Year in review: Cultural competency, college-wide

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • April 20, 2016

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After students flooded a monthly faculty assembly meeting last spring with demands for cultural competency, President M. Lee Pelton promised change would be made. 

In the past year, the college has begun to address these issues. Administration and faculty are receiving required cultural competency training, and departments will soon evaluate their curricula for inclusivity. 

Changes began over the summer when Jabari Asim, an associate professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department, and Nancy Allen, executive-in-residence in communication studies, created the faculty assembly’s Ad Hoc Cultural Competency Committee, which they co-chair. 

Leaders from last year’s demonstration—junior Nathaniel Charles and senior Taylor Jett, both visual and media arts majors—worked with the ad hoc committee to ensure the voices of students of color were being heard. These students formed Protesting Oppression With Education Reform (POWER), a justice group with senators from each academic department.

In September, the college launched the Bias Response Program—an online system that allows students, faculty, and staff to report instances in which they feel they experienced prejudice. Sylvia Spears, vice president for diversity and inclusion, said there had been 18 reported incidents this academic year. Of these, 17 took place at the Boston campus, and one at the Well, Netherlands, campus.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Pelton sent an email to the Emerson community outlining the college’s continued diversity efforts. In our Diversity in Departments series, the Beacon asked each to elaborate on their plans to promote inclusivity—including the encouragement of fair casting practices in performing arts and visual and media arts, and the establishment of writing, literature, and publishing’s African American and Africana studies minor. 

In March, Faculty Assembly Chair Robert Colby invited POWER to lead the meeting. To a crowd of about 400 students, faculty, and staff in the Bill Bordy Theater, these representatives spoke about the changes made in their departments so far, and goals for the future. 

Following the presentation, a three-part motion—calling for continued mandatory faculty inclusivity training, curricula audits for diversity, and a plan for those who have been continually identified in bias issues—passed.

Since that assembly, Spears said her office has led introductory sessions at the department meetings for writing, literature, and publishing; communication studies; visual and media arts; performing arts; and also for the adjunct faculty in the School of the Arts.

POWER leaders said at the faculty meeting that they will next look to other aspects of Emerson they say are institutionally biased—including the Board of Trustees (which is predominately white and male) and admissions. Spears said that it would show extraordinary leadership if the board were willing to engage more deeply in these conversations. 

Spears said that while Diversity and Inclusion hosts many general workshops throughout the year, departments and offices have to bring forward their goals so her team can create more tailored and efficient training sessions.

“My hope is that we move with deliberate speed,” Spears said. “The time frame for faculty and administration is thoughtful and paced, but the timeframe for students who are experiencing bad things in their classrooms compels us to have a sense of urgency. It will never happen fast enough for students, and it will never happen fast enough for me.”