Anti-Racism Task Force prepares to share recommendations, receive feedback

Dietra Trent (left), the interim vice president for Compliance, Diversity and Ethics and special advisor to the president, and co-chairs Wendi Manuel-Scott (center), a professor of history in the School of Integrative Studies within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the former director of the African and African American Studies Program, and Shernita Rochelle Parker (right), Mason’s assistant vice president for HR strategy and talent management, spoke about the work of the Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force. Creative Services photos

Over the past several months, members of George Mason University’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force have been hard at work analyzing the current state of the university, making recommendations, and preparing for the major work ahead.

We recently spoke with the task force leadership—Dietra Trent, the interim vice president for Compliance, Diversity and Ethics and special advisor to the president, and co-chairs Shernita Rochelle Parker, Mason’s assistant vice president for HR strategy and talent management, and Wendi Manuel-Scott, a professor of history in the School of Integrative Studies within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the former director of the African and African American Studies Program—to see how the initiative is going.

“[The task force’s work] is our best chance of creating real and lasting change at Mason,” said Trent.  “As a university, we tout diversity as a core value.  But, with less than 10% of our full-time faculty being African American or LatinX,  our data show otherwise.  I believe we have systemic problems that have perpetuated biases and discrimination over time;  this task force will lead us in our efforts to root out racism and discrimination university-wide.”

“I've been at Mason for almost two decades as a faculty member,” said Manuel-Scott. “While the campus has grown, I think what has remained consistent is a deep desire that Mason be an institution that lives up to who we say we are and give meaning to what we say our core values are on a daily basis.”

“Racial Justice, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion” is also the theme of the first Freedom and Learning Forum hosted by President Gregory Washington. The campus community has the opportunity to ask questions of President Washington and other key leaders on issues of campus climate, racial justice, equity and inclusion. The forum will take place on Monday, Nov. 16, from 4-5 p.m. To RSVP or submit a question, go here.

Committee reports were due Oct. 31. What’s happening now?

Trent: The task force was launched late August. Many of the committees started working immediately; they are now six to eight weeks into their work. The committees submitted their initial reports on Oct. 31. In their reports, they recommended short-term goals (within this academic year) and longer-term goals (within the next academic year) to accomplish.   

To ensure that everyone on campus has an opportunity to review and weigh in on the committee recommendations, we will host a series of town halls. We are also planning to engage the community through their individual work…whether it’s through their current research on marginalized populations, or through centers to enhance opportunities for marginalized communities, or decolonizing curriculum, or through creative expressions in the arts. We believe everyone can contribute and should be provided an opportunity to do so. We are also setting up an interactive website where the Mason community can stay informed about this initiative, and offer suggestions and solutions to some of our challenges.

And people will also be able to participate in the process through the new website?

Trent: Yes. One of our major priorities in terms of process is to ensure that we have total transparency. This will require consistent communication and engagement. We plan to have the website launched in the next few weeks. As previously mentioned, it will be interactive so people can make recommendations, identify challenges, provide solutions, and of course, keep up with our progress. There will be plenty of resources on the website, including committee recommendations and deliverables, performance measures, faculty/staff/student spotlights, interviews, a report card, etc. This website is key for Mason to tell our story, keep our community engaged, and share our progress.   

Does Mason really need a task force to do this work?

Manuel-Scott: It is important to keep in mind that justice-centered work at Mason did not begin with the establishment of the task force. An initiative like this does not just bubble up from nothing. It bubbles up from student activism, faculty and administrators who believe that building a more just institution is worthwhile. There are so many individuals across the campus—staff, faculty, administrators, and students—who believe in building an inclusive university, and they have been doing that work for years.

The nearly 100 members of the task force are from many different corners of campus, and they all have different gifts, skill sets, and expertise. They are committed to creating an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, and anti-classist institution. They sit in virtual spaces collectively thinking about the work we need to do to help our institution live up to the promises we've made to our students. And I think it's an honor to join my colleagues and our students in this transformative process because even in the scariest and most difficult moments, we continue to talk to each other, stay engaged, dream boldly, and imagine an institution that sees and values every single person.

What makes this task force unique from other institutions' anti-racism efforts?

