College of Design Diversity and Inclusion Council Starts Diversity Conversation

Georgia Tech’s mission states, “We will be leaders in improving the human condition in Georgia, the United States, and around the globe.” The College of Design Diversity and Inclusion Council, re-established in September 2016, seeks to extend the Institute’s mission by fostering and enabling open dialogue within the College. The Council remains committed to our fundamental goal to broaden and raise awareness on key themes related to diversity and inclusion at Georgia Tech.

On September 26, 2018, the Diversity and Inclusion Council welcomed Peggy McIntosh, Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and founder of the National S.E.E.D. Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), to campus to help facilitate a conversation about diversity and inclusion between faculty, students, and staff at Georgia Tech. Kaye Husbands Fealing, Professor and Chair of the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy and member of the Executive Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2017-2020), and Robert Kirkman, Associate Professor for the School of Public Policy, were invited to join in the discussion and share their personal experiences with diversity and inclusion. Following the panel discussion, the Council shared additional questions submitted by the audience with McIntosh, Husbands Fealing, and Kirkman for their input.

Question: What practical methods can be employed to restructure our education system to expand inclusion, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields?

Husbands Fealing: One item I would offer here is to have policies and governance on how to conduct searches for faculty, staff and students, where the search or recruiting committees reflect our diverse society (not just the representation we see on campus).

Question: When you are faced with a tricky situation, what would be a good technique to address it while simultaneously bringing awareness to diversity and inclusion?

McIntosh: I sometimes speak autobiographically and say, "When I am faced with this kind of situation, I automatically go to questions about diversity and inclusion in my own head, and whether they bear on the situation." I also sometimes say, "I have a divided mind here -- feeling both x and y." I try not to sound like the expert, but rather to talk about my process of thinking through how tricky situations are placed within contexts that carry power dynamics and bear on equity.

Husbands Fealing: In my experience, I first think about what the final outcome needs to be before I respond to the situation.  In my experience, I find it expedient to respond with facts and poise.  It is important in my view to have my best self-present.  What will be remembered is not the first affront, but what I do in response.

Question: How do you address people that try to ignore their own power in addressing diversity?

McIntosh: I am not sure what is meant by the phrase "try to ignore." When I am with people who have power through privilege, but don't seem to realize it, I just keep saying again and again that privilege brings power with it and that people who have privilege have far more power than most of them have recognized. I keep raising the question of how people will use their power, their unearned power, to weaken systems of unearned power. I think most white people have been trained to think of themselves as not having much power that they can use towards social change. But indeed we white people have considerable power just through being white, even if we grew up with class disadvantage. 

Husbands Fealing: It is important for everyone to understand that (a) diversity is often a benefit to all over time, and (b) if we create opportunities for growth, then diversity is not a zero-sum game. So, getting individuals to understand that the pie can be bigger even if various groups get larger wedges is key.  Of course, fairness is paramount, but what is perceived to be fair is subjective.

Question: Since you are speaking to a roomful of designers – have you noticed any particular physical design features that support or hinder inclusion?

Husbands Fealing: Yes!  Often I am on a stage where there is no ramp to get to the podium or dais. That is a clear signal to someone with a physical disability that they are not welcomed.

McIntosh: I have noticed that in schools, that is school buildings, the design of the front hall makes a big difference. If there are many tables to sit at and many chairs, that can make it feel like a cafe or a conversation nook. This makes students mingle more freely with people who do not look like them. In fact, I have come to say to school faculty groups that I believe they must reengineer and reshape the school entrance hall to prevent depression! In addition, I strongly recommend that small classes be configured as a circles with everyone facing each other, rather than having some look at the backs of heads of others, in rows. The mode called Serial Testimony is a structure for discussion which matches the circle. People can write to me (mmcintosh@wellesley.edu) to request my description of Serial Testimony. My assistant Rachel Nagin adds, "Buildings tell stories about who we are and what we value. Many recently built school buildings are designed much like prisons and built with cheap materials, which tells us quite lot about what we think of our students, especially our public school students. So as you analyze and design spaces, think about what's being valued."

Question: Can you talk about the importance of transparency in hiring and admissions and how that affects diversity and inclusion? Also how can we have increased diversity among faculty and professionals?

Husbands Fealing: This is a really complex question that requires several paragraphs to respond adequately.  So, in a nutshell, recognition that diversity, inclusion, and equity are important in concept and practice is paramount.  Leadership should be all-in, not just making comments in the open but not following through with actions—policies are guidelines to actions.  Often I hear, “Well, we just cannot find anyone…they don’t exist.” That is just not the case, though in some fields there is a low percentage of women or minorities. Networks can be used to find individuals to interview or to work on projects. The one caveat I should mention here—many of us get over worked and need to say “no” sometimes when asked to take on tasks. Junior faculty should be protected from placement on such committees. Yet, there is work to be done.

McIntosh: To increase diversity among faculty and professionals, they must be willing to redesign job descriptions, putting them on a broader base than before. This means rethinking everything that the institution is about. They must make sure that any candidate pool includes people from marginalized groups. Search committees must do the extra work needed and cast their nets wide to get beyond the usual habits of search committees, which include "looking for the best man for the job." 

Question: How can we improve diversity without tokenizing people?

McIntosh: In two universities where I have worked, the decision was made to hire two people of color at least, rather than one, for a previously all-white department, and two or more women for a previously all-male department. This helped to work against the appearance and feelings of tokenism. 

Husbands Fealing: Exactly…this is really important and, again, would take a few paragraphs to give examples of how this could work.  Perhaps the best answer to this question is found in the literature.  Someone should do a brief literature search to give readers of the article ability to explore this topic in more detail.  Attached, please find a report on this topic that a colleague and I prepared for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fulfilment of a grant from NSF. We also published a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist in May 2018: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/absb/62/5.

Let’s keep this conversation going! We need to hear from you on other ways we can broaden and raise awareness on key themes related to diversity and inclusion at Georgia Tech. Send your questions to Carmen Wagster, carmen.wagster@design.gatech.edu, and we will continue this discussion to help us all pursue a more diverse and inclusive community here at Georgia Tech.

The College of Design Diversity and Inclusion Council members include Julie Kim, Associate Chair for the School of Architecture; Catherine Ross, Harry West Professor for the School of City and Regional Planning and Director for the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development; Jerry Ulrich, Associate Professor for the School of Music; Xinyi Song, Assistant Professor for the School of Building Construction; Michelle Rinehart, ex-officio Council member and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Outreach for the College of Design; Astha Bhavsar, undergraduate student, School of Architecture; and Chirag Venkatesan, graduate student, School of Building Construction.

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Carmen Wagster
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Georgia Institute of Technology | School of Architecture