Interview with Representatives of the Minority Employee Council and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Advocacy Council
Lise Fitzpatrick is the Director of Administration and Financial Management for Extended Education, and serves as the Secretary and Publicity Director for the Minority Employee Council (MEC). Marli Williams is an Academic Support Coordinator for Student Outreach Services, and serves as Co-Chair of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Advocacy Council (LGBTAC). We talked with Lise and Marli about some of the MEC and LGBTAC’s accomplishments, objectives, and approaches to fostering inclusion at Western.
Of all the MEC’s and LGBTAC’s important work, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Marli: I’m starting my second year as a Council leader, and my primary involvement has been with Safe Zone Training. A really dedicated committee of people has worked hard to get this up and running. Stephanie Zee in particular has made it happen from the beginning. We’ve already trained over 100 Safe Zone allies, and this is only the second quarter of offering the Training! It’s free personal and professional development we can provide to all students, faculty and staff, and we’re getting a lot of great responses. Also, last Spring we had our first Rainbow Graduation with a reception for graduating LGBTQ students, so we’re definitely making progress and making steps to be more present in the community.
Lise: Just like Marli, I’ve been involved with MEC’s board for two years. I’m always amazed when I hear how long MEC has been in existence – this last October was our 20th year. I’m really proud the MEC has been able to represent faculty and staff of color for all those years on a number of fronts. And I’m excited that we’re moving forward honoring that tradition, promoting inclusion, increasing the number of faculty and staff of color who come to Western, and increasing our retention rates. What we’re most proud of recently is that these efforts are paying off. Seventeen percent of this Fall’s incoming faculty class are people of color, and we’re seeing a greater importance attached to diversity issues and strong leadership provided by upper administration. We’re also proud to be able to foster and support community amongst faculty and staff of color on campus.
The MEC and LGBTAC provided strong encouragement for Western to conduct a survey assessing perceptions of the campus climate for faculty of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) faculty, and women faculty. Western is now conducting a similar staff survey. In your views, why was it important to undertake these climate surveys?
Lise: I think it’s very important for us as a campus to establish baseline data to understand diverse employees’ perceptions. It helps the university see how we can improve the experiences of faculty and staff on campus, and helps us judge the effectiveness of various undertakings and initiatives. And by taking action to improve the climate for our employees, we’re providing a good climate for our students to be successful as well.
Marli: I definitely agree with that. Not everyone’s experience is the same, and trying to collectively understand people’s experiences to better serve them is really important. For me, the qualitative study done by Raine Dozier around the experiences of LGBT faculty on campus really brings to life some of the HERI data. The quotes and narratives are illustrative – people say they don’t feel discriminated against, but then describe unconscious fear, extra precautions they take. The quantitative survey can’t get at these details, which give a fuller picture of what’s happening on campus. For example, Raine’s report identified the different treatment felt by employees who are taxed for their same-sex spouses or partners’ health insurance. It’s those little things that you don’t know are an issue for people. The university has been incredibly responsive to a lot of the recommendations that have been put out there.
What are your primary takeaways from the HERI Faculty Survey: Diversity Climate Report? What do you see as the overarching next steps?
Lise: Rounding out the quantitative study with qualitative assessment is going to be very important, to understand the story behind quantitative results and determine how we’ll be able to effectively change what we don’t like about the numbers. It will be quite interesting and challenging to understand what the levers are that we have to effect change and make this the community we want to see. I feel organizations like MEC and LGBTAC and the efforts of their membership are what’s really going to drive that and provide campus leadership. It’s going to have to be a supportive environment for people to provide personal stories and instances both from the past and from the present to be able to show how far in some areas we’ve come and how far we have to go in other areas.
Marli: I’m most familiar with what’s moving forward from Raine’s recommendations. She had quite a few recommendations that were taken into consideration, like insurance coverage for medically necessary transgender-specific healthcare, which would potentially not cost the university anything. It’s important to continue the forward momentum, get the Diversity Climate Report and Raine’s report out for people to read, and communicate that steps are being taken. It’s exciting that we can be on the cutting edge of what universities are doing, like grossing up pay to provide equity for employees taxed on the value of their same-sex spouses or partners’ health insurance and implementing practices to be inclusive of our transgender employees and students. Communicating beyond only LGBT faculty and faculty of color is important, so that more people can understand the impact of mircoaggressions. All of this helps enhance the climate for people already here, and that will help draw more people here. I see the ground level and the bigger picture of university policy working together. These issues need to be front and center so everyone can see that diverse folks here are supported.
