'U' kicks off DEI Summit with admin. and actress-activist Diane Guerrero

Monday, October 8, 2018 - 9:28pm

Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer discusses the DEI initiatives at the DEI Summit and the Power Center Monday.

Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer discusses the DEI initiatives at the DEI Summit and the Power Center Monday. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

The University of Michigan’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit began Monday morning with a community assembly at the Power Center featuring activist and actress Diane Guerrero. The summit includes a number of events and public discussions over the week with a focus on fostering dialogues and addressing shortcomings in diversity, equity and inclusion at the University.

Three years ago, the University began planning for a renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. This planning culminated in an $85 million five-year strategic plan that was presented two years ago and marked the beginning of the DEI initiative. Now, almost halfway through the implementation of this plan, the University is using the summit as an opportunity to reflect on its progress and plan for the future. The plan has, at times, been a source of contention with students of color, those with disabilities and low-income students. 

The assembly began with a brief speech from Robert Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for Equity and Inclusion at the University. Sellers has been responsible for overseeing much of the DEI initiatives, and expressed pride in the work.

Following Sellers, Regent Andrew Richner (R) emphasized the Board of Regents’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and introduced University President Mark Schlissel. Schlissel emphasized the role of the University community in facilitating necessary change.

“When we renewed our journey to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan less than four years ago, we knew we had the power of an amazing community to carry us forward,” Schlissel said. “It’s a community of thousands, past and present, who share their intellect, their commitment to accountability, and their passion for a better university and a better society.”

Schlissel acknowledged the DEI initiative has a long way to go and promised to hold the University accountable for its work.

“We know that many challenges remain as we strive to ensure that the U-M is welcoming for all who live, work and study here,” Schlissel said. “These challenges will continue to drive our work in the months and years ahead. We also will rigorously evaluate our progress to ensure accountability with the goal of achieving the greatest possible impact for all members of our community.”

Following Schlissel’s speech, Sellers gave a brief overview of the University’s progress on the DEI initiative over the last two years. He explained several specific programs the University has implemented in the initiative and reviewed the administration’s stated goals of developing a diverse student body and faculty, promoting a more inclusive climate and infusing DEI goals into teaching and service on campus. Sellers then previewed the administration’s upcoming efforts, including new sexual misconduct policies and internal and external review of the DEI initiative as a whole.

Nearing the end of his speech, Sellers echoed the ideas expressed by Schlissel by praising the progress achieved to this point but emphasizing the work is far from over.

“One of the things I can tell you from the bottom of my heart is that we still have a long way to go,” Sellers said. “But I can also tell you we have also made a great deal of progress in the past three years. We are not the same institution that we were when we started. We are a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community, and we will continue to work to be even more so.”

Sellers was followed at the podium by Katrina Wade-Golden, deputy chief diversity officer,  who introduced Guerrero as the event’s keynote speaker. Guerrero, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, is an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. Pulitzer-winning journalist Leonard Pitts moderated the discussion.

Guerrero spoke at length about her experiences growing up with undocumented parents. Having been born in the U.S., she grew up in Boston in a predominantly Black and Latinx community. Her parents were detained and deported to Colombia when she was 14. These experiences inform Guerrero’s activism, which has become more fervent in light of the increasingly energetic national debate on immigration policy.

“That was really the reason why I even decided to share my story,” Guerrero said. “In 2015, I heard a lot of commentary saying my community were rapists and murderers that were coming to steal jobs. And knowing that I came from this same community that was being referred to in that way, I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ … My community is hard-working. My community is loving. And also, you’re talking about my parents, and they are none of those things.”

The event closed with a performance by Yoni Ki Baat, a student organization dedicated to amplify the voices of women of color. In the performance, four students talked about the unique difficulties faced by women of color at the University. 

In addition to her personal recollections, Guerrero offered advice to students and faculty working toward DEI goals, advising them to keep in mind the long-term nature of the project and not be frustrated by shortcomings along the way.

“Just know that we are looking at a long-term fix,” Guerrero said. “And it is important just to know that it takes work. Nothing comes easy … We cannot back down simply because we keep seeing roadblocks.”

Fifth-year Ross and LSA student Chelsea Racelis performed with YKB at the event. She said the performance gave her a chance to share her story and connect with audience members who could relate.

“(The performance) didn’t make what we were trying to say more palatable or more functional for DEI pedagogy,” Racelis said. “It was really just things that we and other women of color have experienced … I think it’s a powerful piece because … you can put everyday experiences on the stage and people will look at that and go ‘Oh my god, someone literally said that to me yesterday’ or ‘This has happened to me so many times’ in a way that you can’t do when you start theorizing or intellectualizing things.”

In regards to DEI initiatives and Guerrero’s remarks, Racelis said her story brings smaller focuses on DEI into a larger, system-wide examination of discrimination.

“A lot of times with DEI we like to pull it down to the level of interpersonal, like someone’s personal struggle that speaks on their identity but they did this and they overcame it but Diane Guerrero is very clear about ‘The reason I had this experience because of this system that we’re in that … is not working for people and it’s ruining people’s lives,’” Racelis said. “I think we can do that more and more in DEI.”