What does it mean to engage your community? Addressing this question is a critical step in your DEI strategic plan and implementation process. Without widespread awareness, multiple avenues for input and feedback, and opportunities for meaningful involvement, your DEI plan can lose traction or, worse, never get off the ground.
Effective engagement will model equity and inclusion at all levels of the organization and in all corners of campus. It will not only “talk the talk,” but also “walk the walk.” To be successful, your community engagement strategy must be consistent and multifaceted. Both content and process should reflect the transparency of your efforts and demonstrate accountability for actions and results.
Key goals for your community engagement efforts include:
- Infusing your planning and implementation process with input from those who will be served and impacted: students, staff, faculty, alumni, and other constituents.
- Providing multiple opportunities and formats for people to share input, participate in the planning and implementation process, and learn about progress and ongoing challenges.
- Planning communications, forums, activities, or programs in response to concerns or incidents that may arise within and beyond campus.
It’s important to engage all constituents in your community during the planning and implementation of a DEI Strategic Plan. Consider the following three domains when organizing your engagement strategy at both the campus and unit level:
1. Intact groups representing various constituencies. These could include student government and other student group leaders; faculty senate members and faculty executive boards; staff leaders and staff committees for professional, administrative support; unionized staff members; alumni society boards; and community relations or town-gown boards.
2. Advisory boards or groups that you create to inform your priorities and process.
3. Constituent groups at large, including all students, all staff members, all faculty members, and all alumni.
Collaborate with campus leaders, intact groups and advisory groups when developing plans that are aimed at reaching their constituent groups. This will benefit your decision making and increase the likely success of your engagement efforts by bolstering attendance, participation and involvement.
Also, gaining insights about when and how to best reach people from various groups and subgroups can make a world of difference in terms of outcome. To demonstrate inclusion, and enhance both process and results, be mindful of the peak times and availability of commuter students or student athletes, custodial staff or health care professionals, adjunct faculty or faculty up for tenure review.
During the strategic planning phase, it’s extremely important to create a structured process with avenues and opportunities for engaging the community. By way of example, the U-M plan included a series of “Be Heard” events sponsored both centrally and in campus units.
Along with promotional giveaways such as t-shirts and buttons, these programs offered practical guidance on conducting focus groups and town halls so that schools, colleges and campus units from Public Safety to Business & Finance could engage students, faculty and staff.
We also hosted a series of campuswide town halls for students, staff and faculty, and provided infographic handouts on the Strategic Planning Process and Timeline. Consider organizing—as U-M did—a major campuswide launch event (see related DEI Toolkit Guide, “Developing a Launch and Anchoring Event”) to formally announce your DEI Strategic Plan and kick-off the implementation phase.
Plan ahead to ensure that you have adequate and consistent plans for engaging your community throughout the implementation of your DEI Strategic Plan.
Conducting climate surveys at regular intervals, hosting an annual anchoring event, offering grants for unit-based DEI initiatives, and creating recognition awards are all effective methods for sharing and celebrating progress, and for strengthening and sustaining your efforts over time.
To broaden engagement, build DEI into existing activities such as orientation programs for new students, staff and faculty, annual performance evaluations and goal setting for faculty and staff, and campuswide recognition events.
Also, leveraging your network of campus leaders and student/staff/faculty groups can help identify gaps and keep your efforts on track. Above all, remain open to feedback and continue to emphasize that the plan will continue to evolve, based on the needs of the community.
Wherever possible, track participation, document feedback, and share progress and challenges with your community. Also, it’s essential to provide evidence-based, qualitative and quantitative indicators to gauge how whether the campus community is connected to and invested in your DEI efforts.
Use feedback buttons on web-based initiatives; track participation in DEI educational sessions and collect feedback on the helpfulness of those sessions; track attendance at large and small events; and, when possible, collect metrics on communications such as whether emails are opened and whether people link to the progress report you share via email.
Seek out feedback on how you can improve your strategies for engaging the community in the plan and its implementation. Be transparent and accountable by sharing what you learn and indicating what you will add, change, or adjust to better meet the needs of your community.
- Faculty, staff and students need to see themselves in the priorities and process that you implement. Ensure that you make connections from the input received from these groups and the priorities that your plan is addressing.
- It’s critical to maintain momentum across a multi-year DEI planning and implementation process. Evaluate how you will maintain momentum through well timed communications and engagement opportunities across varied constituent groups.
- Campuswide engagement cannot be achieved solely at the central level. It will require a large cadre of faculty, staff and student partners as well as ambassadors who are knowledgeable and involved. Partnering with student leaders to plan and implement student engagement efforts can be a particularly effective strategy.
- Be sure your engagement strategy addresses the student lifecycle from orientation to graduation and anticipates changeover in the student body year to year. Collaborate with your Student Life division as well as individual schools and colleges, and look for ideas and opportunities from the students themselves.
- If structures don’t yet exist for soliciting input from staff members, faculty members, or students, create them. Then develop plans to sustain them beyond your implementation window.
- A key challenge you’re likely to encounter is competing priorities. In every institution of higher education, faculty are busy teaching and doing research, students are engaged in learning, and staff are focused on running the institution. You’ll need to find creative ways to draw people in and align activities to meet the needs of specific groups. The more you’re able to integrate DEI efforts with existing processes, policies, practices, and activities, the more those values will become ingrained in the campus culture—rather than being perceived as being mere add-ons.