Lise: The MEC is certainly going to be focusing on retention in the upcoming years because we, too, are concerned about turnover. The reality sometimes doesn’t match people’s expectations when they decided to come to Bellingham. Surveys such as HERI and the staff climate survey help us figure out where we need the most help and where we need to focus attention. It gives us the opportunity to recognize units that are getting this right, and they can help share their experiences and initiatives, not only for faculty and staff of color, but for everyone attached to those units. That’s a big thing, understanding how successful organizations have been able to do this. It’s also essential that we keep these conversations going; that we don’t just have the survey come out, people have good ideas, and then people don’t implement them. The administration is signaling that they’re not just interested in a one time talk, but that this dialogue will be ongoing. There’s recognition that as difficult as introspection can be, we’re still willing to put up the courage and bravery to continue those conversations and to truly implement recommendations in effective and meaningful ways, including those that cost something.
How do your groups act as allies to one another? More broadly, what do you envision as some of the roles of allies in creating a campus climate that is deeply inclusive of LGBT people and people of color, as well as people with disabilities, veterans, and other diverse people at Western?
Lise: Joan (Ullin, MEC Chair) and Joanne (DeMark, LGBTAC Chair) have conversations and are on each other’s mailing lists, but I think we could do a much stronger job of building ties between the groups. It is essential for us to be able to find allies on campus, to expand the consciousness of what diversity is and means beyond the interest groups.
Marli: I think it’s an interesting question. The safe zone training is great, it’s action – want to know more about being an ally? Come to the training. Another piece is raising the overall consciousness; some people think it’s over, we’re where we need to be. Things aren’t awful, but things could be better. That’s why stories are so important, they brings things to life. That was helpful in Raine’s report. I went to the Faculty and Staff of Color Conference, and there were about 20 Western people there, about half white folks and half folks of color. This was another opportunity for people to become better allies. The LGBTAC’s most successful event last year was the combined social with the MEC. It’s about building the community.
Lise: Also, I’d like to see the MEC and LGBTAC build on Western’s substantial strength and history in the area of social justice, which is a way to engage multiple groups in conversation about diversity. Discussions of access and economics and interplay between the two; such conversations can be a springboard for discussing diversity issues, talking about equal opportunity.
What do you view as the role of social and fun interactions in supporting faculty and staff of color and LGBT faculty and staff on campus? What do you do to integrate fun into your organizations’ work?
Lise: The role of social activities is to continue to support the community. Being part of a community is what makes people want to stay, and community isn’t just about work. It’s about being able to connect on multiple levels. Social interactions also allow relationships to form and lay the foundations for the much tougher work ahead. It helps build understanding amongst co-workers.
Marli: And it’s about being able to show up as who you are in a space that feels welcoming and where you have people to go to. A challenge is that we’re doing so much of this work on top of our full time jobs here at Western. Planning events takes time. And we can’t pay for food with our regular budgets, but food is such an important way to bring people together and help people feel appreciated! Even when we do hold events, turnout can be small; outreach is important. We need to figure out how to build community, especially for new folks.
Lise: We’ve been successful with our first Fridays. We try to find family-friendly locations, as it’s nice to be able to include our entire families. Members bring their kids and their partners, and folks know they can relax and feel at home. It’s gratifying to see the numbers grow at these events. It shows that the work the MEC has done to promote the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color has been successful. (And it’s just nice to be in our community; to have opportunities to breathe in that space.) Western is hiring again, and this year we’re seeing larger numbers of new employees of color. To this end, MEC has a newcomers club for folks at Western three years or less. MEC continues to meet the challenge of reaching out and making sure people of minority status know there are groups here they can interact with in both a professional and social manner.
What are you most looking forward to from the MEC and LGBTAC this academic year?
Marli: I’m excited about having another combined social event with the MEC, and being intentional in planning it together. And I’m looking forward to more connection between our groups, and giving space to let each other know what’s going on and what we’re up to. And I’m excited to see some of the recommendations in Raine’s report being considered. People are really open; there’s been great response from the upper administration. We can bring a lot to them regarding things that impact our communities, and it’s powerful to see that happen.
Lise: The MEC is developing a faculty colloquium, and effort being spearheaded by Damani Johnson. More broadly, I feel like Western is poised to do something it hasn’t done before, and am proud that MEC is part of transforming that intent into action. I’m looking forward to ways the MEC and LGBTAC can better communicate. The more people understand the resources we have at Western, the more likely we are to recruit a diverse workforce and to retain the talented folks we have here on campus. The university as a whole is benefiting from a more diverse workforce and student body.