Alumni and administrators at the George Washington University participated in a virtual community conversation on diversity and inclusion last month, convened by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE) and the Office of Alumni Relations.
GW Alumni Association Multicultural Taskforce member Gretchen Gasteier, CCAS BA '12, MA ’17, moderated the conversation with Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown. Taking questions from alumni through chat, the two covered the current state of those issues at the university, lessons learned from the past few months and how GW should continue to engage in antiracist work moving forward.
Beset by a “triple pandemic”—COVID-19, an economic recession and reactionary violence toward the ongoing movement for racial justice—GW students, faculty, staff and alumni from historically underrepresented groups now need particularly robust resources and support, Ms. Laguerre-Brown and Ms. Gasteier said.
“There is a recognition that we need to make diversity and inclusion part of every single endeavor we’re engaging in,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said.
In recent, years, ODECE updated the university’s antidiscrimination policy to better define what discrimination is and protect community members. It also has vastly expanded its diversity & inclusion education opportunities, both mandatory and opt-in, in the past few years, Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. A mandatory training program on diversity during orientation for new students has consistently received positive feedback in the 18 months since its roll out.
“By and large, students said they thought it was really informative, and they were glad the university put this front and center,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. “It was an indicator that this topic is important to our students.”
Inclusion also means having a teaching force as diverse as the student body, Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. The ODECE has been involved with initiatives not only about searching for more faculty from diverse backgrounds, but also about combating unconscious bias on the hiring committees for those faculty and supporting people on the committees who find themselves having to bear the weight of diversity advocacy.
“Many of our deans, in the face of racial turmoil in the country have approached the diversity office for help with thinking through educational opportunities and different approaches to systems and processes at their schools Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. “We want to continue supporting school based efforts toward greater inclusion. .”
Following the death of George Floyd in May, the ODECE, with the help of many campus partners, launched “#GWInSolidarity,” a series of workshops where members of the GW community could express their own experiences with racism on campus and with the trauma of racially-motivated violence. Over the course of 20 sessions, over 5,000 people registered/participated.
“At first people wanted to talk and vent, and then they wanted information about how to take action,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. “They wanted to understand how they could translate the pain they were feeling into some kind of tangible action, something productive.”
The final #GWInSolidarity session, a faculty conversation on how to combat unconscious bias, counted 150 participants for over two hours.
The number of guests and the depth of their engagement “was unprecedented for us,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said.
“At the start of it we had no idea how much people would participate. We didn’t know if anybody would even come to these sessions,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. “This showed us that we have a lot of appetite in the GW community to have these conversations, and that was so affirming.”
Ms. Laguerre-Brown also responded to questions from alumni about GW’s relationship with the Metropolitan Police Department. In the wake of protests about police violence against communities of color, universities across the country have faced scrutiny of their engagement with police and armed security forces.
GW has a unique relationship with MPD compared to campuses outside of large cities, which may have their own security or a formal agreement with local police, Ms. Laguerre-Brown said.
“Step outside of a building [on the Foggy Bottom campus] and you’re in [MPD] jurisdiction,” she said. “By virtue of our circumstance, we have to work closely with them, so we’ve not quite had the discussion around divesting from police at the university.”
In response to an alumni question about how GW plans to address disengagement among its alumni of color, Ms. Laguerre-Brown said the ODECE and Office of Alumni Relations have plans to hear from and connect with those communities. But she also said alumni engagement begins long before students graduate.
“So much of the philosophy since I joined GW has been around seeing the securing of the loyalty of our alumni as a proposition that begins on the first day a student arrives,” she said. “We have to be thinking about ensuring that this person wants to be connected with us literally from the first day that they arrive on campus.”
Ms. Gasteier said she’s been working on increasing diversity and inclusion in her own work at a nonprofit organization, and asked Ms. Laguerre-Brown whether any of her experience at GW could translate into advice for other industries. In an organization of any kind, meaningful assessment is a more important first step than an immediate rush to put on programs, Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. An organization has to understand the challenges it faces and the advantages it has before it can develop useful educational initiatives tailored to those challenges and advantages, she said.