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How Duke Faculty Can Help Create an Equitable Research and Learning Environment

What would you do if you suspected that attacks on the credibility of your student’s research proposal were based on race? How would you broach such a conversation to gain clarity on the situation while also supporting the student? What is the appropriate role for faculty when engaging in such conversations?

Using a case study and sharing a wealth of research findings, Sherilynn Black and Kimberly Hewitt led an online workshop for nearly 100 Duke faculty members on October 22. “Your Role as Faculty in Confronting Racism and Fostering an Equitable Climate” helped participants understand the ways race influences their work and interactions with others and introduced strategies that can lead to more equitable practices. A group of faculty remained on the call after the 90-minute workshop ended to continue a lively Q&A session.

Here are excerpts. 

On Striving for Equity 

Sherilynn Black, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Assistant Professor of the Practice of Medical Education 

“I’m shying away from the term ‘inclusion’ at this point. If we’re acknowledging that the system is flawed, I would rather make the system equitable instead of only inclusive. A big part of this is examining our values as an institution. Who do we want to be, as faculty members, and if we’re really about equity, what is it going to take to get there? [Our aim is] not to bring people into a space that’s flawed, but to think about ways to reimagine the space systemically so we can make it equitable for everyone across the board.” 

On Individual Transformation 

Kimberly Hewitt, Vice President for Institutional Equity and Chief Diversity Officer 

“I think this is an important and impactful concept to hold onto: individual transformation is really important if we want to think about how we can become actively engaged in transforming Duke.” 

On the Critical Role of Faculty 

Sherilynn Black  

“If we’re realistic about the power struggles in academia, faculty are the ones who have the power to make systemic change. Particularly since June, I’ve worked with a number of number of departments and schools where the students are doing the work around anti-racism and taking the lead around topics in this area. But the reality is, the students are already in a lesser stage of power than the faculty are. Even though it might be uncomfortable for us as faculty to address this head-on, it really is important that we see ourselves as leaders in this space.” 

On Becoming a Partner in Anti-Racism 

Kimberly Hewitt  

“As we’re in this journey and thinking about how we can break down these structures, we want to move past the idea of being an ally and lean more toward thinking about how we can be a partner in anti-racism. A partner is someone who is accountable for eradicating racism and seeks to improve the environment [by making their] own contributions to changing those systems.” 

On Broaching Conversations Around Race 

Sherilynn Black 

[Regarding how to respond after observing an exchange that may be influenced by bias or race,] “Instead of talking directly to [the person from an underrepresented background], I probably would have asked the other [person] to explain what they meant by the comment they made. I’ve been a really big proponent of engaging everyone in the conversation [about race], making sure that it is abundantly clear where you as faculty stand on issues in this area, and making sure that if someone makes a comment that could be controversial, they take responsibility for explaining what they meant. [Next, I might engage in racial] broaching with that person.” 

Strategies for Faculty to Improve Racial Broaching

Sherilynn Black explained the concept of racial broaching, which refers to the way that a person engages others about racialized topics. Broaching is not about making suggestions or offering unsolicited advice, but about creating a setting that is safe to engage professionally in addressing topics of race. A few tips, in brief:

  • Spend time reflecting before broaching. Strategy is often required to ensure professional engagement.
  • Remain alert for situations when broaching is needed.
  • Understand the personal risk involved in broaching, and consider how your decision will affect others.
  • Practice to improve your skills in this area.
  • Identify culturally-appropriate interventions to promote accountability following the conversation.
  • Consider broaching as an integral practice to effectively work with colleagues and students.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the impact of race on colleagues and students who choose to share their experiences and challenges with you.

Caption for main image: Sherilynn Black and Kimberly Hewitt