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The Quest for Justice: Forging Alliances to Promote Change

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate
May 17, 2021 Michael J. Stebleton Hannah Oliha-Donaldson

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 2, May 2021 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

On Setting Context

Recently I had the opportunity to interview my colleague and friend, Dr. Hannah Oliha-Donaldson. Dr. Oliha-Donaldson is a faculty member of communication studies at the University of Kansas. Her scholarly work focuses on organizational communication, intercultural communication, and diversity and equity issues in higher education. We met over 16 years ago when we were both employed at Inver Hills Community College, located in the Twin Cities area. It was at that time that we started our ongoing conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion around strategies to support students.

Hannah Oliha-DonaldsonShe is the editor of a new book titled, Confronting Equity and Inclusion Incidents on Campus: Lessons Learned and Emerging Practices, published recently by Routledge (2021). We met via Zoom on the morning of Monday, March 29, 2021—at the same time coincidentally that the trial began for Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, less than two miles from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus.

In a recent AERA annual conference conversation with Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, she advocated that the focus needs to be on “justice, and less on social justice or the language of DEI”—and to use this time to do a hard re-set of priorities (2021). It is in this spirit that we share the highlights from our conversation. We delve into a wide range of topics about the new book, and other issues related to diversity, equity, and social justice in higher education. This article includes excerpts from this interview. Some of the responses were modified to clarify main points. We will use our initials to indicate our respective thoughts: Dr. Hannah (HOD) and Dr. Mike (MJS).

On the New Book:

MJS: So talk about the book, and how and why you conceptualized it. Give me the elevator pitch.

HOD: Okay, so the book essentially says: "We've got work to do.” And because we're stuck in this space of trying to figure out what to do with diversity, how to institutionalize it, how to functionally operationalize inclusivity, how to functionally operationalize equity. We need to find what's working, and we need to illuminate that, and have conversations about what's working, and then discuss how to bring that to our own institutions. We need “portraits of success” and “pathways to effectiveness.” We can use promising practices emerging from those portraits of success to talk about what change might look like in our unit, in our institutions, and then how we actualize that.

On Teaching at a PWI as a BIPOC scholar:

MJS: You work at KU, which is a predominately White institution. Tell me about your experience and your work with students in these spaces. What are some of the challenges?

HOD: “Well, just look at the country the last few years, and think of when our last president was leaving office. At the tail end of his presidency, his administration passed an executive order pushing back against educational training programs delving into diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. These programs were viewed as "agenda-laden."

Given my areas of scholarship and teaching, one of the challenges I face is students who are uncomfortable with hearing that our country has challenges, that we have growth areas, and that we have a ways to go when it comes to social justice, when it comes to the full inclusion and equity of BIPOC communities. The key challenge I face is students who don't want to hear that. Unfortunately, there are also those who want to reclaim a vision of the past that has some of us living in spaces and places that are less than who we are as human beings, and I think that has become very, very clear.

As a faculty member of color, one of the things that students often say when I teach courses like intercultural communication, the course on social conflict, they often say things like, "Well, it appeared as if she had an agenda," when you get to the teaching evaluations. So in those courses, I have to be really careful about the content I collate and I put together to ensure that students realize that this isn't about an agenda, but it's about sharing facts and sharing what's really going on and preparing them to negotiate the world that we actually live in…. It makes them uncomfortable; it challenges their vision of who we are as a country. And sometimes, and especially in my courses, I invite the students to conceptualize what better looks like, to conceptualize how they can contribute to that. And I think that's something that some people just don't want to grapple with.

On Moving Beyond the Five Common F’s of Diversity Training and Programming:

MJS: We often talk about diversity training around the five F’s: fashion, festivals, famous people, food, and flags. These efforts can be superficial and performative. I remember you saying that one of your goals while you were there at Inver Hills CC was to move past the five Fs, to push the needle towards moving the community further along this line of greater awareness and action, right? How are institutions doing?

HOD: I think it depends on the institution. Some institutions have not even begun having the conversations. I mean, really, even in this day and age, there are still some institutions that aren't even engaging in the dialogues that need to happen. But for institutions who are doing the work, I think that in some spaces, we have moved beyond the five Fs. And I think part of how we have done that is through more scholars writing about the topic. I mean, back in the day, even when I was doing my dissertation talking about diversity in the field of communication, for example, there were not very many people talking about diversity.

Difficult conversations are not fun, but a lot of the awareness programming you see at colleges and universities are (positioned as) fun. They medicate people into thinking it is all about the food, the food's great, the fashion is great; let's just learn about that, and everything's great. If we just have fun together, everything's great. But fundamentally, real change requires that we engage each other in dialogues that can be uncomfortable; they're not fun.

There is definitely battle fatigue. It wears on you, and that's the battle we're facing in higher education today; it's BIPOC individuals who were experiencing diversity fatigue, they're experiencing battle fatigue, because every day you feel as if you're on the battle front, trying to fight (Quaye et al., 2020). And so when I think about, and now I'm going to articulate it: When I think about the challenge with where we are, it's simply that there are still individuals who don't see. They think that we've gone so far ahead that they're still missing the challenges that are left on the table…they are so “woke” that they are asleep.

