the sample closest to their skin color.
With lots of groans and statements like “I’m going to be so bad at this game,” people dutifully lined up the samples then picked out their skin tone, placing one square after another on their arms.
Once they finished, Dr. Pamela Ashmore, head of UTC’s Department of Anthropology, gave them the news: Basically what they had done was useless when it comes to determining a person’s race.
“We’ve grown up thinking that skin color defines race,” she said during a presentation on “The Science of Skin Color: How We Misinterpret the Meaning of Skin Color.” Biologically speaking, however, there is no such thing as race, she said. The only true race is homo sapien, which covers everyone on the planet.
Skin color is essentially determined by genetics, some nutritional elements, where a person lives in the world and its climate. The amount of sunlight in a particular area is a key factor in skin color, she said.
At the equator, where sun is the most direct, dark pigmentation prevails because it protects a person from skin cancer and other diseases, Ashmore explained. Conversely, someone who lives in areas far to the north, say Norway or Alaska, doesn’t need as much protection because the sun isn’t as intense, she said.
Race can be seen “culturally,” she said, “but you can’t do it biologically because it’s meaningless.”
As one of her PowerPoint screens said:
“Biology does not support the existence of different human races, but society does and racism is real.”
Graduate school attainable for those willing to work
By Chuck Cantrell
Ernest Brothers has earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and Ph.D. so, when he talks about the challenges of earning advanced degrees, especially for students of color, he speaks from experience.
Brothers recovered from a less-than-stellar launch to his higher education experience—his GPA after two years was 1.75—by enlisting in the Marines and returning to college years later with more focus and discipline. He worked full-time as a security guard and earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Delta State University—with a respectable 2.97 GPA.
“You can do anything that you want if you really work for it. ‘Impossible’ is only for those who do not try,” he said during the presentation on “Enhancing Pathways to Graduate School for Students of Color.”
Brothers now serves as associate dean in the Graduate School and director of the Office of Graduate Training and Mentorship at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also associate director for diversity enhancement for the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and president of the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools.
He also leads the Program for Excellence and Equity in Research (PEER), a National Institutes of Health-funded training grant to recruit, retain and graduate more underrepresented minorities with Ph.D.’s in biomedical and behavioral science fields.
“There can be a mystery about graduate education,” Brothers said. “People don’t understand what it means. They don’t know how to access it and what it takes to get in.”
Brothers told attendees at the presentation that starting the process early is critical. He encouraged all students to take the Graduate Record Exam—the entrance exam for many graduate programs—during their junior year of undergraduate education.
“If you don’t pass your driver’s license test the first time, then you take it again. Everyone does that,” he said. “Think of the GRE as your license to get into graduate school. Take the test again if you need to. Get students on that path to graduate school early.”
Prospective graduates should not underestimate the importance of mentoring in the admissions process, advice that Brothers said is particularly important for students of color.
“It is important to find someone to take interest in the student as an individual,” he said, “and to be willing to take a cross cultural look at that student. Look at the social, historical and political prospective of the student to help make the transition to graduate education smooth.”
Brothers also encouraged students to apply early for the best shot at graduate assistantships and other funding.
“Some people and some cultures do not like the word ‘loan.’ A loan is seen as something to be avoided,” he said. “But if you have to go that route, consider a loan as an investment in your future—as long as you use the money for what it is intended for and only borrow exactly what you need.”
Being diverse and inclusive more than just talk
By Sarah Joyner
It’s not enough to invite someone to the party. You also must ask them to dance.
That analogy was used often during a panel discussion on “Bridging Partnerships with the Chattanooga Community.” The panel featured four speakers from campus and the Chattanooga community:
- Nicole Brown, faculty member for UTC’s Department of Communication and advisor for the student-run internet radio station, The Perch.
- Dionne Jennings, president of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
- Stacy Lightfoot, vice president of the Public Education Foundation (PEF).
- Patrick Miles, director of Community Engagement and Strategic Partnership for La Paz Chattanooga.
The interactive discussion explored the actual meanings of diversity and inclusion, as well as how UTC and Chattanooga can incorporate them while actively engaging all members of the community.
“You can’t just throw the term inclusion around just to say, ‘Oh, we’re diverse and inclusive’ if you’re not authentic because people can see through the fog of it all,” explained Jennings. “‘Tokenism’ is a word that I use. You don’t want to be a token. I want to be included because of the skillset that I bring to the table. I don’t want to be included simply because of the color of my skin.
“And so that’s why we use these terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ and it sounds great but, if you’re not living the talk, then you’re really not being authentic,” she added. “That’s what people want. Authenticity. You have to be intentional to prove your authenticity.”
In the end, the panel’s ultimate takeaway was that it’s not enough to just be diverse; people must feel included, too.
Not only should we cooperate, we must encourage others from different walks of life, make them feel comfortable and help them succeed. To do that, we must talk with others and listen to their concerns. Through those conversations, we can pinpoint others’ needs, find resources to help and work together to resolve issues.
“You have to be extremely, uncomfortably, intentional about: If you welcome me to your house, you have to feed me dinner and make sure that I’m full and that I’m sustained,” Lightfoot said.