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February 18, 2019

Sharing the Work of Diversity

Diversity initiatives should not just be the responsibility of the diverse.

A few years ago, during a job interview, I sat wide-eyed as my interviewer recited goals for his company’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) plan. As a southern, brown, Muslim, Arab woman, this was the first time I understood that I did not have to be white to be worthy. Three years later, I heard this same exact speech, except this time, by a college interviewer. Today, similar rhetoric continues to echo around classrooms and conference rooms as D&I models have become forced praxis across universities and workplaces.

But as D&I models have transformed into business models, I can’t help but wonder: Are these models even working? Are the right people listening, or are we just asking D&I committee members to shoulder the burden of problems that were created, and perpetuated, by the folks who realized we needed a D&I committee? From my experience on multiple D&I committees, I have ultimately realized that, at best, this work is not being shared equally and, at worst, it’s not being shared at all. If we want diversity initiatives to truly be effective, we need to ensure everyone is working to achieve the desired goals.

For many people who live in liminal positions between their community’s struggles and the aspirational goals of class nobility, their future is one of both promise and peril. The reality is that my sun-kissed skin will never be seen as professional in the effete tradition of the law. I am reminded of this every day I enter the classroom, every day I network, and every day I intern. But I got here. By the grace of God, and by the grace of many people’s sacrifices, I got to law school. I earned it, too. But unfortunately, many others are not afforded similar opportunities. We have to work to ensure that stories like mine are no longer anomalies. 

When a(nother) school shooting or political tragedy occurs, students from underrepresented minority groups make it a priority to reach out to comfort and listen to others, with the hopes they would also be afforded time and space when they attempt to cope with their own untelevized tragedies. We have all protested and marched so much it has become a form of exercise. We’ve spoken up so much that we have grown weary of our voices. We’ve joined committees to address underrepresentation of minority students in higher education. We’ve participated in recruitment efforts for prospective students and faculty, penned open letters, spoken to leaders, and formed healing spaces for people to cope.

Most days, I am satisfied with my efforts. Still, I often find myself thinking about what we could accomplish if we did not have to do all of this extra work. Perhaps, instead of developing ways to increase representation and diversity, we could have been studying to increase our GPA, networking to land the “dream job,” or applying to prestigious fellowships. Or, perhaps, instead of healing after another unnecessary, fatal tragedy, we could have been more productive publishing, researching, or presenting our studies. In a world that is so centered on classroom and workplace competition, I wonder if we’re spending too much time not competing  because of all this extra work. 

Likewise, I wonder how much time is being taken from our diverse professors. The higher you reach in academia, the less likely you’ll be met with shades of representation. The same is true in professional settings. These diverse mentors are expected to spend inordinate amounts of time mentoring, in addition to their full-time positions as professors and professionals. I’ve personally spent hours recounting experiences to mentors who have the ability to emote a deep and sincere connection, and I know I am not the only one. Mentors’ fidelity to mentees comes at a price: their inability to say no to listening and advising, even when they forsake their own health, productivity, and success. The same mentors are expected to lead diversity task forces, sit on recruitment committees, mentor diverse colleagues, and give free talks on “why diversity matters!” while their counterparts are expected to simply put in their nine-to-five.  

 How much of a burden are we to our diverse mentors? If mentors are not compensated or recognized for the extra work they invest in others, are we actually compromising their trajectory?  

 In law school, we are taught that public goods are nonexclusive benefits for all members of a society. Contrary to current D&I models, diversity is not a good created only by diverse people for diverse people. We must never forget that we have all benefited, and continue to benefit, from the work of minority communities. Moreover, creating spaces that reflect our social demographics is beneficial to every individual who yearns to engage with the world in all of its complexities. Minority communities have, for far too long, been expected to collectively solve, empathize, and heal while white counterparts applaud efforts from the sidelines. These burdens have direct impacts on one’s health, stress, and productivity, and if we’re not compensating these people for the work they do behind the scenes, we need to change who’s doing the work on center stage. 

My call to students and faculty: 

1. Call out white faculty, administration, and students for not sharing the responsibilities of diversity initiatives. 

2. Put white men on committees to share the responsibility of learning, educating, and addressing diversity issues.

3. Compensate and credit students and professors who help mentor and help others cope.  

4. Make diversity and inclusion initiatives a campus-wide priority, not a dean’s sound-bite. 

Leena El-Sadek is a student at the University of Chicago Law School. 

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