When MissionMeets Action

Diversity Efforts Demonstrate a Commitment to Organizational Values

In the spring of 2015, University of Washington Interim President Ana Marie Cauce launched the university’s Race and Equity Initiative. In her speech, she laid out the UW’s commitment to the essential work of breaking down barriers and addressing individual and institutional racism.

“This is not someone else’s problem,” Cauce said. “We may not be able to solve racial inequity, and all those other forms of ‘isms’ everywhere in this country or in the world, but we’ve got to begin by not being part of the problem. We can only do that by recognizing it and acknowledging that it resides in us.”

Mission Critical

At Continuum College, we recognize that supporting a diverse community of students and employees is a vital part of our mission. The organization encompasses UW Professional & Continuing Education, which offers a large portfolio of certificate programs to working professionals and other nontraditional learners; International & English Language Programs, which serves hundreds of international students each year; Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which provides enrichment courses and lectures to those over age 50; and many other programs.

“Our overriding philosophy is to expand the reach of the UW,” said Sandra Janusch, Assistant Vice Provost of Continuum College. “We’re devoted to removing obstacles to educational opportunities and creating a diverse environment that values inclusivity and collaboration.”

To actually develop this kind of environment, and “walk the talk” regarding these organizational values, is the real challenge. It would take action — and the push came from one staffer who saw the need and stepped forward.

Laying the Groundwork

It was Courtney Jones-Vanderleest, Assistant Director of Academic Programs, who first got the discussion going.

“I was inspired by the president’s speech, and I had done diversity work in the past,” Jones-Vanderleest said. “I asked around, and I was surprised we didn’t have anything formal going on around this issue at Continuum College. I thought it would help us connect more with main campus, as well as start an internal conversation around diversity, inclusion and equity.”

I think [the Courageous Conversations] raised people’s overall awareness of some of these subjects, and showed that our organization values diversity and demonstrates that to staff and instructors.

Courtney Jones-Vanderleest

So she reached out to UWC² Senior Director Jennifer Buck and Human Resources Coordinator Lena Hopkins about the issue, and they agreed. After securing support from the UWC² leadership team, they put together a task force and polled employees to gather ideas and set priorities. The task force settled on three main areas of focus:

  1. Create and sustain a welcoming climate for diversity
  2. Attract, retain and graduate a diverse and excellent student body        
  3. Attract and retain diverse instructors and staff

With these objectives in mind, they formed the Continuum College Diversity & Inclusion Committee, which included members from across the organization.

One of the committee’s first major efforts was putting on an Equity 101 workshop. The event was held in July 2017 and facilitated by organizational development consultant Maketa Wilborn.

“The workshop was well attended, and in our evaluations people responded very positively,” said Hopkins, committee co-chair. “We realized people were hungry to learn and talk about issues of diversity and inclusion, but they hadn’t been given the space and time to do that before.”

Sparking Conversation

This success led to the creation of the Courageous Conversations series — brown-bag discussions held monthly for six months, led by diversity experts hailing from all three UW campuses. Most of the sessions were full, with a total of nearly 70 different employees attending at least one. The series was funded by a grant from the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.

Conversation topics included:

  • Tools for having meaningful conversations
  • The roots of racism and oppression
  • Identifying and dissecting privilege
  • Skill building: bias and isms
  • Skill building: micro-aggressions
  • Skill building: allyship

“The Courageous Conversations resulted in some interesting discussions with my coworkers,” Jones-Vanderleest said. “They weren’t always easy, but they were helpful. I think it raised people’s overall awareness of some of these subjects, and it showed that our organization values diversity and demonstrates that to staff and instructors.”

The committee is looking to continue the series in the future, and hopes to broaden the scope to cover even more topics.

Seeing Change

Hopkins noted that across the university, many people are still grappling with the challenges of increasing diversity in the student body and among instructors and staff.

“Everyone recognizes the importance of diversity, but our applicant pools still aren’t there yet,” she said of the hiring process at UWC². “It’s something the UW is struggling with, and we’re all trying to come up with creative solutions for it.”

Hopkins hopes that the Diversity & Inclusion Committee can try new things going forward to have an even greater impact within the organization, including attracting a more diverse group of students and staff. She noted that one committee member has started a diversity-themed book club, encouraging staff members to read about and discuss these topics in a smaller, more casual group setting.

Looking to the future, Hopkins and Jones-Vanderleest feel that the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are only going to become more prominent and vital, both in higher education and with society as a whole. They hope that the Continuum College’s efforts are going to continue to make a difference — within the organization and beyond.

“The current political climate has raised the volume of these conversations,” Hopkins said. “People are speaking out, and we’re seeing more support at the higher levels of UW. It’s tough to measure progress, and to know about the personal, long-term impacts. But change can happen, if we keep working for it.”

For more information about the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, please contact Lena Hopkins (lvw3@uw.edu) or Lalitha Subramanian (lalithas@uw.edu).

Since 1912, University of Washington Continuum College has provided innovative learning paths that boost career success and inspire more meaningful lives. With a flexible approach to delivering the right programs for the right people at the right time, Continuum College provides over 50,000 students each year with a high-quality University of Washington education that’s relevant for today’s world and accessible to learners in Seattle and around the globe.