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Diversity discussion can be difficult, but SJMC makes the conversation a priority

By Rhoda Fukushima

Diversity is as close as a city bus or a college campus. Diversity is in the places we go and in the places we don't. Diversity is in how long we stay and how long we don't. Diversity invites us to come when we can and stay as long as possible.

diversity-painting.jpgI had never ridden the bus along University Avenue until I started teaching the People of Color and the Mass Media course in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Sometimes I'd hop on the #50 with limited stops; other times, the local #16, which seemed to stop at every corner.

There are quicker ways to get to campus, but I'd miss learning more about the areas where I live and work. These routes cut across lines of race, age, income, geography, ability and disability. On the bus, I see people of color, people with iPods, people in suits, people in saggy pants, people with babies, people in wheelchairs. I hear Somali, Spanish, English and Hmong. I've encountered the kindness of strangers and the rudeness of strangers all the same. In short, I see a slice of my city in a compact space.

Riding the bus started me thinking about being on campus. Those trips remind me that embracing diversity is optional for some, inescapable for others. What is heartening is that diversity is a top priority for the University, with enormous potential to equip students to be part of worlds different from their own. The challenge is to keep the conversation going, knowing that class will never be over.

"This work is a shared responsibility," says Dr. Rusty BarcelÓ, vice president and vice provost for equity and diversity. "Students who graduate from diverse experiences are doing better in the outside world. They're more civically engaged, think broader."

Diversity is deep, wide and intentional.

Diversity is not just black or white. Not just gay or straight. Not just female or male. Not just rich or poor. Not just disabled or able-bodied.

Diversity is all of those qualities. Diversity is nuance, like passengers on the bus.

Diversity means curbing our instincts to put people, places and things into boxes and keep them there.

"Diversity is not a problem to be solved, but an asset," says Steven J. Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

The window to diversity is wide open. Technology extends the shelf life of words and images, allowing more voices and longer discussions. Issues are as close as a keystroke or an image from a videophone.

Effective diversity efforts demand strong leadership, clear vision, an aggressive agenda and significant resources. Otherwise, diversity is nice, not necessary. It's talk without the walk.

Under BarcelÓ's guidance, the University's Office for Equity and Diversity is developing a strategic plan for diversity. It will draw on previous "good work" done by University task forces.

"I don't want it to be Rusty's plan. I want it to be the U's plan," she says.

Expectations are high. And the SJMC is answering the call.

This fall, the School will welcome Catherine Squires of the University of Michigan as its first John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality. The senior faculty position was one of five diversity lines funded by the College. CLA received 23 proposals.

Building on that, the SJMC ponied up an extra $1 million -- its biggest discretionary commitment to date -- to make the position a permanent endowed professorship. The position provides approximately $45,000 per year for research and outreach.

The new professorship has potential to be a magnet and a spark for "quantum change" in the environment, says Al Tims, SJMC director.

Squires will make fact-finding her first order of business. She wants to hear about the issues facing the University and the local media community -- the reasons that give them hope and the reasons that give them pause.

"You can't start defining diversity without the other word, equality," Squires says. "You can have a diverse group of people assembled, but unless sufficient numbers of those people truly have an opportunity to voice their interests and have a realistic opportunity to access those interests, then you don't have diversity in my mind."

It's not just about the arrival of a highly qualified scholar on diversity issues; it's about the potential for a systemic transformation within the SJMC's faculty, student body, curriculum and outreach to the community. A handful of individuals, no matter how qualified or passionate, should not carry a load best shared by all.

"When you take on this position, you know you're going to be the 'it' person," Squires says. "But it goes beyond the individual person."

This fall, the SJMC's Diversity Initiatives Committee will return, but this time as a standing committee (not ad hoc). Faculty voted to elevate the committee's status in May 2007, giving it constitutional standing like committees that oversee undergraduate and graduate studies, grievances and salary increment. The committee has been made up of full-time and part-time faculty, staff and students.

