In three days, student volunteers from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs will present faculty with a formal proposal to create a Departmental Diversity Committee, or DDC. The proposal describes the proposed committee’s structure and mission and includes a detailed action plan for the 2020-21 academic year. It is the result of an intense and sustained effort by students in SMEA’s Diversity Forum and a volunteer committee who worked throughout the summer doing the research needed to formulate their proposal.
To learn about SMEA’s DDC, I interviewed alumna Sallie Lau and current student Bridget Harding, two of the main architects of the DDC proposal and co-founders of the Diversity Forum. The Currents board also spoke to Brian Tracey, a SMEA alumnus who wrote his thesis on the experience of underrepresented minorities at SMEA and was the head of the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) committees of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and of the College of the Environment during his time at UW. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You two co-founded Diversity Forum, which was designed to be a space for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students to exist as themselves and for allies to learn and become better allies. Over the course of spring quarter, you found the group’s focus shifting increasingly toward advancing DEI in SMEA. The Diversity Forum put on a DEI-centered town hall in May, followed by a listening session in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. During the town hall, most of SMEA agreed there was a need for a DEI committee. Why is that?
Sallie: A lot of Diversity Forum members are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+, and at the end of spring quarter, we were doing a lot of the work and feeling the burden. Speaking for myself, I like doing this work, but it shouldn’t be just me; it shouldn’t be just us.
In terms of DEI, SMEA has a long way to go. The Black students and faculty who have been here have not felt supported. And SMEA has a long way to go not just in terms of recruitment of Black students, but also Native American students and faculty. We really need to reflect on why that is.
Bridget: The balance of responsibility we took on was heavily skewed, and we only realized that when we learned how other departments have formal DEI committees where students, staff, and faculty share the labor. Several other programs in the College of the Environment already have such committees.
SMEA considers itself and probably is, on paper, the most diverse department in the College of the Environment. However, the fact remains that a person of color can walk into a SMEA classroom and still be the only person of their identity. How can you be the most diverse department and still have that happen?
Sallie: Also, when it comes to the redistribution of work, if you are a white professor you have relatively more power, money, and resources than students and postdocs. I feel that if you believe in any form of taxation that you should be doing DEI work. If you believe in the redistribution of resources through taxation and you believe in the importance of DEI, why don’t wouldn’t you redistribute your own resources to movements like this one?
Q: We asked Brian to elaborate on this. Where does SMEA need to start if they’re going to address DEI issues?
Brian: Speaking from my experience, if you want to start a DEI committee you definitely have to have a goal in mind, and that goal has to be based in realism. If it isn’t, you can burn out. You could start to feel bad that nothing you’ve committed to change is actually changing despite forming a committee, and you’ll wonder, “What did we do wrong?” When really, it’s not you or the people that are involved, it’s just the fact that it’s a tough task. I definitely wouldn’t discourage forming a committee, but proceed with caution and set realistic expectations.
One of the things I’m really big on is defining what your terms mean. When I give talks or trainings on diversity, I ask people, “What does justice mean?” We use these terms all the time, but what do we mean by them? “What does justice look like for us?” I know what I mean when I say justice, but my definition will be different from yours. So when it comes to SMEA’s DEI committee, I would start there.
You may have demands and ideas, but how do you envision accessibility or diversity? What does an equitable or just SMEA look like? What do you mean when you say you want to have better support systems for non-white or otherwise marginalized students? If you’re just throwing stuff at the wall because it sounds nice, like Jackson Pollock, are you creating something coherent, or is it just paint on the wall?
It’s important in any blueprint to ask yourselves, “What do these asks look like as tangible actions? How does this manifest in reality?” You might find that some of what you’ve written sounds good but that you don’t really know what implementing that would look like at SMEA. That’s actually a good thing, because you can then go to faculty and staff and say: “We’re wrestling with this as students, what’s your input? We want to make this as realistic and feasible as possible. We started this work, can you help us finish it?” I think that’s a good place to start.
Q: What kind of preparation went into writing the DDC blueprint?
