NORFOLK, Neb. – Northeast Community College has an idea, or make that an IDEA. In reaction to the civil unrest that has gripped the nation this summer, the College is addressing issues of inclusion, diversity, and equity to ensure that everyone feels welcome on all Northeast campuses.
As the unrest was unfolding in June, Northeast President Leah Barrett asked a series of questions in a video message on the Northeast website as to how Northeast can be a place where it can engage in positive dialogue on the challenges facing society.
“There are no easy answers, but dialogue is imperative to find solutions,” Barrett said. “The mission of Northeast Community College speaks to the dedication of the success of students. It is so important that Northeast welcomes all students in an effort to help them reach their goals in an environment free of harassment and discrimination.”
Barrett said as Northeast continues to seek solutions to ensure a safe college environment for all, open dialogue sessions with students and employees have been held as it seeks “authentic engagement.”
“Our college, especially community colleges, need to be places where all of our students, all of our employees feel welcome no matter their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their political belief. We need to be a community and we need to support each other,” Barrett said. “This is a time when we are all affected by the civil unrest occurring around the United States and throughout the world. It is often hard to watch, but we have to face it and we have to talk about it.”
Following the dialogue sessions, Barrett appointed a group of faculty and staff members to IDEA (Inclusion Diversity, and Equity Alliance) to continue to look at developing strategic processes around these areas. The group’s work will delve into several areas, including a review of policies and procedures to determine if there are barriers to anyone achieving success through their studies or work, ensure that the college is welcoming to all, and make certain that Northeast is celebrating different cultures among those on campus and through the curriculum.
Members of IDEA are Pam Saalfeld, director of the Center for Global Engagement, Paul Muncy, instructor of world history and geography, Jessica Dvorak, director of human resources, Tom Wiese, technical support specialist, Carissa Kollath, director of student activities, and Amy Seaton, adult education intake coordinator in South Sioux City. Over the summer, Saalfeld and Wiese attended a meeting of the Norfolk Mayor’s Diversity Council that featured a trainer from Omaha who focused on inclusivity.
Saalfeld said inclusion, diversity, and equity start with being kind to one another and understanding elements of people’s lives that may be different from their own. She did not experience many differences in other cultures growing up in a small town, “but I knew what humanity was.”
“I was not an expert, by any means,” Saalfeld said, “but I know how to listen and I know what hurt is and that’s what we’re missing today. We don’t have to be experts in race relations, riot prevention or law enforcement, but we know how to be human, we know how to love, we know what hurt is. We’re missing those pieces and that’s what we need to get back to.”
Muncy said people need to speak out when confronting different forms of racism, bigotry or misogyny.
“If we see someone being sexually harassed, we would step right in, but when we see harassment of students of color or gay students on campus, we sometimes don’t step in when we should. If we’re going to build that broader culture, that does have to be something we expect all students to participate in,” Muncy said. “We need to aggressively expect all of our students to have some type of stake in doing something about it.”
Muncy would like to see Northeast address hiring employees who bring in more diversity. He said it would be more productive for students to have additional faculty and staff who come from different backgrounds.
“When we talk about hiring, we want to hire the best person for the job and that is often about qualifications. But beyond the best person for the job, I think for a lot of our students of color, it’s harder for them to go to a white faculty or staff member. Not that they wouldn’t have been supportive, but they haven’t been through those experiences,” he said. “And I think for many of our students that have to deal with racism and all of the other ‘soft effects’ of racism, things that are not as overt. How would they know if a white faculty member can actually empathize with them?”
Northeast Community College is also beginning to take steps to be more inclusive through student-related events. Kollath said the diversity and inclusion organization, Hawks United, is reforming with Emily Norman and Tonya Brandl serving as advisors. In addition, Norman and Wiese will advise the Pride (LBGTQ) Club. Kollath said they also are working on developing better awareness strategies of these and other groups across the college community.
Muncy is asking his colleagues to encourage their students to participate in the clubs.
“I think that creating that type of community, both internationally, regionally and here on campus will be positive and major driver in making positive change.”
Barrett has elevated IDEA’s work as it will become a reporting entity of the College’s President’s Council, which is the primary recommending body to the president regarding procedure and strategic priorities. Initially, members of IDEA will work to give themselves a presence throughout the college now that the academic year is underway.
Saalfeld said the group is beginning to meet to develop short-term and long-term goals some inclusivity, diversity and equity are common themes at Northeast Community College.
“These goals will be developed with an eye toward being, as President Barrett put it, ‘interwoven into the fabric of our institution.’ We are excited with this new vision, this new idea,” Saalfeld said. We’re looking forwarding with working with faculty, staff, and students across the college to make our world a better place, a unified place.”