Faces in the Mirror
USD initiates campaign focused on inclusion and diversity
by Nathan Dinsdale

A woman born in Pakistan and raised in England breaks from traditional gender role expectations to become a microbiologist and university administrator. A man from inner-city Cleveland rises above presumed racial limitations to educate others about cultural identity. A woman finds the strength to embrace her sexual orientation while working through law school to help fight injustice.

The plot lines seem tailor-made for cinematic drama. And, in a way, they are. The personal stories shared by Assistant Dean Neena Din, Professor Carlton Floyd and law student Jesse Zaylia are among the first in a series of video interviews intended to spark discussion about promoting and improving diversity at USD.

These vignettes are just one facet of a widespread effort being spearheaded by “On Our Campus@USD” (OOC), a task force created after the President’s Advisory Board on Inclusion and Diversity (PABID) was formed in 2007.

The video campaign is modeled after the Not In Our Town documentary series created by the grassroots organization The Working Group, which aimed to initiate dialogue and implement strategies for dealing with bigotry and intolerance. In early December, Not In Our Town screened on campus.

According to John Adkins, head of public services at the Pardee Legal Research Center and PABID member, the event marked the start of a mobilization effort that will lead into the official launch of the OOC campaign in February.

“This is probably the most important thing I’ve ever done on this campus,” Adkins says. “It isn’t about paying lip service to diversity; it’s about taking real action to change the campus culture.”

Those efforts include the video vignettes and an online newsletter as well as a series of workshops, group exercises and events centered around diversity on campus.

“We have to begin the conversation on this campus, and the truth is it hasn’t really happened yet,” says Alberto Pulido, PABID co-chair and director of the Ethnic Studies Program. “It’s not rocket science; it’s simply a matter of having frank and open discussions within the community.”

Pulido says the first step is having the resolve to openly confront issues of inequality that exist at USD. PABID was formed, in part, as a response to increasing concerns over intolerance on campus. But it was a student demonstration (dubbed “Wake Up!”) that became the impetus for PABID taking immediate action.

“The work of the students was very important in calling attention to these issues,” Pulido says. “Through their remarks and recommendations, they gave us something to really sink our teeth into.”

The effort was propelled even further when USD President Mary E. Lyons delivered a convocation to open the 2008-09 school year that called for “more congruity between what we say and what we do” regarding inequities that exist on campus.

“If we are honest, we must admit some imperfection,” Lyons said. “If we are committed to the mission and values that we proclaim as a university, then we also must be honest about our resolve to live these on our campus more perfectly.”

Members of PABID are currently working on a multi-year strategic plan — covering everything from curriculum and hiring practices to the recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff — that will be presented to Lyons this spring. In the meantime, the conversation, and the process, has just begun.

“The whole thing is about having a critical mass of people on campus devoted to this issue,” Adkins says. “It’s not going to happen like a bolt of lightning. Change is slow and incremental and it isn’t easy, but I think this is a big first step.”