On Language and the Meaning of White Educators as Allies or Accomplices:

We had the chance to talk about language and the use of White “allyship.” Stephen Brookfield (2020), scholar at the University of St Thomas, suggested that educators do not use the language of White ally because it comes off as condescending and inauthentic. He writes: “No matter how strongly you are committed to that identity, I say you keep it private" (p. 17).

MJS: So I wonder if you can respond to that. Is that something you would agree with or perhaps not?

HOD: I agree. We’ve got to move beyond the language and labels to the real work. The real work is showing up. The real work is standing by Students of Color when something happens, and it's more convenient to be quiet, but you actually speak up and you do something. The real work is when a colleague of color publishes a new article, a new book, you send them a congratulations in an environment where they are, perhaps, not fully included, valued, or heard. You reach out to them. You push back against the politics of marginalization and work to include them in the formal and informal networks in the department.

MJS: Mikki Kendall (2020), author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, talks about moving away from this language of allyship to accomplice. And let me provide some context there. It is similar to Brookfield. She uses the protests and the movement from 2020 following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (as examples). She talks about how White folks call themselves allies, but really they're often times just standing by, they're not getting in front of the line. She uses the examples of Black and Brown protesters and the law enforcement, and she says, "We need more White folks to actually get in between the two divides or two lines." And she wants us, White folks, to be accomplices, and I don't know what you think about the term. Maybe we value the sentiment but not the term so much.

HOD: She is absolutely right. The issue, again, is the word, we don’t like the word…. The sentiment she articulates, however, is spot on. There are things that we all bring to the table. People like me bring expertise, we bring lived experience, and passion. People like you also bring passion, but you also bring influence, you bring credibility to the fight. The marriage of all of these things is the bedrock of change. So rather than being accomplices, I think in terms of forging alliances. Something special happens when two parties merge their strengths. By forming alliances, we can build on each other’s strengths, address any weaknesses, and work together for change.

On the Role of Faculty, Student Affairs Educators, and Institutions:

MJS: Tell me about the responsibility of faculty members (and other educators).

HOD: We are far from walking the walk. We have faculty who are doing research in the area who don't even speak respectfully to Students of Color. Like little things like that, I call them diversity mercenaries. I plan on developing this concept in a paper. They profit from doing the work, but they don't actually care, because if you actually cared, you would actually build relationships with Students of Color, with women in the program. You would actually create space for them to be successful, rather than minimizing them or treating them as if they don't even exist.

HOD: Our communication about an organization is what creates an organization and then we allocate resources reflective of our communication, reflective of our commitments, right? And so when we choose not to allocate resources reflective of DEI commitments we’ve articulated and we say, "We don't have the money," or "We don't have the opportunity or the resources." It makes absolutely no sense to me when it's coming from individuals who are in key leadership positions, who are at the very top of the chain, and who can reallocate, move resources around to make things happen, but choose not to. It's not one big moment that leads to institutionalized racism, it is little actions every single day, every single semester. So, all of these little actions that we choose to take lead to institutional racism, lead to an institutional lack of belonging for individuals who are underrepresented or marginalized.

 On Valuing Students and Educators: Doing the Work

MJS: You describe the work as a process for all educators. Say more.

HOD: It is small actions on a day-to-day basis, weekly, semester by semester, that lead to the institutionalization of inequity. We don't get to institutionalized inequity just like that. We get there by the daily actions we take, or choose not to take.

It is important to think about students, specifically, to a Student of Color who may be dealing with imposter syndrome already, having a faculty member in your program say to you, "Well, I can't help you, or I'm not the person who does this," it comes across as alienating. It tells that student, perhaps, that they are not welcome in the department. Worse still are situations when faculty simply ignore Students of Color or say things in classes that may make those students feel unwelcome. These types of things happen daily in many institutions across the nation, and they suggest that we have a lot of work to do.

When actualizing (this new text), it became very clear to me that we have lots of work to do. Unless we begin to handle diversity concerns as our issues, we will continue to lose students who will go to other places and spaces that they find more inclusive, and we will lose faculty (and student affairs practitioners) who will continue to leave because they don't feel like they are welcome, like they are respected, like they are valued.

In sum, this new book creates space for us to see what some of that work looks like; it invites us to engage in conversations about what change might look like; and it offers ideas for forward momentum.”

Authors’ Notes: Thank you to colleague Leah Fulton for her thoughtful comments.


Brookfield, S.D. (2020). Using a pedagogy of narrative disclosure to uncover white supremacy. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 165, 9-19. https://doi-org/10.1002/ace.20364

Kendall, M. (2020). Hood feminism: Notes from the women that a movement forgot. Viking.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2021). I’m here for the hard re-set: Post pandemic pedagogy to preserve our culture. Equity & Excellence in Education, 54(1), 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665684.2020.1863883

Oliha-Donaldson, H. (2021). Confronting equity and inclusion incidents on campus: Lessons learned and emerging practices. Routledge.

Quaye, S. J., Karikari, S. N., Carter, K. D., Okello, W. K., & Allen, C. (2020). "Why can't I just chill?": The visceral nature of racial battle fatigue. Journal of College Student Development, 61(5), 609-623. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2020.0058