Diversity and Speech No. 28: Teaching Diversity across Generations at Harvard – by Carlos E. Cortés and Joseph Zolner

A Co-Authored Interview

Carlos:  Joe, it’s been more than two decades since we started working together at the Harvard Summer Institutes for Higher Education.  Lots of continuities, but also lots of changes.

Joe: Yes, I first attended your sessions on diversity in higher education in the late 1990’s.

Carlos: Even through I’d been doing diversity workshops for a couple of decades, using the Harvard case study method was a brand new experience.

Joe: The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s summer programs have a distinctive leadership development structure.  Very immersive, retreat-like experiences for cohorts of a hundred or so higher education administrators.  I recall framing your early sessions as “diversity and community.”

Carlos: Yes, that title gave us leeway to generate the kinds of conversations that are central to your program.  One case study involved establishing a campus Black cultural center.  Another explored diversity-infused interviews during a community college’s faculty recruitment process.  I really appreciated your willingness, as a case study pro, to critique me and suggest innovative ways to spark classroom dialogue.

Joe: While delighted to share my experience, I was learning, too.  Early on, my orientation focused on the idea of “managing diversity.”  I defined a good diversity session as a conversation that yielded a list of several “key takeaways” — practical and realistic action steps that higher ed leaders could take to “solve” thorny organizational problems.  But watching your interactions with institute participants, I recognized that I was being overly transactional and prescriptive: too “how-to-ish.”  I slowly came to appreciate the importance of exploring diversity-related complexities and nuances, even when it didn’t result in perfect “solutions” or precise action plans.

Carlos: One interesting aspect of teaching at Harvard every summer for nearly three decades was the changing nature of diversity conversations.  When I started in the early 1990’s, many participants came from campuses where there had been little discussion of diversity.  By the mid-2010’s, all participants seemed conversant with the topic, many had strongly-held  positions, and some had survived complex controversies on their own campuses .  This broader set of experiences led to tougher questions, more vigorous but constructive disagreements, and occasionally the sharing of personal pain.

Joe: I noted the same thing.  Our framing shifted from “diversity and community” to “diversity and equity.”  Then it kept morphing: to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” sometimes also adding “belonging.”  Who knows what the next accretion might be?  We had to keep rethinking how to best address this complex, nuanced, and evolving topic.  It also required us to “un-learn” some long-standing pedagogical approaches.  As diversity became more central, we began asking participants to reflect on – rather than “solve” – diversity experiences, dilemmas, and challenges.  This revised approach included having participants draft personal diversity stories before arriving at Harvard as a path to more meaningful reflection, greater personalized sharing, and richer conversations.

Carlos: Yes, and you also increased my portfolio.  Way back when, I would perform my one-person autobiographical play – “A Conversation with Alana: One Boy’s Multicultural Rite of Passage” – as an extra evening session.  In 2019, our last pre-Covid in-person institute, you decided to include the play in the regular curriculum for all participants.  What was your thinking?

Joe:  A few years earlier, an article by Beverly Daniel Tatum really influenced my thinking: “The ABC Approach to Creating Climates of Engagement on Diverse Campuses.”  The piece described a three-pronged, more-or-less sequential approach to fostering robust engagement: Affirming Diversity; Building Community; and Cultivating Leadership.  When applying Beverly’s framework to the Harvard programs, I came to realize we had been inordinately (and probably prematurely) focusing on cultivating diversity-sensitive leadership without first affirming how diversity had been/was being experienced by participants as a step toward building more meaningful communities.  “A Conversation with Alana” was a natural way to accomplish this.  The play is your diversity story, delivered in a very nuanced and powerful way.  I thought your compelling performance was a wonderful vehicle both to model what we were asking participants to do and to create more intimate learning environments that fostered “real” dialogue on sensitive and important issues.

Carlos: Well, your idea worked.  The post-performance classroom conversation turned out to be extremely rich and revealing.  Now that you’ve retired, Joe, what’s your take on how higher education diversity conversations have developed over the past quarter century?

Joe:  I believe attention to matters of diversity has appropriately shifted from a “third-person” to a “first-person” orientation.  That is, if we’re to build truly inclusive campuses and a more inclusive society, we must understand and honor each other’s “first-person” experiences – how we have individually learned about, confronted, struggled, and come to understand (and then re-understand) diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.  We need this important first-person work to help us enact our third-person leadership responsibilities in more thoughtful and purposeful ways.

Carlos: At 87, I’m continuing our shared journey.  In 2020, my campus’ medical school asked me to become part-time co-director of its new Health Equity, Social Justice, and Anti-Racism curriculum.  Our two-decade collaboration has really helped me deal with that challenge.

Joe:  Me, too!  Under your tutelage (with your patience and thoughtful prodding), our collaboration has helped me think, un-think, and re-think diversity issues in ways I never could have imagined when we first met 20+ years ago.  As you enter “middle age,” thanks for continuing to help me blaze new conceptual trails.

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