Graham Sustainability Institute uses fellowship application to stress DE&I focus
While a number of schools, colleges and Student Life units develop and shape their individual diversity, equity and inclusions plans around the expressed needs of their constituents, several other units face unique challenges because of the structure of their work.
Take, for instance, the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute. The institute engages and supports faculty, staff and students from all units of campus to foster collaborative sustainability solutions for society. In essence, it serves the entire university community.
For interim director Drew Horning, the challenge is finding a way to incorporate the needs of the entire campus into the institute’s DE&I plan.
“Every day we interact with faculty, staff and students from all over campus, and because we aren’t solely student-focused or solely focused on faculty or staff, we had to incorporate things into our plan that could translate to each of those groups broadly,” he said.
The institute’s plan contains 31 action steps focused on recruitment and retention, skill development and education, and promoting an inclusive climate. Specific action items include distributing professional, scholarship and grant opportunities to more diverse audiences, and expanding training and skill development opportunities for its staff and supervisors.
But one of the institute’s unique features is the approach it takes to application processes for the student fellowship programs it administers, including the Graham Undergraduate Scholars Program and the university’s Dow Sustainability Fellows Program. These programs annually support more than 100 full-time students and postdoctoral scholars who are committed to finding interdisciplinary, actionable and meaningful sustainability solutions on local-to-global scales.
Beginning this year, Horning said, applications include the following critical thinking essay question: In what ways does fostering a diverse and inclusive community affect pathways to sustainability?
“We wanted to get people thinking about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion without steering them down a particular path. This question allows applicants to explore the topic in so many ways, and through a personal lens,” he said.
Horning said many of the responses fell into four broad themes and he contextualized them as follows:
- Demonstrating how diverse teams are more likely to develop innovative and long-term sustainability solutions.
- Developing inclusive sustainability teams by supporting a collaborative model of sharing leadership, information and access to knowledge resources.
- Identifying and addressing common sustainability challenges among diverse communities.
Community and engagement
- Supporting diverse and inclusive communities helps ensure equal access to natural resources; and equitable methods to protect and enhance resources for all people.
- Engaging diverse stakeholders, including local and indigenous groups and organizations, helps ensure that sustainability solutions are more readily adopted.
- Ensuring educational opportunities are open to all regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and economic class.
- Recognizing that higher education is a privilege.
Personal and professional growth
- Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the sustainability profession.
- Acknowledging bias, privilege, and power when working collaboratively toward a common vision.
“Some students will incorporate their current or previous commitment and experience to DE&I into their project work in the coming year. Others will benefit from working collaboratively with other fellows on an interdisciplinary team project and engaging stakeholders in developing practical sustainability solutions,” Horning said.
“We continue to encourage students to think critically about and form connections between diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability through engaged research projects, diverse input, and community involvement.”
As a follow-up to its initial plan, students involved with the institute hosted an Eco Equity Roundtable event where students from across the campus identified opportunities to improve practices and behaviors as it pertains to intersectionality in social justice and environmentalism.
Later this spring the institute will host a diversity workshop for its staff. This workshop will focus on assessing the current climate, understanding the risks for inactivity, identifying resources needed and determining strategies to implement change.
By Jeremy Allen