Parker: We have had a lot of conversation about what Mason's definition of anti-racism might be. We thought it was important to get some sense of what anti-racism means for the committees in terms of the work on which they were focused. Each committee created its own definition as a part of their reports, and those definitions will be made available to the Mason community on the website. We're trying to figure out how Mason community members can also add their anti-racism definitions. There’s an opportunity for people to be able to see that chorus of voices that are a part of this work, and that would live on the website. Those definitions will be part of the creation of a Mason definition.

I think for me the most important thing about this task force and this initiative is that it's bold. At institutions, we create a lot of plans. There's always good work being done, but sometimes there is the challenge of recognizing that that work is disruptive, that work is challenging, that work takes courage. What's exciting about this initiative is that it recognizes all of those things, and we've made a commitment. Dr. Washington has made a commitment to that work. For me, it is an opportunity for us to live our values. When we talk about thriving together, this work is a testament to that commitment. And for our surrounding community, the state, and other institutions of higher education to see that it's more than just words. It's the action that goes with the words. For me, that's exciting. It's not going to be easy. It's a long-term effort and challenging, but it's work that's so worthwhile because it speaks to what we need to do and should do. It allows fulfillment of our values.

Many people wanted to be involved in this initiative. How were participants selected for the task force and committees?

Parker: It is a wonderful challenge to have so many people who want to be involved. In terms of the process, we really did look at individuals with varying degrees of subject matter expertise in diversity, inclusion, social justice, and racial justice across campuses, schools, colleges, and units. We were trying to make sure that we were as inclusive as possible, but also recognizing that when you talk about creating a body that needs to take action(s) that you are challenged by managing the number of people involved. The sheer numbers really can grow to such a point where it's impossible to be productive in terms of creating the infrastructure that's needed for execution of the activities, programs, and initiatives. So we sought to expand membership and participation through involvement in the committees. As the committees are identifying their different initiatives and projects, it starts to be about the doing and the activities that create the change. Those activities are portals for wider involvement. That’s where we really have a great opportunity to make sure that we pull even more people into this. We want everyone to be involved.

How is the task force including all voices in this work?

Trent: As Dr. Washington pointed out when he arrived, Mason enters this conversation from a very strong place. Currently, Mason is engaged in significant anti-racism and inclusive excellence work, and has been for some time. I think one of our greatest challenges is how we build organizational synergy and create seamless networks across colleges/schools.  This is our foundation.  Our committees are working very hard; they are inviting voices from all around campus to be engaged in this work. These are not just the voices of advocates and people doing work in this space, but also the voices of those who have not been involved. Dr. Washington’s charged the task force with leading Mason in becoming a national exemplar in anti-racism and inclusive excellence. Mason’s capacity to accomplish this depends on the full diversity and inclusivity of our community. We define diversity in the broadest sense of the word—with no one excluded. We welcome all voices, even those who may automatically feel excluded.   Inclusive excellence requires that we leave no one out. The task force is leading this charge, and I know Mason will be a better and more inclusive university as a result of their commitment.   

Students are playing a large role in this initiative. Why is that?

Trent: We believe it’s important to include students in every conversation. Student perspectives are key to this effort. Our student members are offering viewpoints and solutions that promote diversity and inclusion. They serve on every committee. When we're looking at university policies and procedures, pedagogy and curriculum, research, training and development, or campus and community engagement, students’ voices are well represented. Additionally, there is a Student Voice committee, chaired by an undergraduate and graduate student that has 12 to 15 members. The Student Voice committee meets regularly and has contributed significantly to the task force work.    

What are the next steps for the task force?

Manuel-Scott: There are going to be some short-term initiatives that we can do immediately, and the funding will be available to tackle those quickly. Then there are going to be the institutional changes that are going to require a long-term commitment, such as thinking about how we recruit and how we can be more intentional in terms of who we recruit. It is a complex effort, and the initiatives will impact people across campus. For example, I've been working with my colleagues, Ben Carton and George Oberle, for three years now on the Enslaved People at George Mason Memorial project, and I think about what the memorial will mean for our institution in terms of changing the narrative and transforming the landscape of our Fairfax Campus. I think about what the memorial will mean for new students and what it says to them about who we are—and the story that we tell about who we are. Going forward we are choosing to be an institution that amplifies marginalized voices—voices from the past and voices in the present.