In a world full of catchphrases, I have come to appreciate two over the past few years – “lean in” and “call in.” Popularized by the COO of Meta (Facebook) Sheryl Sandberg, “lean in” encourages us to lean into situations that may be uncomfortable. Similarly, ”call in” invites people into a conversation rather than “calling them out.”
Calling someone in encourages the conversation to continue and helps participants find common ground. As a higher education professional, I have seen the progression of JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) work. I stand here as a testament to its successes as well as its downfalls. I ask you to lean in as I call you into this conversation.
When I began my career in higher education, diversity offices were just starting to be established. Those who sought relief from racial issues they encountered were forced to go to the Equal Opportunity Offices (EOO). These operated from a federal mandate, not from a cultural understanding of the institution itself.
There was no space for us to discuss issues and make sure we were not crazy when we thought back on our racialized experiences with ignorant people we worked with on our campuses. As time went on, diversity offices were expanded. Still, their initial charge was to count the number of diverse individuals on campus. Rarely were they established to make the systemic changes needed to break down barriers of institutionalized racism that were and remain prevalent in American higher education. Additionally, because diversity work is so hard, the turnover in diversity leadership was high, and the diversity plans often ended up in a binder on a shelf gathering dust.
As higher education institutions realized that students and faculty/staff of color were important to their reputation and bottom line, the thinking around diversity offices began to evolve. Strong voices of students, staff and faculty began pushing for expanding the impact of diversity offices. Roles expanded to not only dismantle the product of racism but to institutionalize that work, too. This is where diversity work began to intersect and be fortified by equity, inclusion, and justice.
Consider this analogy of what JEDI may be:
"If diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion means everyone gets to contribute to the playlist, and equity means everyone has the opportunity to dance, then justice means for future dances the planning will always consider J. E. D. and I and no one will need to justify why their music choices are necessary."
Building on this analogy, Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) in America were largely segregated until the 1960s when people of color were invited to the party. (Rather, the federal government made the institutions send out invitations). There were little-to-no considerations made for how these individuals would feel on all-white campuses, nor consideration given to the treatment of these students. These individuals had to fit into what was already established within the college or university.
There were no reasonable accommodations to be followed at that time. Those that persevered and earned degrees from the 1950s to the early 1970s endured all types of horrendous racial violence both mentally and physically.
Their experiences allowed future generations of college students the ability and freedom to vocalize their needs. Those needs became cultural centers, African American/Africana Studies, Chicano/a Studies and changes in hiring practices, to name a few.
Today, issues continue to hinder American higher education, where the infusion of justice is so badly needed. Colleges and universities continue to be challenged on their admissions practices to ensure that the student body will be diverse. Even after the Bakke case became law, PWI admissions have not been seen as fair.
Over the past few years, we have seen how important representation is. One of the most recent examples is from Disney's Encanto and how many young people see themselves in the characters. The same is true for those who have the privilege to teach on college campuses.
Hundreds of people of color earn advanced degrees and doctorate degrees and seek to teach at top colleges and universities. However, there are roadblocks as to what they can publish. Sometimes, if their research is too focused on people of color, their work may be discredited. They may not be hired for faculty positions to which they are overqualified.
The justice component comes into this scenario when institutions continue to understand that representation is vital for students of color. Still, exposure is critical for those who do not identify as a person of color. That's what assists our world in its growth; being open to leaning in and being called into a conversation instead of being called out.
What does implementing a JEDI approach look like on campuses? Justice is infused throughout the campus. For example, justice (along with diversity, equity and inclusion) should be prominent in annual evaluations. As the JEDI approach is embraced within a campus community, everyone will seek justice in their everyday activities.
Ultimately, these practices will lead to the elimination of JEDI offices. The work that these leaders do is to eradicate the need for them altogether. I firmly believe that if we ask most JEDI officers, they will say that they wished their job was not needed.
I invite you to continue this critical conversation, wherever you may be – at home, at work or during a quiet moment with yourself. Talk about race in America, how it has impacted education and why so many people work so hard to make space for people of color to achieve the American Dream. What work can you do to ensure the issues we are discussing now are indeed history?