How Leaders Can Take Action to Advance Equity

Notes from the VPD Q&A: How Leaders Can Take Action to Advance Equity

VPD Q&A: How Leaders Can Take Action to Advance Equity – 7/22/20

The Office of the Vice President for Diversity invited all campus leaders to attend a virtual Q&A that was specifically intended for those in positions as Directors, Department Heads, and above. All who registered were asked to submit a question in advance.

These notes are available to supplement the video recording of this Q&A Session, which can be watched here. Please note, this is a follow up to the first VPD Q&A session on anti-racism, which was marketed for those serving on diversity committees.


Current Contexts to Keep in Mind Regarding Equity

  • COVID-19 Pandemic: Equity issues are revealed and heightened through the pandemic, especially with respect to how structural shortcoming differently affect people across identities. Differences in race, class, gender, and ability, as well as family structure, employment category, and status at CSU, are just some factors that correlate to different burdens. Due to systemic racism, communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and many people are facing financial hardships. To be equitable, leaders should direct resources and attention to those with the heaviest burdens.
  • Racial Justice: Equity in the context of racial justice demands uplifting Black and Indigenous people, as well as people of color, through anti-racist efforts that challenge white supremacy.
  • Equity, broadly defined: There are multiple ways to advance equity by addressing systemic issues that disproportionately negatively affect all marginalized groups in our community as they navigate our institution. In this respect, equity is relevant to CSU’s broad definition of diversity. For example, equity is the goal when increasing access for those with disabilities, just as gender equity is connected to creating a more inclusive culture for those who are trans and non-binary. The following recommendations are offered with this broad notion of equity in mind.

Additional Key Words and Concepts

  • Diversity: CSU Diversity Statement includes differences across “age, culture, different ideas and perspectives, disability, ethnicity, first generation status, familial status, gender identity and expression, geographic background, marital status, national origin, race, religious and spiritual beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, medical diagnosis, documentation status, and veteran status with special attention given to populations historically underrepresented or excluded from participation in higher education.”
  • Anti-Blackness: Addressing anti-Blackness at CSU requires centering the needs of Black students, staff, and faculty, while also addressing the broad and complex culture of anti-Blackness, which is maintained through more than just individual racist actions.
  • Inclusion: Whereas ‘diversity’ often simply acknowledges that differences exist, inclusion makes those differences meaningful; differences in identity and experience are embraced and included in how things get done. Systems, projects, and programs are created with the needs and talents of a diversity of people and groups in mind, such that people of all identities and backgrounds feel welcomed, valued, and affirmed.
  • Equity: Addresses the conditions – including policies and practices, not just individual actions – that either suppress or uplift the status of those who are members of marginalized groups. An equity mindset does not look at all things equally, but rather focuses on investing attention and resources on areas that improve the condition for those who experience disproportionate burden. “You can’t have equality if you don’t do equity work first.”
    • For more, see Dr. D-L Stewart’s piece, “Language of Appeasement,” from Inside Higher Ed.
      • *Please note that Dr. D-L Stewart published this article under a different name he no longer uses. D-L is not a nickname or abbreviation; rather it is how one should respectfully refer to him when citing, sharing, or discussing his work.
  • Whiteness: Not just referring to people who are white based on skin color or identity, but participation in a culture of norms and values that uphold white supremacy. This can show up in daily institutional practices, as well as personal responses that reflect a culture of whiteness. Most people who are socialized in a culture of whiteness will unconsciously internalize it and will need to become aware of whiteness in order to unlearn it.
  • White Supremacy: Not just referring to neo-Nazis or notorious hate groups, but a whole set of cultural norms, values, beliefs, assumptions, policies, practices, and beliefs that reinforce assumptions about white people and whiteness as supreme over other groups that are not white. This can show up as implicit assumptions about an inherently greater value or degree of worthiness and competency among those who are white or embody whiteness.
  • Privilege: Access to power, resources, and assets (as well as a certain degree of protection) that could be used to disrupt systems of inequity. Until it is acknowledged and leveraged as such, privilege often inadvertently perpetuates inequities by giving some people unfair advantages and benefits that are not available to marginalized groups. Leaders with positional power have more privilege to leverage and push for institutional changes.
  • Allyship: When someone uses their privilege to work with and uplift marginalized groups through concerted and deliberate action, including efforts to remove barriers that prevent equal opportunities for disadvantaged groups.


