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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Describing programs that address diversity, equity, and inclusion:

A few of you have had recent questions about how, when, and if to use the phrase “underrepresented minority” and similar terms in our communications and materials. We’re also seeing this question play out in higher ed more broadly. Here are some recommendations on how to cover programs that address racism by providing support and opportunities for people who come from backgrounds that are discriminated against in STEM. We hope these reflect what we learned from colleagues around campus who shared their insights and that they reflect the broader, ongoing conversation in our communities.

  • Avoid adjectives that label people by challenges or discrimination their communities may face. Instead, describe the current or historic situation that impacts an individual or community. An individual isn’t underrepresented or historically marginalized. They are impacted by systems and institutions that have excluded communities that they are part of.
    • For example, rather than saying “The Morrill Engineering Program, a program for underrepresented students,” instead focus on the context that would make a students’ background relevant in the first place. Try something like: “MEP, a program that empowers African American, Hispanic, and Native American students.” Or “Erin is an ARISE Scholar. ARISE helps academically talented students from low-income backgrounds and under-resourced school districts.”
  • Use the terms that communities themselves use. Don’t shy away from terms like Black or Latinx or trans, if that is how a person describes themself or a community describes itself.
    • Why? Using generic terms like “underrepresented” or “underserved” is often seen as a way of glossing over the systems that create barriers for students to participate or differences among communities. For example, Latinx students make up a substantially larger portion of the undergraduate population in The Grainger College of Engineering compared to Black students. Describing “underrepresented minorities” obscures this fact. We have to understand the equity challenges we face as clearly as possible in order to address them successfully.
  • Be flexible. African American and Black are both in common use today. Latinx and Hispanic both have a place in those communities. And preferred terms shift over time. That can lead to some anxiety for writers and speakers, but we want to be attuned to how people think of themselves and reflect that experience.
    • But how do I do that? If you’re dealing with an individual and it’s relevant to the topic you’re covering, ask them what they prefer. If you’re dealing with an organization, use the term they use. If you’re speaking broadly about a given community, do a bit of research beforehand. Be open to correction and gracious if you receive it.
  • Look at historical names and conventions. If a program that is run by a given community has what may be considered an outmoded name, leave it to them to assess what to do about that. Different organizations make any number of decisions on that topic. Use their name until they tell you otherwise. If a program run by the university has what may be considered an outmoded name, you may or may not have a role in assessing what to do about that. If you’re writing a story, you may encounter a historical name that has been changed to something more contemporary or that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Keep telling those stories, but it would be appropriate to acknowledge in your text that the name has changed or that the name might be considered outmoded or offensive.
    • Long story short: You’ll encounter situations where you’re not the decision-maker. That’s OK. Take your work seriously on this issue. Influence the things you can influence. And improve on an ongoing basis.
  • Tell stories about people. Beyond any single phrase, when covering issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, strive to more fully discuss what students, faculty, and communities experience. Rather than simply describing a given program, take the opportunity to allow students to describe their work and lives. Rather than simply offering statistics, highlight the assets that a given student or group of students bring. We have an opportunity to provide the context of the situations that our programs are working to address, not just give a bureaucratic description of those programs. Make the most of that.