The need for diversity and inclusion, starting with the college classroom

Mareda Smith (‘19), Just Action Columnist

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It’s no secret that our community is experiencing stirrings for change and an ongoing identity crisis. Looking outside Luther, our nation and our world have undergone a stark pendulum-swing in political agenda, one that has furthered the drastic polarization of our country and strained relationships with our international neighbors. Perhaps I’m not the only one that feels a sense of anxiety when learning about the many complex and divisive issues in the world today.

Yet instead of being paralyzed by our fears or sense of helplessness, our liberal arts education calls us to engage. Just Action, a growing and diverse group of faculty, staff, and students from across campus, hopes to encourage our community to invest in conversation, advocacy, and action. In our bi-weekly meetings, we discuss local and national issues of social justice, as well as the campaigns and policies that seek to address them.  We brainstorm creative ways that we can support ongoing efforts and introduce fresh ideas to make an impact here at Luther and beyond. We hope to continue collaborating with various campus organizations and the administration to facilitate these important conversations and implement positive change.

Recently, Just Action discussed how the recent concerns for diversity and inclusion could be addressed at Luther. In their February report, strategic planning consultant Keeling & Associates highlighted a prevailing theme revealed in their interviews, one that consistently “expressed the need to address diversity and inclusion.” While there certainly can be no quick, easy fix to this multifaceted concern, many members of Just Action have proposed that Luther’s response begin at the core of Luther: the classroom.

In order to confront the issue of diversity and inclusion in the classroom we need to establish safe classroom environments that genuinely embrace all aspects of students’ differences and facilitate conversations which challenge students to consider alternative perspectives. The close-knit communities formed within Luther classrooms present prime opportunities to humanize the issues we face, broaden students’ horizons, and wrestle with the stereotypes and prejudices we all hold.

To encourage these formative classroom discussions, faculty need to have the resources to facilitate them. Keeling & Associates also reported the common belief that “Luther must explore ways to support incoming students academically and to help them feel safe and included, and to prepare faculty and staff to work effectively and empathetically with a more diverse student population.” Some students have pointed out that while some professors have deeply challenged their beliefs and forced them to consider perspectives they wouldn’t otherwise, too many members of the faculty avoid sensitive topics or further harmful narratives with tone-deaf comments. Just Action believes that in order to reverse this pattern of shoving uncomfortable topics under the rug and/or hurting students with harmful comments, there must be further support and training for faculty and staff. These conversations are central to the strength of Luther’s hallmark as a welcoming and inclusive community. Not to mention, they are essential to making sure students of many diverse backgrounds feel respected and valued on Luther’s campus.

There are no obvious answers as to what this support should look like, but Just Action feels it is essential that we provide faculty and staff the tools to facilitate challenging conversations with students throughout the campus community. Previously offered trainings have been sparsely attended and campus conversations about these issues tend to be frequented by the same group of faculty and staff, therefore we feel it is necessary to incentivize or require such training. One proposed model suggests including this training as part of the third-year review or tenure processes. No matter how it is approached, we feel that it is not enough to simply make this training available to our faculty and staff, but that there is a need to hold one another accountable.

I know I’m not alone in saying that I hold great respect for the faculty and staff at Luther. Some of the mentor relationships that I value most are the ones in which my thinking is challenged and I’m encouraged to consider different perspectives. I sincerely hope that this training will be considered as a chance to foster an informed and thoughtful community and to live out our calling to be a place that welcomes and celebrates all of our unique differences.

Just Action is open and welcoming to all individuals on campus and in the Decorah community who are interested in contributing to social justice advocacy at Luther and beyond. To learn more, please contact Joseph Kremer at [email protected]

Signed,

Mareda Smith (‘19)

Just Action Columnist

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