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Lessons learned as a DEI plumber

This mission matters to me, and what I thought I would be doing is not this. I track requests like work orders. It’s a solitary feeling.

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Diversity Toolbox

I know about building things. Once I worked in new home construction. I earned my calluses from digging ditches, installing pipes and French drains under the tutelage of a Chicano called “Sparky.” It was my summer break in college. I built up my muscles and got a bad back. I had a lot to prove.

At the construction site, our crew would tear down decrepit sheds from time to time, which is not as gratifying as you might imagine. It is dusty work, with tetanus-riddled nails playing hide and seek with your hands. All these years later, as I size up my own house with its endless tasks, I threaten to abandon it and move to a house that I imagine doesn’t need fixing. But I hear my site boss, Jerry, chirping, “no such thing as a perfect house.” It was his rejoinder to Sparky, who was annoyed by poor workmanship and architects who didn’t understand the terrain. Together they marveled that a house they built was pulled apart by clay soil footing. Their détente was in mutual defeat by clay.

My house is a comfortable old soul of a place, built for a different time serving different owners. The real problem is the retrofit layout, the fixtures shoehorned in. I get it, a better retrofit would have required more resources, dust, and discomfort. The work is overwhelming. I am tempted by the ease of solvable problems like, “Do we have enough chairs?” I can buy those. But I’m a sucker for infrastructure. I hone my attention to the bones of my house. Appearances, appearances are secondary.

Higher education is like a house. The dorms and cafeterias are bedrooms and kitchens. Departments squabble like proxies for family. Some scholars have been known to trace their academic lineages like a family tree. They establish generations of purebred lines of academic pedigree. I also have colleagues for whom academe is the family business: fathers — rarely mothers — grandfathers and great-grandfathers who were professors and deans. For some, higher ed is an ancestral estate. But if it is a house, then it is one that has suffered from a poor retrofit.

During my undergrad days at Yale University, I worked in the dining hall. Those lessons stay with me as I still pay attention to that labor of caring, cleaning, serving. Most of the Black and Brown people at universities are in facilities, ground crew, food service, cleaning, and other service work.

My colleagues there will tell you how to fix the school. Harry, an elderly African American gentleman at Northwestern University, has seen it all. He leans on his broom and tells me he wants to make the space nice for students. His compatriot at Yale took the boldest diversity, equity, and inclusion move the university has yet made: He took his broom handle to a stained-glass window that depicted enslaved people and “broke that shit out.” Similarly, I embrace the idea that an inclusion wrench could break some shit in a well-oiled university machine.

****

An August meeting is called. Stakeholders are invited to launch yet another strategic plan around diversity. Academe is organized around clans of faculty governance, so I recognize that the meeting is important, but not important-important. Few faculty agree to be on campus during summer break. The staff has to be here.

I see the invitation list through email — all the names of the invited are easily visible. When I see all the unclaimed name tags trying to look inconspicuous, aspirations to attend come up short. The name tags are printed, but an Excel column was slightly off. An anthropologist by training, I’m mis-tagged as faculty in neuroscience. I look carefully at the names to see how people I know are misidentified. The change in the titles offer a radical power inversion like in Carnivale. People dressed up as their bosses.

Most bosses aren’t here. No one complains. We are energized and almost festive in one another’s company, a little like a reunion. Staff of color and queer staff are here. Institutional technology and student affairs folks are here. I’m glad to sit with them through this lunch, pitchers of iced tea sweat with the summer’s humidity, sandwiches made by the dozens. So many are untouched, hoping to serve the no-shows.

Folks haven’t seen each other for a while, not since the last diversity initiative. We catch up, talk about who has left with a mix of dismay and surrender. We eat the doughy sandwiches, and I note, as I always do, that the wait staff are all Latina. They are slightly amused at this gathering, but bored nonetheless. They are overstaffed for this thin crowd. No bowls of chips to refill. No platters of tired sandwiches to replenish. Wait staff look away, as though embarrassed by the bland food that sits untouched. They didn’t make this food. They are there for cleanup, and until then they watch the modern white potato salad dissolve. During lunch Darryl, who is an African American staffer, describes what it was like to be in his suffocating office. In this way, we are cautiously real with each other.

Our job is to contribute to the diversity strategic plan and to be inspired by the keynoter. I’m eyeing the lemon bars — wait, I know this catering company. The lemon bars rock.

“The CEO, in this case the president, has to be convinced that diversity is important, and when he does, the whole culture of the organization will change,” intones the keynoter.

I’d rather be talking with my colleagues, and now I’m annoyed. I want to tell the newbies the lemon bars are worth the effort, and the snickerdoodle cookies are definitely not. I have a long history at this school. I know what is what. I check my email like important people do. I notice that I am embarrassed that the speaker is Latino like me, chagrined because his message is so off. A single person cannot change the university culture, not even a few people. I feel complicit by association with his analytical inaccuracies. I interject with some course correction.

“It can’t be on one person. The university doesn’t work like that.”

My colleague chimes in, “She’s right. It is a dispersed faculty governance system. Department chairs have power. Deans have power. Tenured faculty have power.”

