As protests in response to George Floyd's murder continued across the country, NMU President Fritz Erickson sent a campus-wide email earlier this week expressing solidarity in advocating for systemic equity in all sectors of society. He said Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Jessica Cruz will take the lead in identifying “actionable strategies for moving forward and creating opportunities for dialogue” this summer and when classes resume this fall. Cruz shared her thoughts on recent events and the need for related campus initiatives in a Q&A.
In his email, Erickson wrote that recent inequities "remind us of how necessary it is for individuals and organization to address the needs of marginalized and minoritized communities."
Cruz and her office will play a pivotal role in related campus initiatives. The Q&A with her follows:
Question: We've seen too many cases in which racism and excessive force among law enforcement officers have resulted in unjustifiable death. What's your perspective on why George Floyd's murder has sparked noticeably more outrage, protests and conversation nationwide?
We are at an important and historic moment in our nation's history. We are facing a global pandemic due to COVID-19, which we haven't seen in our nation since the 1918 flu. As a result of the pandemic, we're also facing the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression in 1929, and the greatest nationwide civil unrest since the 1960s. In each of these crises, communities of color experience disproportionate impact.
Data show that communities of color are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to many factors. These factors include increased exposure (a greater percentage of people of color are essential workers), less access to quality healthcare including COVID-19 testing, a greater chance of underlying health conditions (e.g., heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes are all more prevalent in the Black community in large part due to the effects of racism on health). Data also show that people of color also experience higher rates of under/unemployment. Coupled with these crises, communities of color, and Black men in particular, confront an inequitable system of law enforcement. In this area, data show that people of color are incarcerated at higher rates and with more severe sentencing while also experiencing the violence demonstrators are protesting across the nation at this time.
Given these three intersecting crises, communities of color are experiencing deep pain and exhaustion. Perhaps we have reached a turning point compelling people across the nation, and the world, to advocate for true systemic change to create a system that treats all persons fairly.
Question: As you've watched the events unfold, why do you feel it's important that the NMU Office of Diversity and Inclusion play a leading role in continuing the dialogue with the campus community about the systemic problems responsible for such incidents?
I believe our work around equity must be collaborative, an intentional and sustainable team effort. I have been leading groups, such as the President's Committee on Diversity and the Diversity Student Alliance, to build university-wide initiatives focused on systemic change. In Fall 2019, the President's Committee on Diversity, the President's Committee on Gender and Sexuality, the President's Strategic Planning and Budgeting Advisory Committee, and the Diversity Student Alliance hosted a joint session to identify opportunities to take our work further. That work is now even more important given the national events we are seeing unfold. As NMU's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, I will continue to work with President Erickson and leaders across campus to centralize our efforts in this area as we work to create a more equitable campus community.
Question: What type of programming or initiatives do you think would be most effective for addressing these issues on a college campus?
Both short-term and long-term initiatives are a part of this equation. All must tie back to a goal articulated in NMU's Strategic Plan, to “identify and address the infrastructure necessary to support diverse campus populations.” To that end, I have been an active member of the National Association of Diversity Office of Higher Education (NADOHE), considered the pre-eminent voice for diversity officers in higher education. NADOHE short-term recommendations include creating consistent and ongoing spaces for dialogue and healing that clearly acknowledge the pain people of color are experiencing and offer connections to key services, such as counseling, and provide a space to process what is happening.
An example: During the Winter 2020 semester, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion partnered to launch a series called IDEAS, which stands for Inclusive Discussions for Educational Awareness. CTL's Teaching and Learning Scholar, Lisa Flood, organized highly structured sessions designed to shift the power structure towards highlighting student voices. The audience is faculty. Students select a moderator they trust who then asks questions of a student panel designed to explore topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion, such as race and accessibility in the classroom. Faculty listen and write questions on notecards submitted to the moderator who then consolidates questions for the panel. The goal is to provide a protected space in which students can tell faculty what they feel they need to succeed in their classrooms.
Long-term recommendations include professional development for leaders across all sectors of the university. The UNITED conference can serve as one mechanism for professional development. Resources available for UNITED and other programming initiatives for the academic year can focus on this goal. Additionally, I would then plan to collaborate with trained leaders to develop equity action plans for their units. This work involves creating and maintaining key groups, such as a potential bias incidents management team and a systemic equity advisory council to identify institutional data to track progress and build on the work of the President's Committee on Diversity. The goal is establish these groups now and implement this work beginning Fall 2020.
In the meantime, what advice would you give to those who feel compelled to take action and/or make their voices heard on this topic?
It's important to focus on the core issue, systemic inequities in our law enforcement system that disproportionately and negatively impact people of color. This includes violence and loss of life. As we have seen, some peaceful demonstrations have been hijacked by groups with different agendas and sparking riots. It is important to both remind people of the true reason for these protests and to emphasize the need for peaceful demonstrations. Lastly, since we are also in the middle of a pandemic, it is crucial for anyone interested in participating in a demonstration to practice social distancing.