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NewsJul 13, 2020

Envisioning an anti-racist university

Lesley announces tangible steps toward equity

American flag and Lesley flag

This month, Lesley President Janet L. Steinmayer and Associate Diversity Officer/Chair of President’s Diversity Advisory Committee Maritsa Barros announced a long-term strategy — and some immediate, tangible steps — toward building a more anti-racist university community.

A joint letter from Steinmayer and Barros reads that true change “will come through the practice of co-creation in building a better Lesley that is reflective and inclusive of all its community members,” especially students, a number of whom are members of a newly formed Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Student Committee. This committee will work in concert with the new President’s Diversity Advisory Committee to further develop diversity, equity and inclusion at the university and launch a plan to bring transformational change in matters of justice and equity, search for a vice president to replace former Chief Diversity Officer Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa (who accepted a position at Harvard University) and develop priorities for that individual.

"When we were asked if we would like to serve on the President's DEI Student Committee, I immediately jumped at the opportunity,” said undergraduate student Gihanah Seb-Di Dio, who majors in secondary education and English. “It is very rare that students are given the opportunity to work closely with faculty, staff and the president, so we used every chance we had to push for necessary change." 

The advisory committee was designed to sunset on July 10, and has already made reportable progress: 

  • The university has committed to a phased investment in inclusive excellence so that, within the next 3-5 years, it totals $1 million in annual support.
  • The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to increase the restricted fund for scholarships for the Urban Scholars Initiative by $1 million.
  • Initial cultural competency and anti-bias training will take place with the board over the summer and with President Steinmayer’s Cabinet, Lesley’s deans, core and adjunct faculty and staff in August. This training will also be provided to new university employees as part of their orientation. A second round of training will occur prior to the start of the spring semester.
  • The university is posting the positions of Equal Opportunity/Title IX Coordinator and a Director of Multicultural Recruitment and Student Inclusion. The Office of DEI will also begin its review process to fill three positions to be filled by graduate assistants to support the work of the office in areas of Multicultural Affairs, LGBTQIA+ and Equal Opportunity.

The activities are just the latest steps the university has undertaken, aligned with our social-justice mission, to address systemic racism and a number of specific concerns raised by students, staff, faculty and especially Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in the President’s Advisory Committee. The community-wide accountability forum — hosted on Zoom and attended by nearly 400 people — and letters sent to the administration from BIPOC students and other campus constituents served as a guide to the President’s Diversity Advisory Committee in identifying these latest action items. An update on further actions to be taken following the sunsetting of this committee will be shared by the president and committee chair in coming days.

The letter from the BIPOC students to administration signed by 553 people, delineates 15 demands, including tripling the percentage of Black students (from 6 to 18 percent, which would fall between the Black population of the United States overall and the city of Boston), deliberate recruitment of faculty of color, increased anti-racism training and curriculum, designated “safer space” for Black students, and more.

“We do not feel it is fair to constantly bear the burden of playing the role of ambassador for our race and/or ethnicity in order to educate our white counterparts,” reads the letter of demands by students of color. “It perpetuates a harmful and traumatizing dynamic for students of color that pay to receive an education in a space that is already uncomfortable for BIPOC as Lesley is a (predominantly) white institution.”

The campus climate at Lesley must change and it must begin with each one of us regardless of what title we hold in this organization.
President Janet L. Steinmayer and Associate Diversity Officer Maritsa Barros

Many of the points made in the students of color letter were reflected in the breakout session notes from the accountability forum, including calls for a more racially diverse faculty, staff, administration and Board of Trustees. Other participants were dissatisfied with the pace of change and what they saw as a “lack of transparency” and collaboration in decision-making and policy-setting.  

Other common themes included complaints of overt racism, microaggressions and worries that students of color are often pressed into the role of anti-racism teachers or “ambassadors” of their race, rather than faculty working to challenge implicit bias or police specific racist behavior in the classroom. Similarly, participants said Lesley’s curriculum and activities lack diversity.

“Everyone deserves a right to education, but everyone also deserves to feel accepted and comfortable where they are being educated at,” said student committee member Destany Rodriguez, an undergraduate global studies major with a mathematics minor. “With the DEI committee I hope to see actual change that will be long-lasting and not just have hopeful conversations.”

Both Steinmayer and Barros acknowledged that, despite some early progress, the job of creating an equitable, anti-racist community is just getting started.

“We are working to set new expectations of standards of equity and inclusion in our community and will build systems and deploy practices to hold ourselves accountable for meeting them,” their letter reads. “As members of the Lesley community flow in and out of our campus and educational pipelines there will be no tolerance for hate, discrimination, violence or bias based on the color of anyone’s skin or social identity that they hold or are perceived to hold. The campus climate at Lesley must change and it must begin with each one of us regardless of what title we hold in this organization.”

Undergraduate expressive arts therapy major Victoria Massey indicated that she is encouraged.

“Every institution needs to prioritize creating an anti-racist and equitable space for everyone to thrive within," she said, adding she greatly appreciated having a seat at the table. "Including student voices ensures that the work is done.”