Last week, the Berkeley Beacon editorial board published an article titled “What’s in a name?” examining recent name changes of the Educational Equity and Justice Committee (formerly the Ad Hoc Committee for Cultural Competency) and the Social Justice Center (formerly the Office of Diversity and Inclusion).
This article expresses a concern that these name changes are nothing more than another bureaucratic distraction from actual action. In my two years as co-chair of POWER, I have encountered many of those. In this case, I believe that the changing of language is not an empty gesture. It represents a commitment to go beyond the work of diversity and inclusion, beyond the low standard of simple “competency,” and strive for true equity and justice. It may seem inconsequential, but language is one crucial way that systems of oppression maintain control over our ideas, perceptions, communication, and lives. Defining ourselves, defining our work and our mission in our own terms, is one way of resisting those systems and affirming agency.
The article notes that the words “diversity” and “inclusion” have largely lost their meaning. In order to address this issue, it’s crucial for us to adapt our word choices to more accurately reflect our intentions and goals. If language and naming had no significance to the work of social justice, we would still be using outdated and offensive terminology (“colored people”) versus the person-first language (“people of color”) that is accepted today. These changes may seem small, but they do matter. They help to reframe our thinking and center what’s important: people, not institutions.
The article states, “Promoting intersectionality and diversity shouldn’t immediately be clumped under the label of ‘social justice.’ This only perpetuates the idea that inclusion is inherently political, and should always be seen as such.”
There are several false assumptions here. The first is that diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality are somehow separate from the work of social justice, when in fact social justice encompasses all of these facets. The other, perhaps more harmful assumption is that circumstances exist where inclusion can be apolitical. To state that the work of inclusion is not inherently political is to ignore the sociopolitical and historical context of who is typically included, who is excluded, and why. As one of my peers stated at the protest in October, “Our lives are political. Our existence is political.” It is impossible to separate inclusion from social justice or political context. Oppression does not happen to everyone equally, because of the systems of privilege that influence our institutions and social structures in violent and subtle ways. The way I see it, you can have diversity and inclusion without social justice, but you cannot have social justice without diversity and inclusion.
The EEJC and the SJC are two groups that have arguably done the most to support marginalized students, meet POWER’s demands, and hold the college accountable. Last semester, the Ad Hoc Committee for Cultural Competency held an open meeting to outline action plans to address each specific item from our petition. The SJC has published new web pages about DACA and the progress to date on POWER’s demands in an effort to improve transparency and accountability.
It’s important to be critical and ask questions throughout the process of fighting for change. But I don’t believe it’s productive or fair to criticize these groups for reaffirming their commitment to this change, when they are demonstrating their willingness to do the work.
It is extremely difficult to achieve radical change in an institution such as Emerson College, where structure, hierarchy, and bureaucracy tend to slow progress every step of the way. We create change in small increments. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aim for more, especially when the work is as important as this. But maybe it’s not a bad thing to celebrate (rather than scoff at) even the smallest of changes and the littlest of victories, to acknowledge and appreciate every minute movement toward justice, before asking how we can do more. Let’s not dismiss the importance of words or the political nature of the inclusion we seek.