Centering Ourselves with a Vision for the Future of CSU

What does the CSU we strive to create look and feel like? Instead of just reacting to the most recent crisis, we invite leaders to ground themselves in a vision of a future CSU that is equitable and inclusive so that we know where we want to go. Only then can we determine how to get there.

Multicultural Organization Development (MCOD) Model (endorsed by CSU Cabinet, Fall 2015)

Stage Six of MCOD offers a fully-actualized vision of a Multicultural Organization, and includes:

  • Clear commitment to creating an inclusive organization and consistent articulation of that vision
  • Seeks, develops, and values contributions of all employees
  • Include all members as active participants in decisions that shape the organization
  • Employees reflect diverse cultural and social groups throughout all levels of the organization
  • Acts on its commitment to eliminate all forms of exclusion and discrimination in the organization (i.e., accountability)
  • Follows through on broader social and environmental responsibilities


Clarifying the Role of Leaders

Leaders do not need to be deeply proficient around equity and racial justice yet in order to step up right now with strong leadership. If you are feeling uncertain or vulnerable with respect to how you can best lead your unit, clarify your role as a leader, as the one who sets the conditions for equity work to be prioritized and done well.

  • Set the tone and priorities of your unit – make it consistent and explicit that equity is a priority and a commitment that aligns with our Principles of Community
    • Frame issues of equity and inclusion as institutional priorities in order to circumvent potential concerns about forcing people to engage in “political debate”
  • Establish a culture of support within your unit that encourages people to participate and work to advance equity
    • Call in more people to participate in equity efforts and support the teams you create
    • Provide relevant information and resources to help them develop and grow as a team and as individuals
    • Check in on your employees – ask how they are doing and what they need in order to be okay as they continue working under difficult and stressful circumstances
  • Don’t just provide permission for others to pursue equity work – ask your unit to hold you accountable as the leader to support these efforts
  • Address issues as they come up
    • Do not ignore, diminish, or dismiss any opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to equity
    • Believe what an employee tells you about their experiences; employees are looking to leaders to respond, support, and help them navigate the challenges they encounter
    • Hold those who cause harm accountable for the harm committed, even if it was unintentional
      • In addition to traditional personnel processes, this can include one-on-one coaching, conversations, and consistent follow-up to identify and redirect behavior that has caused negative impact
    • Utilize the available data to inform your equity-based commitments and priorities
      • Refer to the climate survey and prioritize issues of concern that have been expressed and recorded through institutional data
      • Recognize that issues revealed through climate survey data reflect broader cultural and system inequities for women, trans and non-binary individuals, people of color, low-paid employees, and those with disabilities
      • Establish measurable goals through articulated metrics and hold your unit accountable for meeting them; follow up to identify obstacles if they are not being met on projected timelines
    • Engage your team to critically review your unit’s practices and operations on a regular basis. Make it a norm to assess hiring, retention, curriculum, programming, budgets, and all other operations by consistently asking questions, such as:
      • “When we doing things, who benefits from how we do this?”
      • “Who is not being served by how we do this?”
      • “Who have we not considered in our process of putting this together?”
      • “What do we need to do to create an inclusive culture?”
      • “What barriers exist for others that we can remove?”
    • Initiate an audit of your physical environment. See these resources:
    • Practice PAN-ing (Pay Attention Now). Fevelop your skills to notice and observe subtle dynamics in your culture and physical space. This can also be used to better support those who are embodying a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity:
      • Notice who withing your unit are participating in diversity and inclusion trainings, and who are serving on diversity and inclusion committees
      • Meaningfully acknowledge, support, recognize, encourage, and reward these efforts
      • Create space in regular unit meetings for people to share what they learned in a training with others who did not attend
    • Acknowledge that it is possible to dramatically change how things get done on cultural and systemic levels. The pandemic forced a massive shift in our “normal” operations; this same level of commitment to innovative problem solving could be harnessed to make more equitable practices a reality


Communication Strategies for Leaders

Articulate and regularly communicate your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through both internal communications with your team and external communications through your websites and newsletters.

