Beyond Racial Equity and its role at Emerson College

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Tara Jenkins and Quionna Allen. Courtesy / Jenkins, Allen

By Gabriel Borges, Staff Writer

A consulting firm will release a report on student accessibility and racial equity next month, bringing renewed attention to a year-long, student-driven effort to re-examine the way Emerson treats its marginalized community members.

The report, slated to be released before the conclusion of the academic year, will draw on eight months of research by Beyond Racial Equity, a Maine-based group hired by Emerson’s Presidential Advisory Group. That decision came after Emerson’s Access: Student Disability Union unveiled the “Access Advocacy Project” in April 2021, urging the college to improve accessibility for its disabled community members, including the incorporation of policies in the classroom and the implementation of educational and training programs for community members on disability. 

“The responsibility of rooting out ableism falls upon every person and institution,” read the statement from Access SDU. “That is one of the reasons why we are calling upon Emerson College to do more and to do better for its disabled students and community members.” 

In response, the college hired Beyond Racial Equity in September to perform an institutional review, with the goal of identifying areas for improvement in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) sphere.

“[The obstacle to accessibility is] not necessarily one person,” said Quionna Allen, a co-founder of BRE. “We want to look at some of the processes and practices that may be in place, not because someone is doing it intentionally, but just because it’s been around for 100 years, or 50 years.”

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Beyond Racial Equity set up interviews with faculty, administration, staff, and students to identify the college’s gaps and limitations.

“It was clear that people were saying, “There are some issues with the faculty and staff, or issues with the process [of the college’s DEI practices] itself,” said Ruthanne Madsen, Emerson’s vice president for enrollment management who serves as interim supervisor of the Social Justice Center.

“If you go back to those demands and some of the things that were requested of the institution, you’ll see that, clearly, there are some gaps there and some areas of improvement necessary,” she added.

Since its inception, Beyond Racial Equity has implemented focus groups, or “Student Visioning Sessions,” for select groups of students such as members of the LGBTQ+ community and students of color. The group also launched HiveWise, a virtual conversation platform designed to gather input from the entirety of the Emerson community.

“HiveWise is like a combination of a conversation and a survey,” Allen said. “We develop specific questions in HiveWise based on what we’ve learned about Emerson…We’ve spent the last couple months of this span of time really trying to figure out how to get engagement from students,” Allen continued.

While the interactive virtual platform was anonymous, each HiveWise contributor is able to see each other’s responses and respond with advantages and disadvantages to what people shared.

Allen said that Beyond Racial Equity’s priority in their work with Emerson is to create an environment where students, faculty, and staff can be themselves in spite of their identities.

“I do this work wanting people to have [inclusion] in their environments,” she said. “It’s an area that connects with wanting people to feel that they are in a place where they can be successful, where they belong, where they feel like they can be, [and] where they’re included.”

Jenkins said that Emerson’s efforts to seek an external party for structural evaluation of diversity, equity and inclusion is a sign that the college is heading in the right direction. However, Madsen noted that while the college continues to work towards DEI, the process of working towards an equitable campus will take time.

“There’s hope that we can be in a community where everybody feels comfortable, everybody feels included,” she said. “That’s the way the system was made and we’re breaking that down slowly.”