It has a budget and an important charge: to develop an aggressive agenda that engages the community, curriculum, faculty and students on issues of diversity.

"In five years, we want to be the gold standard for how you deal with issues of diversity, faculty, student body and engaging the profession," Tims says.

Diversity is an ongoing conversation.

The buses along University Avenue can be jammed, standing room only. Or they can be nearly empty. They maneuver around obstacles, some planned, some not.

Diversity is like that. It's fluid and full of surprises. It's a process, not a place.

One challenge to higher education is how it will serve an increasingly diverse student body preparing to work in an increasingly diverse world. Already the nation is onethird people of color. In 2014, 42 percent of the country's high school graduates will be students of color. In Minnesota, that figure is estimated at 24 percent.

"To succeed long term, embracing diversity is vital for our identity," Tims says. "We can't pretend we're the school of journalism that was perfectly fine in 1960 and expect to serve this community well."

Faculty

The pursuit of a doctorate is an elite enterprise requiring huge expense and sacrifice. Moreover, other factors tend to preserve academia's homogeneity: the perception (if not the reality) that institutions of higher learning are not as open to diversity, the lack of diverse trailblazers and role models, and the self-defeating attitudes that quash the effort before it even gets underway.

Creating a more diverse faculty is the school's first challenge, Tims says. Since 2000, the SJMC hired 16 tenure-track and tenured faculty. More than half were women and a quarter were people of color.

Presently, five of the School's 13 tenured faculty are women and two are people of color. There are five women and two people of color among its 10 tenure-track faculty. Of the eight special appointment and visiting appointment faculty, four have been women and two have been people of color (both women).

"If we can build a faculty that students can relate to, can understand, and in fact are instinctively know how to think about these issues, a lot of what we want to have happen is going to happen," Tims says.

The SJMC faces this challenge in a tough economic climate. Across the country and in Minnesota, media organizations are tightening their belts. These moves, in turn, can impact the pool of diverse candidates available to serve as adjunct faculty, who typically teach the skills courses. Moreover, some adjunct faculty candidates who receive offers to teach ultimately decline after weighing the personal and professional sacrifices.

These pressures require aggressive thinking, planning and action to attract applicants with diverse backgrounds. Diversity is not a threat, but an invitation to add to the richness already there.

The effects of a diverse faculty would ripple throughout the SJMC. The new endowed professorship could attract more graduate students interested in diversity, journalism and equality. And as a critical mass emerges, the conversation spins forward.

"We're not going to be challenged to figure out, 'well, where do we start?' but it's 'how do we do everything we want to do?'" Tims says.

Student body

As is the case with diversifying faculty, it's also tough to diversify the student body. Nationwide, universities are getting more selective, and they face diminishing diversity among the top high school graduates.

Within CLA, journalism is the second largest undergraduate major (behind psychology). Students of color account for about 10 percent of the SJMC's majors, compared with 17 percent for CLA overall.

"I don't want to be a school just for kids coming out of Edina and Wayzata," Tims says. "I want kids coming out of north Minneapolis, east St. Paul. I want kids out of Milwaukee, Racine and beyond."

Outside academia, finding media organizations willing and able to commit to diversity is getting harder. Programs like the Star Tribune Scholars program, which gave high-ability students from diverse backgrounds a four-year scholarship and embedded internship, is now suspended, pending a decision from the paper's new owner.

The SJMC is doing more to open its doors. It is exploring ways to attract more graduate students by cultivating new relationships with historically black colleges and universities. Last spring, Cowles Media Fellow Sherrie Mazingo, assistant professor Jisu Huh and student services coordinator Linda Lindholm spoke to undergraduates at outreach events at the Martin Luther King Center and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence.

"There are different levels of involvement," BarcelÓ says. "You can't say there is just one way to get involved. When you put it all together, it becomes a whole."