  • Identify priorities, including efforts that have potential for greatest positive impact, and remove items that do not address those priorities
    • Resist merely “adding on” diversity, equity, and inclusion as a new priority; instead, embed the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion into every priority area
  • State where you really stand on issues, even if that means acknowledging that you collectively need to learn more about the equity issues at stake
    • Be transparent; intentions behind statements must reflect an honest and authentic commitment. Crafting a statement from a place of pressure or expectation poses greater risk of harm and damage, especially if you are not willing and able to fully commit to the work of equity and inclusion
    • Assemble and develop a diverse team within your unit that can review and assess all materials (website, messages, emails, program materials) for inclusive language. If this is a gap in your unit, acknowledge and address it by building capacity and skills among your team to review all operations through an equity lens
    • Include examples of concrete actions your unit will take to advance equity – this is a way to model transparency and accountability as it states expectations for all to pursue
      • Initiate a team process to engage others in identifying which actions to prioritize and incorporate them into your Diversity Strategic Plan


Budgeting for Equity

It is important to adequately fund and resource diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but you can do this even when resources are tight.  If you have money, you have resources to put towards equity.

  • Reassess and realign how you use existing funds by incorporating equity interventions into current budget lines
    • Avoid the “add on” mentality by adopting an “already in” approach
      • Rather than thinking you must hire a new position to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, articulate expectations for salaried positions to fulfill their job duties in ways that promote and advance equity. Help your team identify where and how they can make appropriate adjustments to focus on equitably serving marginalized groups.
      • Review and revise existing programs to make them more inclusive and equity-focused
      • Identify how all practices, processes, and services can ultimately work to more equitably benefit and serve underrepresented students and employees


Recruitment, Hiring, and Retention

  • Be deliberate about recruitment long before posting a position description – intentionally develop relationships early on through conferences and professional networks
  • Highlight and elevate competency around diversity, equity, and inclusion in every position description as an expectation for how anyone can do their job
    • Use this language to connect a position description with priorities to advance equitable outcomes in your unit and hire to fill gaps in your existing team
  • Be conscientious about intensive interview schedules that are both physically and psychologically demanding; implement breaks throughout, and deliberately plan interactions with multiple audiences that can mitigate repetition of questions and answers
  • Focus on creating an inclusive onboarding process that creates opportunities for intentional conversations and relationship building ahead of time
  • Mentorship is too often approached as a coaching or “grooming” relationship that seeks to assimilate employees into an existing culture (even if that culture is exclusionary). Instead, develop a more high-contact relationship that supports someone through navigating institutional processes (like tenure), or sponsorship, which creates opportunities that position them for greater professional development
  • As a supervisor, do not wait until an annual evaluation to give an employee feedback. Develop a regular and consistent meeting schedule to provide feedback and learn about what support they need from you
  • Unit leaders are responsible for creating a culture of support where feedback is expected, given, and asked for on a regularly basis as an investment in employee development



Leaders should expand their notions of accountability to be more than punitive actions exercised through formal reporting lines of supervisor-supervisee relationships. Accountability demonstrates a commitment to the larger community and is an integral practice for creating more equitable cultures and spaces.

  • Given power dynamics in a hierarchical organization, leaders should also embody expectations to hold other leaders accountable on a peer-to-peer level. This can be approached in a supportive and collaborative way that heightens leaders’ responsibility and effectiveness
    • Providing feedback, engaging in critical conversations, offering support to do better, and checking in to follow up on expected actions can be additional ways to practice accountability
  • Understand that accountability requires more than just addressing the one who causes harm; to be accountable also means responding to the needs of those who have been harmed by listening to their experiences and providing appropriate support and resources
  • Tenured faculty have additional layers of institutional privilege that position them to be strong advocates who hold the University and leadership accountable to engage in equitable distribution of resources and policy changes that can affect students, staff, and faculty
    • With this in mind, faculty can advocate and push for change by intentionally prioritize service on diversity-related committees and University initiatives