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Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership, discusses the reclaiming of the racial justice meaning of equity with Dr. Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

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Published by Office of Community College Research and Leadership, 2019-10-04 13:31:58

Reclaiming the Racial Justice Meaning of Equity

Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership, discusses the reclaiming of the racial justice meaning of equity with Dr. Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Keywords: racial justice meaning of equity,Eboni Zamani-Gallaher,OCCRL director,Estela Mara Bensimon,question and answer piece,OCCRL UPDATE Fall 2019,Democracy's College



by Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher,
OCCRL Director

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon is a professor of higher education at Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Since founding the Center for Urban Education,
the Rossier School of Education and the director of the Center for you have challenged the status quo of institutional and structural
Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Southern California. practices that have adversely affected students of color from accessing, as
Her focus for decades has been on increasing racial equity in higher well as excelling, in higher education. Over the years, as you’ve impacted
education outcomes for students of color. Along with founding thousands of educators and taken action toward systemic change, can
CUE in 1999, Bensimon developed the Equity Scorecard, a you share how you’ve aided college professionals who are taking steps
process for using inquiry to drive changes in institutional practice in their daily work to reverse the impact of historical and structural
and culture. Her research has been supported by grants from the disadvantages that prevent student success?
Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Dr. Bensimon: In the work that I do at the center, the approach
Teagle Foundation. In addition, Bensimon’s work on equity, on we’ve taken is that in order to be able to help colleges perform better
organizational learning, and on practitioner inquiry and change for minoritized populations, it is important for practitioners—and I’m
has been published extensively in publications such as as the Review using the word practitioner to refer from presidents to faculty members
of Higher Education, the Journal of Higher Education, and the to staff—to develop a new mental schema, a new cognitive frame. Rather
Harvard Educational Review. than thinking about inequities in graduation rates and participation in
The following conversation took place during a Democracy’s College STEM as having to do with the characteristics of students, they start
podcast interview between Bensimon and OCCRL Director asking questions such as why is it that our institution performs so much
Eboni Zamani-Gallaher in May 2019. Those interested in issues better for white students? And what are we doing to contribute to these
surrounding racial justice can also listen to the full podcast with racial inequities?
Bensimon. The way our center has worked is to create tools that enable faculty
members, as well as deans and department chairs, to examine their
everyday practices through the lens of racial equity. What I would say
is that the way we support institutional actors is by creating these tools,
and by creating the structure that enables a faculty member, or teams
of faculty members to examine their syllabi, and to see how the tone
of it anticipates that students come in as potential failures rather than
as potentially successful students. And when faculty do that with the
guided protocol, they can change not only the syllabus, but also their
own ways of thinking about minoritized students. There’s much more to
it, but that’s the simple answer.
We are strong believers that faculty and everyone else we work with want
to do the right thing. We start out from that premise, but also that they
just don’t know how to do it. Our approach is a learning approach. It’s
providing the tools to mediate equity mindedness, which we define in


several competencies. What’s different about this work is that most ways. And most of the accountability instruments, nationally, do not
of what we do in higher education is targeted at students. We have do that.
lots of special programs for minoritized students, and these are good
programs, but they start off on the premise that the students have What I would say about California is that we are making many
to adapt to the campus as it is. And most campuses, except for these attempts, but more important than just the Student Success Scorecard
historically black colleges and universities, were founded by whites, is the fact that we are the only state that has a student equity policy
for whites. So we need adaptation not only from the perspective of for community colleges that is actually funded. So community
tutors, but also from the institutional leaders and practitioners. colleges in California have to submit a student-equity plan where
they have to identify disproportionate impact in outcomes for
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: The California Community College System several groups: Race, and ethnicity is one of those groups. And they
has a Student Success Scorecard, and over the years it’s drawn a lot do receive funding. This student equity planning, if it’s done well,
of praise. It’s a web-based scorecard that contains comprehensive can be an instrument that allows community colleges to focus on
information on student performance at each of your state’s race and ethnicity and to actually establish goals. In California, the
community colleges. Although the details about student outcomes chancellor’s goal for transfer is that in the next four or five years,
have become more accessible within the state of California, what can community colleges will improve their transfer rates by 35% over
you tell us about what you think colleges can do in terms of their the baseline.
presidents advancing equitable student outcomes?
One of the things we’ve done at CUE is prepared data portfolios
Dr. Bensimon: You started out the question asking me about for colleges showing what that 35% would mean for black, Latinx
California, and I have to say that it was being in California, at the students, Native Americans and so on, so that they can start
University of Southern California in 1995, which motivated me to establishing goals around that 35%. But the 35% itself is not enough
develop an agenda that focuses on racial equity. And the reason I because if everybody goes up by 35%, you don’t do away with the
did that was because everyone at the gaps. So we have actually created
time was speaking about diversity, portfolios that show getting to the
and when you looked at California’s 35% and closing the racial equity gap.
And when colleges see that I need to
...the reclaiming of racialcommunity colleges, diversity was transfer 1,000 more Latinxs in order
to get to that, it may seem daunting,
not the problem. They were very, very