But the keynoter is unmoved, “Plus, you have a new chief diversity officer who will change all that.”

As much as I wish it were true, I can’t let that go: “Higher education is built on legacies of White supremacy. It relies on perpetuating sexism. Current disciplinary structures erase history and language.”

I want to paint the big picture of what we are all up against. And in any case it is the Board of Trustees who should be implicated if we are going down that hole. I’m not trying to pick a fight. I’m trying to set the framing of our problem.

The cilantro starts to turn.

Even the lemon bars collapse on themselves, sweat beading where sugar dusting has dissolved. The iced tea has melted by the end of the last session, leaving rings on the polyester tablecloths. The day ends with a real-time evaluation prompting the attendees to text in their one word. A digital word cloud appears: One dear soul offers “cautiously optimistic,” but the word “underwhelmed” grows larger and larger in the word cloud. We know the work ahead of us: It is the work we’ve been doing. New people come, others go.

Some would say diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners lack gusto, that they are tools of the neoliberal regime or mere decoration. I’m more circumspect. There is deep institutional work afoot. But in this infrastructure, I fear my colleagues and I have become like interchangeable cogs.

We are set up to be worn down.

Trowel

I helped excavate a 1,000-year-old temple one summer, unearthing its secrets. When I describe the work, people tell me it would make them stir-crazy, that they’d just want to burrow to get to the treasure. Like they know what is there to reveal: It is a temple. Obviously. The trowel moves soil by the handful. The tension mounts in the details that you don’t expect. The sifter serves as a caution not to miss something important.

I didn’t anticipate the rooms and walls we had encountered in that temple. The excavated walls revealed the slumping adobe, and I wonder who kept them up, and who those walls protected.

Revealing underlying unfairness is rife with impatience. The structures are plain to see, right before our eyes and we are antsy for their unearthing. The redlining laws, Jim Crow, anti-immigration laws, Indian removal policies, union busting rules, and school taxes are right there. Obviously.

Excavating these long-standing vestiges requires patience because they are both quotidian and deadly. These old practices can seem to be harmless, dulled artifacts of the past and dismissed by their out-of-fashion bigotries. But the carnage they enshrine is still with us, nails filled with tetanus and worse. We sift through these laws by the trowelful, painstakingly numbering and archiving the damage they still bring.

Building with a trowel is hopeful but also perilous. Yale, Harvard and Georgetown universities recently revealed the history of the enslaved people who helped lay the mortar in the construction of those institutions’ earliest buildings.

My friend, Ji-Yeon, was the Asian American Studies director while I served as the inaugural director of a Latinx Studies Program. We were offered space together in a basement. She and I built a home for our programs. We started from the ground up with a figurative trowel. We picked paint colors together, we did not choose modern white. Our disciplines were cozy besties and loving roommates. But we worry that these programs could be washed away in a minute. My colleagues and I are ever on the alert for mortar coming loose. We have evidence: A major university, having achieved status (and federal dollars that follow) as a Hispanic Serving Institution almost immediately thereafter eliminated its Mexican American Studies Program, proving our fears that dismantling our work doesn’t even evoke shame.

The Diversity Plumbers

I joined a diversity office with blueprints for faculty governance policies. Instead, I keep a spreadsheet to contain the flood of emails. The breadth of what is asked for, demanded often, is so disparate that I cannot easily typify it.

We need your expert advice. We need your help to fix a problem. Can you provide the questions for a student survey? The students are angry. We need a way to make them less angry. We want them to feel heard. We don’t know why they are angry. A diversity survey will show we’ve taken action. Maybe a gender-pronoun workshop and an antiracism course that is short? Nothing too confrontational.

I look at my archived “To Do” list in the form of unanswered emails: “Can you host a Zoom gathering that creates an environment of inclusion for our retreat?” I have been cc’d on the notification of our reduced budget. A request for an equity audit stands cheery in its second reminder. There is yet another email asking for an intervention for an international visiting researcher. I turn from request to request looking for one that I can accomplish, one that moves us to some larger goal.

Chairs, students, staff, and faculty, my friends from the August lunch — folks who would be partners in other contexts — have now become diversity, equity, and inclusion consumers.

“Your office doesn’t do anything,” I hear.

I worry I lack the analytical tools to sufficiently summarize what services people imagine I must provide. The requests are so diverse that the framing eludes me. This mission matters to me, and what I thought I would be doing is not this. I track requests like work orders. It is a solitary feeling.

We are Diversity Plumbers. We are called to fix a problem. The emails don’t stop. My colleagues from other offices and I meet secretly. As in perfect dysfunction, our supervisors compete for the authority to manage these far-flung orders. We are set against each other to vie for the resources for the work we didn’t want but now we have.

We didn’t start out as plumbers, but the leaks and clogs keep us hopping. No time for architecture. Maybe that’s the point.

Mónica Russel y Rodríguez, Ph.D. is adjunct faculty at Northwestern University where she was an Associate Dean for non-tenure line faculty and, later, Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion.