Working Together Toward an Inclusive Campus Community
Before joining St. Olaf College’s Co-Creating an Inclusive Community Initiative, Anja Bunge Dulin ’23 had only seen the campus take on large goals, dreams, and initiatives from afar. Students, faculty, and staff often brainstorm ideas to make the college better and wonder why the progress they want is taking so long, Dulin says.
“To be in the initiative and on the organizing side of it, I have a much better sense of and appreciation for the time and energy that it takes in order to carry out something as big as this,” she says.
The Co-Creating an Inclusive Community Initiative seeks to understand all the different components of inclusion on campus — what makes a community member feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, and what gets in the way of that — and how to then begin to make the changes needed.
Dulin, a biology and race and ethnic studies double major, was one of more than 60 members of the college community who pledged hours of time and effort to bring the entire community together to address the college’s inclusion gap.
The four-phase initiative, which launched in November 2020, currently is in its action stage after months of building and articulating a vision for this crucial work.
In 2019 St. Olaf outlined a Plan for Equity and Inclusion that included the results of a survey with students, faculty, and staff showing how community members of color have a lower sense of belonging and connectedness to the college than their white counterparts. Similarly, students who are Christian were more likely to say that they feel a stronger sense of belonging and inclusion than students who do not identify as Christian.
The Co-Creating Initiative was designed to understand the origins of these disparities through listening sessions with groups across campus and work toward remedying them, says St. Olaf Vice President for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón Gautier.
But in 2020, the need for this work became more urgent than ever.
The COVID-19 pandemic had begun, and cases were rising across Minnesota and the country. Faculty, staff, and students were learning and working remotely, and seniors finished their college career without the many unifying moments they deserved. Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, and his death and the protests that followed shook the Twin Cities and the world.
Two faculty members of color resigned, publicly detailing what they experienced as an unwelcoming campus culture, and students took notice. “Our college was uniquely positioned to say ‘We have to address this,’” Pabón says.
With that momentum, the building phase of the Co-Creating an Inclusive Community Initiative launched. Each phase of the project is guided by the Co-Creating Cycle, which includes:
- Campus-wide co-creating groups: 90-minute work sessions with peer groups on their visions for an inclusive community and how those visions could be realized
- Synthesis and sharing out: Student researchers synthesized reports and shared results
- Responsive action: Initiative leaders worked with specific groups to respond to their visions with recommendations for adopting both short-term solutions and longer-term changes
- Impact reporting: Information and impacts from the responsive action phase were reported to the campus community and used to impact the planning of the next co-creation phase.
In the last 10 years, diversity on campus has been a focus for the college. The number of staff, faculty, and students of color at St. Olaf has increased dramatically, says Vice President for Mission Jo Beld, who led the development of the Theory of Transformation, the basis of how the Co-Creating Initiative was approached.
In 2012, 81 percent of St. Olaf students were white, 14 percent were students of color, and 5 percent were international students. In 2021, 67 percent of students were white, 22 percent were students of color, and international students made up 10 percent of the student body, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment.
Religious demographics on campus have changed, too. In the fall of 2012, 70 percent of St. Olaf students reported that they were Lutheran or another Christian affiliation. In 2021, that number dropped to 55 percent. Conversely, the number of students who reported no religious affiliation more than doubled, from 10 percent to 26 percent, also according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment.
The initial idea for the Co-Creating an Inclusive Community Initiative was developed by Beld and former Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Bruce King. Pabón added her own expertise, which included more than a decade of community engagement.
Pabón knew there were some pieces of the project she needed to change — one key piece being to begin with “responsive action.”
“When I came on board, I said, ‘We need to focus on action and help people engage in what that action will look like,’” Pabón says.
When project participants and communities have ownership of the work they’re doing, they are more likely to engage in it, she says.
Groups were formed that involved all members of the St. Olaf community. Students, staff, and faculty gathered in their learning or work groups so that sessions would be made up of people who knew one another well and could speak freely. Some 1,500 members of the campus community participated in 85 co-creating sessions led by 50 moderators. The moderators — a team of faculty, staff, and students from a wide range of offices and departments across campus — received training from consultants Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Susan Nowlin ’78, and Diane Nettifee.
During sessions, participants were asked to talk about both the ways in which they do experience inclusion and belonging at the college, and the ways they do not. Community members often talk about the dual experience of not feeling as if they belong or are included, even as they develop lifelong friends during their time at the college, says Beld.
“We wanted people to be able to articulate ways in which they do experience a sense of belonging and inclusion, if not at St. Olaf then somewhere else, so we can learn what makes that work for people, and how we can import that,” Beld says.
We are building a culture that supports the values that make us who we are and that supports the changing profile of our Ole community.Vice President for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón Gautier
Student facilitator Will Rand ’22, a music composition major, says sessions were guided by values-based questions that were invitations for people to open up about their experiences.
He became involved in the Co-Creating an Inclusive Community Initiative when an email from Pabón about the project caught his eye. He led four sessions, and was impressed with the vulnerability of those who participated.
“The idea of co-creating is a word that means a lot to me as an artist and as someone who likes to collaborate with people. This idea of collaborating across campus with students and faculty is one of the possible ways toward building a campus that is more equitable, and more inclusive, on all kinds of fronts. I thought, ‘this is totally something I would love to be a part of,’” Rand says.
During sessions led by Rand and other facilitators, groups discussed what their set of shared values meant to them, how these values had been successful so far, and what ways these values made everyone feel connected. Then participants were invited to share the things that were disruptive or disjointed between what they say is shared and what is actually practiced so that they could move forward to a conclusion, says Rand.
Last summer, student researchers overseen by Associate Professor of Practice in Sociology/Anthropology Ryan Sheppard began synthesizing and looking through information collected from those 85 sessions.
As a student facilitator turned researcher, Dulin helped to format data from the sessions into executive summaries that were then presented back to departments. Dulin enjoyed her experience facilitating seven sessions as well, but helping each department outline tangible next steps through her data synthesization was really powerful.
“It was a great experience. I really have a strong appreciation for all the work that it takes to both formulate and organize data and then carry it through to actionable next steps,” Dulin says.
The sessions revealed several key trends that the Co-Creating leadership team, which now includes Vice President for Human Resources Leslie Moore ’77, are working to address:
- Improving communication across the college
- Bridging the divide between staff and faculty
- Reassessing a culture of busyness/always doing
- Increasing professional development opportunities, specifically around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Pabón and staff leadership are now going department-by-department to share the departmental and divisional reports and provide context that they can use to better their culture. Departments and offices can identify one thing that would make the most positive impact on their culture, and then the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office will fund it so they can try it out and see how it works.
Several sessions and workshops have already taken place on topics including restorative justice, conflict resolution, understanding the Derek Chauvin trial, and the term Latinx. Limiting attendance numbers at these sessions was another change, as keeping them smaller helps to foster genuine engagement and interaction, Pabón says.
“Development and opportunities to connect have been two things that came up multiple times in our co-creating sessions. Our community wanted to connect and to continue to get more skills in an ongoing and intentional way,” she says.
The Next Phase
The transformation phase, which will launch in September 2022 and go through May 2023, will involve much of the work of putting ideas into practice.
Even beyond the Co-Creating Initiative, the conversation around inclusivity on campus for everyone is ongoing.
In fall 2020, staff and faculty started a BIPOC affinity group, which is common at many colleges and universities.
“It was in response to everything that was happening, in response to the murder of George Floyd, in response to having had two statements from two Black women faculty who left and how they felt about their time at Olaf. It started with ‘Let’s just get together,’” Pabón recalls.
Since then, the group has continued to meet, to have fun, and to be in community with one another, whether through Zoom sessions to, more recently, lunch and dinner gatherings.
“When you’re in white spaces you tend to monitor your laugh and police how you act and how you move … it’s such a simple thing, but it’s this feeling of being seen and having a community and not having to code switch constantly,” Pabón says. “Out of all this work that we’ve been doing, that is one thing that we have started to embrace — let’s use this space and this group for us to build community among each other.”
Still, the hard work to make sure projects like these have legs and are not simply conversations, means that the Co-Creating Initiative can never truly come to an end.
Having these conversations normalized across campus was really exciting and motivating for students who stayed active and engaged after the co-creating sessions, says Dulin.
“I think we are on the path to healing and fixing some of the gaps that St. Olaf certainly does have and has had for a long time. My hope is that we don’t forget this process and a lot of the pain and the frustration that motivated these really important discussions,” Dulin says.
I think we are on the path to healing and fixing some of the gaps that St. Olaf certainly does have and has had for a long time. My hope is that we don’t forget this process and a lot of the pain and the frustration that motivated these really important discussions.Anja Bunge Dulin ’23
The hunger of the participants who chose to do this work and to continue doing it through the final phase of the Co-Creating Initiative and in the months and years beyond was really impactful, both Pabón and Beld say.
“I think the conversations themselves have taken not just a lot of hard work, but a lot of courage and
the capacity to respond with integrity and with openness to feedback from all over the college,” Beld says. “I just admire our students and colleagues for their willingness to undertake this work.”
This spring St. Olaf hosted its inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Symposium titled Recognizing Excellence, Challenges, and the Work Ahead. Read more about the symposium on St. Olaf News.