“ justice is to not allow fordiverse. The problem was that diversity
was not translating into transfer rates, but it’s also a concrete goal that you can
break up into four years. It’s something
equity to be just a word thatinto associate degrees, and so access
was insufficient. And so that’s when I you can monitor, and that’s what
decided to focus only on racial equity you sprinkle like salt in a accountability is about. It’s something
and to think about that work. In we don’t do. We don’t establish goals
some ways the Equity Scorecard is an meal...” by race and ethnicity. California has
accountability tool. Regarding your an anti-affirmative action ban, but
question about the community college the student equity policy, because it
Student Success Scorecard, I would say that it has been a good includes race and ethnicity, is one of the groups that needs to be
attempt to make data more transparent. Up until the scorecard, the examined for disproportionate impact. It essentially gives permission
chancellor’s office would not publish data desegregated by race and to community colleges to focus on race and ethnicity. Having that
ethnicity, despite many of us asking for it. So the scorecard made policy is very good. It doesn’t always get implemented well, so one
that data available, but they didn’t make it available for all of the of the things that CUE has been doing is holding institutes to help
indicators that are in the scorecard. community colleges write plans that are race conscious.

The other issue is that in order for a scorecard to be usable, it has Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Can you share examples of some of the
to have both numbers and percentages. Percentages don’t mean race-conscious plans, practices, and successful programs that are
much without the numbers. And the scorecard is only based on advancing equity? And then how might we get to the point where we
percentages. This is all to say that the scorecard is no longer going to could scale those up?
be used in California. They’re creating something that is much more Dr. Bensimon: One of the things that we did is have these institutes
institutional friendly, because those tools don’t get used if they’re in March. And based on the theory of our work, we believe it is
hard to make sense of them. important to scaffold. The reason we created those data portfolios
But the way I think about racial equity is that one dimension of was because we knew it was better for them to see it and to see the
it is accountability. And by that I mean that institutions should steps you take to make those calculations rather than just saying make
think about equity from a proportional perspective. Rather than 35% your goal. The other component of the plan that we scaffolded
comparing the success rates of, let’s say black students or Latinx is the actual plan. We created what a plan, or at least part of the plan,
students to whites or Asians, as it often is, the indicator should be might look like. And the way we started it was by saying we as a
proportionality. What I mean by that is that if 60% of students in campus don’t know how to do racial equity, so for us to address this,
an institution are Latinx, then the expectation should be that you we need to learn. We need to learn how to see microaggressions; we
would see that 60% in other outcomes. For instance, if we wanted need to see how whiteness may be an obstacle to our racial equity
to look at the students who transferred to highly selective four-year work. And some of our campuses are taking that model and they are
colleges, even if there were only 20 that did so, I would expect that using it to write their plans.
60% of those 20 would be Latinx. But we don’t look at data in those


