Feature left bracketright bracket Summer 2021

Confronting the Other Virus

WPI offers a clear, compassionate, and immediate response to a national reckoning around racism

While the COVID-19 pandemic was winding its invisible and destructive path across the globe in the summer of 2020, another insidious virus, this one carrying centuries of a different kind of anguish, became front and center.

With the murders of Ahmad Arby, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, the nation exploded into an upheaval of pain, fear, and rage (although woven through with a fragile thread of hope for justice) at the systemic racism that has been an unwelcome, constant presence in the nation’s history.

From Black Lives Matter protests in response to ongoing police brutality to anti-Asian racism, the events of the past year laid bare a stark reality of social, health, and economic inequities fueled by racism. In the midst of this turmoil, WPI students, faculty, and staff sought answers, action, and a sense of community—which itself posed challenges in a COVID-19 environment.

In messages to the WPI community, President Laurie Leshin and then Chairman of the Board of Trustees Jack Mollen made it clear  the university condemns all forms of racism and bias. They also called for action, because supporting underrepresented community members in a sustainable, effective, and empathetic way requires a multilayered, collaborative approach that starts at the board level and is infused through the entire community.

The work of building a more inclusive campus began before the pandemic hit, but in the span of a few short months, and in an all-virtual environment, WPI implemented new policies, brought together groups, welcomed outside speakers, introduced anti-racism resources, and—most important—heard each other in listening sessions and casual conversations. The most important first step was the university’s immediate commitment to embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the core beliefs of the university.

Long-term, Sustainable Change

Stating a commitment is one thing; putting it into action is where the real work begins. According to Rame Hanna, director of diversity and inclusive excellence, the need for an ongoing university commitment was clear. “It’s always important to make sure we are in dialogue and conversation with the community,” Hanna says. “We didn’t want to have two or three dialogues; rather we strive to be in constant, ongoing conversation with the community. People who work in DEI intentionally keep an ear to the ground so they can hear what’s important and incorporate that into critical programming and education.”

Emotions were particularly immediate, intense, and raw following the death of George Floyd. In a widely recognized shift, a profound sense of injustice united all sectors of the population, and Hanna says that’s pivotal. “Changing any culture isn’t something that happens immediately. Effective and sustainable change—especially involving social justice—requires a shift in thinking and an enhanced approach to working with each other and within an organization’s practices. As DEI practitioners, we must sow the seeds for change to occur in creating more just institutions.”

In order for the change to take root and make a real long-lasting impact, we must approach the work strategically.

Tiffiny Butler, Former Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs

“When building equitable and inclusive organizational structures for longevity, it is so important to have institutional social support and a community culture willing and ready to change,” says Tiffiny Butler, former director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA). “In order for the change to take root and make a real long-lasting impact, we must approach the work strategically.

“Both community buy-in and commitment to the work of building the systemic structures for the organization to be successful must happen simultaneously,” Butler adds. “To ask a community to embark on this kind of journey is a big ask, even in a ‘normal’ year. As we think about doing the work of inclusion, where inequities are exacerbated during a heightened time of crisis, and do this on top of the ever-present and changing challenges of a pandemic, is almost an impossible task. And the stakes are incredibly high.”

With so much on the line, the approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion that WPI had been building for several years—with a bottom-up and top-down pledge—ensured that a campuswide commitment permeated every level and area of the university and allowed for necessary pivots.

“The path to meaningful change requires our institution to remain steadfast in its responsibility to providing opportunities that advance and promote inclusion and equity,” says Alicia Mills, vice president for talent and inclusion and chief diversity officer ad interim. “Guided by our values, we are creating an environment that assesses our commitments and adjusts our direction as needed.”

Recognizing that people would benefit from different approaches, WPI’s DEI team and OMA collaborated to offer diverse and plentiful opportunities to learn and connect. “Reaffirming WPI’s commitment to change is vital,” Hanna says. “It’s critical for folks to feel heard and to be able to take action. It’s about building self-awareness and dismantling the longstanding oppression and harm in these spaces.”

