The members of American University’s President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion (PCDI) bonded over karaoke singalongs and s’mores during a fall 2019 retreat at Airlie. Then they got down to business.
PCDI has a huge mandate: to envision and promote a diverse and inclusive campus, where everyone is welcome and heard, and to help make this vision a reality.
The council is an “instrumental partner” in advancing AU’s inclusive excellence work, a key goal of AU’s strategic plan, says Amanda Taylor, assistant vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Taylor, who works closely with the 35-member group, says PCDI draws “from a variety of backgrounds, roles, identities, and lived experiences” and is “united by our commitment to building a more inclusive and equitable community at AU and beyond.”
Other universities have campus groups leading similar work, but Taylor says AU’s is unique in its broad reach, with four clusters of members from across the campus community: faculty, staff, students, and alumni. “We challenge each other to expand our thinking, to question our assumptions, and to build new and stronger relationships,” she says.
The university’s Plan for Inclusive Excellence, now marking its second anniversary, is poised to embark on years three through five. PCDI analyzed data from the first two years to evaluate the first phase of the plan and gathered community feedback from more than 50 listening sessions to help shape the future. Those sessions were wide-ranging, pulling together everyone from students to faculty-staff affinity groups to the board of trustees.
PCDI also oversees the Inclusive Excellence Mini-Grant program, which supports collaborative and innovative projects to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at AU. This year saw a 43 percent increase in grant applications over last, with $17,000 dollars awarded for 16 projects. A symposium showcasing academic research led by Latinx/a/o scholars at AU, an analysis of Islamophobia in the media, and an effort to build a diverse STEM community at AU are just a few of the projects funded by mini-grants. Another supported a day-long fall symposium where AU community members explored the role of creativity and the arts in efforts towards healing and restorative justice.
PCDI faculty cluster lead Ximena Varela, director of the arts management program in the College of Arts and Sciences’ (CAS) department of performing arts, believes the council’s most important contribution has been to infuse “diversity, equity, and inclusion into all aspects of the university’s work, from the tiniest issues to the biggest endeavors.”
The tight bond among PCDI members has been accentuated during the COVID-19 crisis. Sophie Nowak, BA/SPA ’21, appreciated another PCDI member's invitation to a virtual family dinner. “It was such a sweet gesture,” says Nowak. “It really gave me a sense of normalcy and belonging during the rough transition coming back home.”
Though COVID-19 has interrupted PCDI’s face-to-face meetings, it has not stopped the ongoing work. The virus only underscores the issues of inequity and racism in society that are at the heart of AU's inclusive excellence efforts. Taylor sees the virus's disproportionate impact on African American, Latinx/a/o, and immigrant communities, along with the rise in xenophobia and racism against Asians and Asian Americans, as key equity issues that will inform the work going forward.
We asked other PCDI members how they believe the group has contributed to advancing diversity and inclusion at American, and what they see in the years ahead. Here is a snapshot of the answers from the people on the frontlines of this critical work:
Perry Zurn, assistant professor of philosophy and religion at the College of Arts and Sciences, is pleased with PCDI’s collaborations so far. “I have never experienced a team so committed and a university so supportive of the work of inclusive excellence,” says Zurn. “The PCDI is fierce and efficient. But it is really the humor and humanity of these folks that astounds me. I feel honored to be a part of it. ”
Zurn says the biggest contribution PCDI has made is expanding the definition of inclusive excellence and being sensitive to the barriers and systems of oppression that threaten the ability of these groups to flourish in higher education. “We think about first-gen students, women in STEM, students with physical disabilities, neuroatypical students, students with learning differences, LGBT students, students of color, international students, ESL students, low-income students, students with housing and food insecurities, students struggling with mental health, students in the military, students of different religious faiths and traditions.”
Tamir Harper, BA/SOC ’22, and Nowak are two of 14 students who serve on the Student Advisory Council (SAC) to PCDI.
A sophomore studying public relations and strategic communications and minoring in education, Harper, whose goal is to become an educator, is currently co-chair of the SAC. Harper says the listening sessions PCDI holds are its most important contribution because “we literally listen to the community about what they want to see changed on campus or placed in the inclusive excellence plan.” His favorite moment this year was using what PCDI heard to suggest revisions to the plan. “While the plan will never be perfect, I think it does make it clear the university desires to make the campus more inclusive,” Harper says.
Nowak, a junior majoring in justice and law with a concentration in terrorism and counterterrorism operations, is a member of Army ROTC on campus. She says PCDI’s greatest contribution has been to help ensure that “inclusive excellence is at the forefront of the university’s actions.”
Nowak also applauds the success of the mini-grant program to increase diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. “It has been really cool to see what individuals and groups within the community have come up with, and the mini-grants provide a way for anyone to have direct ownership and action in improving the university climate,” Nowak says.
Andrew Toczydlowski, director of student development and services at the Kogod School of Business, says PCDI considers the important role of staff in the university community. “Sometimes staff have trouble finding their voice or being heard, but PCDI has allowed staff to have a constant and valued voice at the table when it comes to inclusive excellence on campus,” he says.
One of PCDI’s most important contributions has been creating the IDEA committee, a network of people across the university working on diversity and inclusion, to collaborate and share best practices. Toczydlowksi says he hopes PCDI becomes a “campus-wide resource for integrating inclusive excellence into every community member’s everyday work.”
Melanie Brown, CAS/BA ’02, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says PCDI works well because it focuses on results and what those results will mean. “We spend a lot of time and do a lot of work on crafting the right language, but in the end, [we are focused on] what it mean[s] for real people—for the students, staff, and faculty at AU. I am proud to be part of a team that has been focused on that from the start, and I hope we never lose that.”
As to where she hopes the inclusive excellence plan will go in years three through five, Brown says she believes success will mirror what she has seen among members of PCDI itself. “I hope we can take what we have created as a team—a welcoming place, a healing place, a space for belonging—and have that be what emanates from the plan. What is written down in the plan is important. And the results from the plan are crucial. But what I hope we accomplish lives in the spaces surrounding the plan and the results. I think we have created in PCDI what we want for all of AU.”