Sallie: Bridget was on the team that interviewed ten SMEA faculty and other departmental committees on how to create and operate a Diversity Committee. I was part of the team that wrote the action plan to determine priorities.
The action plan reflects a lot of our demands letter, which was written in June, right after George Floyd’s death, during this upwelling of conversation around anti-racism. We wrote it in response to inaction in our department and the UW as a whole, particularly regarding the Black Student Union’s demands, with which we specifically wanted to express solidarity.
A lot of our demands letter speaks to broad, structural issues, but it also reflects the immediate actions that we as students feel SMEA should be taking. Interviews with faculty and other departmental committees drew out additional priorities, and we refined it further through discussions with Diversity Forum members.
The summer research team drew inspiration from a lot of other action plans by other departments and organizations in marine and environmental affairs doing DEI work: Washington Sea Grant, the UW blueprint, and EarthLab. Our template for our current action plan is from EarthLab, so shout out to those folks!
Q: Why is the DDC student-to-faculty ratio important?
Sallie: DEI work has been disproportionately a student effort, but because the Diversity Forum is an informal student group, we don’t have any institutional power. We have to push really hard. Often nothing comes of it, even when we put a lot of effort and emotional labor into it.
Bridget: We want the DDC to be a student-majority committee and our proposal is to have nine members: five students and a mixture of two faculty, one postdoc, and one staff member. Decision making will be by consensus to encourage discussion, cooperation, and investment in the committee’s work.
Q: Do you have concerns about the DDC continuing after you graduate?
Sallie: Continuity is such a big barrier when you’ve only got two years.
Bridget: Sallie has graduated, and I’m graduating soon. The fact that SMEA’s student body has a nearly complete turnover every two years is scary. Since the faculty turnover rate is much lower, continuity and success will rely heavily on faculty support.
Q: How would the DDC help share the workload more evenly among the SMEA community?
Sallie: In our demands letter we were careful to include things for other student groups to work on, and the action plan also integrates a lot of actions into the work of existing committees. For faculty on college-level committees, if you’re having important conversations within your department about DEI, maybe you can bring these conversations to those college-level committees, and a DDC would help facilitate them.
DEI should be the work of the entire SMEA community, not just one group of individuals within the school. A DDC can make DEI and accountability part of SMEA every day, regardless of inaction from the university.
Q: What are some of the early results you’ve seen?
Bridget: DEI was second only to COVID-19 on the agenda for the opening faculty meeting of this school year, which is a promising indication of where priorities lie.
Sallie: We had student groups such as Currents and SEAS revising or writing up statements thinking about inclusivity and justice in their own work and starting conversations there. [Editor’s note: Currents also began a series over the summer highlighting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ perspectives in the marine and environmental fields; that series will be resuming as a feature series this month.]
Bridget: We’ve also seen several positive responses from our faculty to our demands letter. Dr. Dave Fluharty reached out to Diversity Forum members over the summer to collaborate on putting together SMEA’s Environmental Justice Speakers Series, which is already underway this quarter. The curriculum committee announced that it will work with students to address our demands on incorporating environmental justice in SMEA courses and student projects. Students are working with the admissions committee to expand and diversify SMEA’s recruitment efforts, though admittedly they are doing this without pay. It is this momentum that we have in the beginning of this academic year that we want to build on with the creation of a DEI committee.
Q: What is your long-term vision for SMEA and the DDC in the coming decade?
Bridget: I want the DDC to do the work. I want to see them host town halls for the entire SMEA community every quarter. I want them to put on inspiring workshops and pay BIPOC and LGBTQ+ speakers to come and talk. I want them to do all the right things that many across our university are afraid of doing.
Sallie: I want to see a SMEA that conscientiously and carefully implements equitable and just practices in all aspects of its operations. Like Brian, I want to see a SMEA that continuously reflects upon these questions: “What does equity mean for our school? What is justice to us?” I want to make SMEA’s environment more supportive of and friendly to people like me who will come into the program in the future.