And not everybody is going to be able to do that because they’re Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: “Reclaiming my time.”
going to get pushback because it was very explicit about whiteness, Dr. Bensimon: Exactly. To stop a white male from trying to silence
about racialization, about institutional racism. And so that’s one of her.
the ways in which community college practitioners can begin to say Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Is there a call to action or advice you can share
we really don’t know how to do this, but we’re going to learn. on how to engage in and advance racially just equitable education for
But what happens is that most practitioners, most leaders, most diverse youth and adults?
policymakers, most philanthropical organizations do not acknowledge Dr. Bensimon: One call that I would make is for leaders—including
that they don’t really know what it means to perform racial equity. minoritized leaders, because often they don’t do this either—to start
And so that’s what we’re trying to focus on and giving the colleges to normalize racial equity, just as we have normalized excellence. Let
the language. I should also say that in the community colleges, there us normalize racial equity and talk about it, talk about it directly.
is a concentration of professionals who are themselves black, Latinx, And don’t try to use euphemisms to talk about racial groups.
and Native American, and Asian American. And our work, in some The second thing is that in order to be able to do that well, you
ways, empowers them. They become knowledgeable on how to use need to be educated. And educated means reading the black and
data. That data portfolio was a big deal when they took it back to the Latinx and Asian and Native American intellectuals, which often
campus because they could show it to the institutional researchers are unknown. We have all kinds of national programs of leadership
who usually hoard data. So they feel empowered with the language development for college presidents, for new presidents, for academic
we give them to be able to advocate at their campuses because often vice presidents. The curricular of those programs do not have a focus
the people who are doing this work, they get marginalized in the on racial equity as critical. And when I say racial equity as critical, I
same way that students of color get marginalized. think that there needs to be a recognition of how institutionalized
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: In your work you contend that the ultimate racism gets reproduced every day in minute ways.
goal is not to just make marginal changes in policy or practices but Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: So mundane that it’s not recognizable.
to have a whole paradigm campus shift toward cultures of inclusion Dr. Bensimon: Exactly. And to stop saying to individuals who bring
and broad ownership over racial equity. Could you share insights on up those issues that they make everything about race. We actually
reclaiming the racial justice meaning of equity? As you said, that is make everything about whiteness, but we just don’t mention it. I
something that is very necessary. would also say to be more bold, to stop being afraid to be offensive.
Dr. Bensimon: To start, we’re all a product of our eras. I came of age Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: That is quite the call to action. I really
in the ‘60s. I remember 1968 very clearly. And that was the height appreciate you sharing that food for thought and dropping these
of not only the civil rights movement, but also the birth of the Black pearls of wisdom.
Panthers, the Young Lords in New York City, and that movement
was very much about racial equity. It was not about diversity. Cliff Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher, PhD can be reached at
Adelman, who recently died, once wrote an article about diversity in [email protected]
Change Magazine and said we’re whitewashing diversity. And I felt Estela Mara Bensimon, PhD can be reached at
that suddenly, now, nobody talked about equity when I started this [email protected]
work. In fact, it was a dirty word. It was seen as too activist. So now
it has been embraced. It’s everywhere.
So for me, the reclaiming of racial justice is to not allow for equity to
be just a word that you sprinkle like salt in a meal. It’s a critical term.
Equity is about dismantling whiteness, and so for me the reclaiming
of racial equity is to not allow the word equity to become about
everything, like diversity became about everything. And to not allow
it to be stripped of its critical dimension.

In the 1960s, we also had the culture of poverty, and we had This interview was part of OCCRL’s Democracy’s College podcast series,
sociologists. Patrick Monahan was senator and Oscar Lewis was an which focuses on P-20 education pathways and research and leadership
anthropologist, and they sort of demonized the black and Puerto that promotes educational equity, justice, and excellence for all students.
Rican and Mexican American communities as having this culture that
was a culture not conducive to their success, so they had to be fixed.
And we don’t have the culture of poverty anymore as a language, but
many of the reforms in higher education, which tend to be structural
reforms, I think have the potential to become a modern version of the
culture of poverty. In other words, we’re trying to increase graduation
rates for minoritized students, but those improvements are being, in
many ways, designed in the same vein as culture of poverty by white
minds, based on what they think the solution is. So that’s one of the
reasons why I wrote an article in Change Magazine, which has the
title “Reclaiming Racial Justice in Equity.” And the term reclaiming
comes from Maxine Waters, who used the phrase -

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