Curriculum

At the SJMC, diversity plays a big part in classes like People of Color and the Mass Media, Mass Media and Popular Culture, Internet and Global Society and others. Faculty and students delve deeply into the role that diversity plays in social, cultural, economic and political life.

The temptation is to think that courses like these fulfill the mandate for diversity so everyone else can return to their work. No attitude could be more damaging to the progress of the SJMC's vision. No attitude could be more disrespectful to the breadth of richness that is already at the SJMC -- that should be incorporated as well.

In the past, when the SJMC asked its instructors about how they dealt with diversity issues in the curriculum, some became defensive, threatened by what they perceived to be a heavy hand. That led to a reframing of the question and an ongoing project.

Last fall, the SJMC's Diversity Initiatives Committee began a comprehensive survey of the SJMC curriculum for evidence of diversity and inclusiveness, the lack of which had been noted in previous self-study reports. Pleasant surprises and surprising disappointments have emerged among the skills classes, and will likely be the case when the committee finishes surveying context courses. In some classes, diversity issues come up consistently, in others not at all.

Classes that do not appear to offer opportunities to discuss diversity may just need to take a different tack. Certainly, a research methods class will focus on statistics, but the issues explored, the questions asked and the people surveyed could have everything to do with being inclusive.

"There has to be diversity in the way we approach diversity," Tims says.

Diversity (or lack thereof) creates burdens and benefits for all -- some more, some less.

In an assignment, one of my students wrote that she felt "lame" for being Caucasian and wished she had a touch of color in her blood. She longed to have an interesting story to tell, like her classmates of color. They seemed to know much more about their ancestry than she did about her own Scandinavian heritage.

How heartbreaking. I suspect she is not alone.

We live in an imperfect world. We are part of an imperfect system. We strive for and struggle with diversity simultaneously. While some of us are fully aware of our "otherness," others, like this student, wonder what they can add to the discussion.

So they stay silent. Out of ignorance. Out of fear of making mistakes. Out of fear of hurting others. Out of fear of offending others. But diversity acknowledges that class isn't over yet. We will err. We will hurt. We will offend. We will want justice. We will need grace.

For this generation of students, diversity is something they've grown up with, not just something they've seen on television, read in the newspaper or learned later in life. Their parents' and grandparents' experience is not their frame of reference; the civil rights movement, for all intents and purposes, is ancient history.

At the same time, for these students, who came of age after 9/11, diversity has long been integrated into their education. Some have already had diversity training or classes. Some are double-majoring or declaring a minor to get a broader education. Some have lived, studied and traveled abroad.

They are observant. They notice how their parents, visiting from a small town, act differently around people of color. They cringe when their grandparents make off-color comments. They've already been exposed to more diversity, just through the university experience.

Last semester, we watched a documentary on the Hmong made by Zoua Vang, an SJMC alumna who is Hmong.

We saw her father weep at the memory of a broken promise; his brother, who was blind, died in Laos before he could return for him. Her mother recalled how she saved one baby by not quieting her with opium, but lost three others to the effects of poison.

One student, from Italy, said she knew of the Hmong, but little more than that, so the film filled in some blanks.

For another student, from Liberia, the images of destruction, escape and survival shook her deeply, to tears. She had also survived war. So it was her story, too.

Looking back, looking ahead

Diversity is as close as a city bus or a college campus. Diversity is in the places we go and in the places we don't. Diversity is in how long we stay and how long we don't. Diversity invites us to come when we can and stay as long as possible.

The buses will continue to traverse diverse neighborhoods and pick up passengers from a variety of backgrounds. For some readers, whether to embrace diversity will still come down to a personal choice -- a choice in whether we get on or off the bus.

Rhoda Fukushima is a features reporter with the Pioneer Press. She is also an adjunct instructor with the SJMC teaching People of Color and the Mass Media, where she leads students in an exploration of how the nation's communities of color have been and are being portrayed in the media.