The Diversity Certificate: Equity and Student Success

by Debonair Oates-Primus and Faye Allard

On the third floor of the West Building in a congested lecture classroom, 94 Community College of Philadelphia employees nervously funneled in and surrounded the perimeter once every seat was full, to have the first difficult diversity discussion of the semester. Why would faculty, staff and administrators huddle together to have an uncomfortable discussion, you might ask, during the first day of Professional Development Week? The quick answer is simple: to read and discuss the featured article “Why Talk About Whiteness.” The longer answer is more complicated but can be summarized by one attendee’s reflection on racism naively being equated with personality traits. After some quiet contemplation she said, “Being nice is not enough.”

Most attendees came to the diversity opening session to discuss a topic that speaks to all of our lived realities in our classrooms, hallways, offices and beyond. People came because inside that corner classroom, a classroom that houses hundreds of our students from some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities, a secure space was being used to start a conversation about the various ways defensive and fragile reactions to racial dialogues stymie inclusive discourses. The session leaders began their discussion on how to confront feelings of resistance, defensiveness and silence during racial dialogues as white people, also known as white fragility. They took an anxious deep breath and sketched a diagram on the white board that represented the three different levels of reactions participants could have to their presentation. As the session pressed on, one faculty member shared, “I’ve never been able to talk about this before.” After the hour-long session, 64 people walked next door and attended a workshop titled “I, Too Sing CCP: Courageous Conversations in Creating a Culturally Inclusive Environment.” They had that courageous conversation for over two hours.

We created a Diversity Certificate program at the College to capture and build off those exciting and difficult moments. We wanted to create safe, undeniably open, spaces to have courageous, at times awkward, discourses across a range of diversity issues that span from inclusive curricular design to diversifying faculty populations to facing microaggressions in the classroom and the workplace. The Diversity Certificate Program is an important part of the College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and its continued support of faculty and staff reflecting on and improving their cultural competencies, but it is also an indication of our commitment to creating a culture of awareness and acceptance for everyone.

The aim of the Diversity Certificate Program is to offer quality workshops, dialogues and training on issues pertaining to all areas of diversity to all employees, and to get employees to attend. In order to earn a Diversity Certificate, employees must attend a minimum of four different Diversity Certificate events over an academic year. This certificate can be displayed in an employee’s workspace to show colleagues and students their commitment to diversity issues, and can be used to support tenure or promotion applications.

What makes the Community College of Philadelphia’s Diversity Certificate initiative unique is that it’s entirely faculty, staff and administration driven. By utilizing the skills and expertise of employees, the certificate includes education on a broad range of topics. Moreover, the sessions are a direct reflection of what employees want to learn. The fall 2017 programming has almost all of the sessions either being the result of an employee request or employee insights into areas of diversity that they think are important and that they are willing to share. This is rather unique for an initiative such as this, but is indeed one of the program’s greatest strengths. Our faculty-led roundtables, trainings and workshops meet our College community at their various competency levels, and they address student success interventions and foster discussion about equitable student learning and achievement. By insisting on the need and value of quality diversity programming, our certificate initiative can expand the topics and discussions so that they reflect the intersectional perspectives of our diverse student body. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “An inclusive curriculum, a diverse faculty, and practices that make the most of interactions among a diverse student body are all factors linked with learning” (Milem et. al). Research shows that students from diverse backgrounds are more likely to succeed when they are taught by faculty who reflect their background or are culturally competent. More recent studies are linking minority students’ attrition rates with “not feeling a sense of belonging” (Aguilar 3). Our diversity certificate program seeks to normalize these discussions and shift the College culture so that this work becomes the responsibility of everyone and not the just the underrepresented. At a College, where 72% of our student body are from diverse backgrounds, this programming is urgently necessary. In a political climate that is becoming progressively more racially, economically and gender divided, our diversity certificate program feels imperative.

The Diversity Certificate Program has run 14 different trainings, dialogues and panels, with five new sessions being developed for spring 2018. These sessions have focused on a wide range of issues, including hidden bias, microaggressions, LGTBQ issues, hiring, hearing loss and writing inclusive syllabi.

After just 10 months of programming, it is clear that the Diversity Certificate Program has exceeded our expectations. Feedback from these events has been overwhelmingly positive, resulting in multiple encore presentations to meet demand. Approximately 150 individual employees have attended a total of nearly 350 sessions. In less than a year, 23 faculty have earned the Diversity Certificate and many more are nearing meeting the requirements. Many employees are continuing their participation after receiving their Diversity Certificate. Organizers are currently developing a tiered system of certification. This ongoing interest coupled with the generosity of employees willing to develop and suggest ideas for new sessions, ensure that all at Community College of Philadelphia can keep their commitment to learning about diversity issues for the duration of their employment and beyond.