The path to meaningful change requires our institution to remain steadfast in its responsibility to providing opportunities that advance and promote inclusion and equity.

Alicia Mills, Vice President for Talent and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer ad interim

Butler met frequently with students in virtual meeting spaces. A believer in active listening, she says her priority remained crossing the virtual divide to make a needed personal connection. “Listening, listening, and more listening was critical to give people the space to begin to heal,” she says.

Sometimes, community members simply wanted to gather. OMA introduced virtual Conscious Coffeehouses and Herd Huddles to provide space and time to not only speak to the issues of the times, but also to provide support and a socially distanced listening ear. With the campus operating under strict social distancing measures, people felt isolated, needing social connection. The DEI team introduced “Cooking with WPI,” where the community could share recipes and stories, and “Zooming with Pets,” where they could gather and share a common bond.

Facing the Unease

“To create change, the university community had to continue becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, and they were glad to see people taking the steps to do that,” Hanna says. “As an institution of higher learning, its important to make sure we are centering power, privilege, and oppression in creating structural change. We have to understand not only the issues, but also the role we need to play in these efforts. To come up with the solution, you have to understand the problem.”

People often avoid engaging in dialogue on race and racism, says Hanna, so creating an environment where it’s safe to do so is crucial. “We’re all breathing the air of systemic racism and haven’t had to engage in topics like this. We are even taught to avoid them, so when asked to talk about them, people don’t know what to do.”

Mills agrees, acknowledging the past year forced people to examine their core beliefs and actions. “We’ve done important work as an institution,” she says, “yet we have a continuing opportunity to remain proactive and engage in the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work required in creating an inclusive environment.”

Change Takes Time

The sense of urgency people felt around all that was happening was palpable, says Butler. “People feel fatigued by their experiences with microaggressions in a typical year,” she says. “When you factor in this magnitude of emotional heaviness, folks are exhausted and want change to happen right now. But change takes time.”

And with an accumulated sense of weariness, people start to look at historical change, or lack thereof. “In different ways, people are truly articulating the need for accountability,” Butler says. “As in, ‘You said this is what you were going to do, but did you do it? Are you going to do what you said you would do? If so, when?’”

As an institution of higher learning, its important to make sure we are centering power, privilege, and oppression in creating structural change.

Rame Hanna, Director of Diversity and Inclusive Excellence

When a community is energized by the university’s efforts, she adds, the capacity for change is quicker. Alumni of color have been vocal and active in the process as well. They may be raising points of dissatisfaction, but they are also involved enough to want to continue to make WPI better as a part of their own legacy.

“At WPI, we speak of alumni and think, ‘Have we taught them how to think, how to pivot if necessary, and how to critically think outside the context of a textbook?’” Butler says. “They can, and they are doing all of those things. Alumni ask if we have done the work and they challenge us with new perspectives and passion to work for greater equity and inclusion. The feedback through the open line of communication to alumni has been invaluable. Ultimately, this relationship allows us to work together for inclusion, and that is the kind of relationship we want. Sometimes constructive criticism is hard to hear. But tough love is still love. This kind of constant evaluation of where we are and where we are going allows for all of us to learn and grow to move forward in pursuit of inclusion together.”

The Work Continues

“What we’re hearing is that we need to increase diverse representation at all levels to have an environment where all community members can thrive,” Hanna says. “We have to celebrate diversity and also how to recognize the power, privilege, and oppression manifest in our environment.

“The university’s commitment is essential. As we have moved into a strategic place, it is a catalyst for us to move together as a collective. It is not just the work of certain folks but of all folks.”

Even with so much momentum, Hanna says the work continues. “I’m so proud WPI is intentionally committing to intentional diversity as a core commitment and infusing it into the core vision and mission. We need to work as a community to not revert to business as usual.”

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