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Where we stand: FIU Equity Action Initiative sets the stage for systemic change

Where we stand: FIU Equity Action Initiative sets the stage for systemic change

Vice President for Human Resources El pagnier Hudson discusses the university’s push for racial equality across the institution.

July 17, 2020 at 10:40am

When in late May the nation began reeling in response to the police killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd—one in a string of such disturbing episodes—FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg wasted no time in deciding that FIU would be part of the solution. In early June he drew up a draft plan of ways the university might lead on issues of racial equality and social justice.

To lay the groundwork for meaningful changes that could be implemented in a timely fashion, Rosenberg called upon three individuals—all members of the FIU community, all members of the Black community, all raised in South Florida—to help the university undertake a critical look at itself. Interacting closely with dedicated work groups that collectively bring together some 30 others from within the institution, the trio has gathered data, solicited suggestions and identified areas ripe for improvement.

They are Delrish Moss, FIU police captain, former chief of the Ferguson (Missiouri) Police Department and a former major with the Miami Police Department; Valerie Patterson, a clinical associate professor in the public administration program within the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs; and El pagnier Hudson, vice president for the Division of Human Resources. The three were given a 30-day charge to gather findings and submit proposals that are formally aligned with the university’s soon-to-be-unveiled strategic plan.

Hudson spoke about the Equity Action Initiative and her personal commitment to the monumental task at hand.

Let’s talk about this huge undertaking. Why this? Why now?
When this initiative began, President Rosenberg brought us in and said, ‘I want to be actionable. This is not going to be a long-standing advisory group.’ The work that we submit has to have an implementation plan so it will live. It’s overdue. It’s certainly on the shoulders of the activities of the ’60s, but this is a new day. It’s a new energy, a new passion and a new collaboration.

You see across all walks of life, people crying out for sustainable change. We recognize a lot of things that have been systemically embedded, and we’ve just learned to live with them.

People are feeling like that across the globe. We know its going to take time, but the efforts to move forward have to be genuine, authentic. And people have to be ready to be comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

Is a 30-day window to set the foundation realistic?
We’re making clear that we have a lot to do and a little bit of time, but we’re also saying this is just a beginning. We’re just running full force to get this started in a meaningful way. We’re getting a thousand initiative ideas. We’re getting emails [from FIU community members] daily. It never stops.

There’s absolutely no way that we can do all of this work in 30 days. However, if you’ve seen the musical Hamilton, there is that phrase, not going to throw away this shot.

Thirty days is really, really constricting, but it gets us moving. FIU operates on all cylinders all the time. There are no lulls. That’s the interpretation to me of the 30 days. I want to identify some action steps that we can take right now even as we all recognize that this is lifelong work. I liken this to somebody having a heart attack and they take those shockers and shock them, so that’s what’s going to happen in the 30 days.

What are the priorities within the university?
Right now, all of our sensitivities are heightened around things that used to be “normal.” So let me give you an example. We had 25 incredibly meritorious, deserving, prominent, published faculty who recently earned tenure. Not one was Black. So one would say, ‘Oh well, there were no qualified Blacks.’ But the reality is the tenure process is a six-year process. So what has happened in our system that did not identify, mentor, advocate for Black faculty that started out with those same ones that got tenured? We had not given thought to it. And that’s the problem.

Another example: A faculty member asked me recently, ‘Do I need to reduce my standards just to hire a Black person?’

What is the mindset that we’ve adopted that automatically feels that Black is inferior? Well, that goes back 400 years, when people were brought here with the intentionality to be subservient. So it’s not going to turn around tomorrow, but if we can begin now getting people to think differently about how you respect each other, how you value talent without regard to where it comes from and then remove the barriers that have been preventing that same talent from moving forward, we’ll be in a better place.

If we don’t integrate education and bring everything to the table, then we’ll never know the value of the diversity that we have.

We also shared with the work group the demographics of Black employees, faculty and staff here at the university, and there are some very telling things there. The lower positions are filled with Black talent but as you see the career levels accelerate, the Blacks thin out significantly. As you look at our white counterparts, they’re very thin in the lower level positions, but you see an acceleration and a broadening of them in the higher positions. I share this not to raise people’s blood pressure but to recognize where we are and the opportunity that we have to go forward. So that’s what our proposal is going to contain, those types of things that are intentionally dedicated to support Black faculty and staff.

President Rosenberg has stated an interest in impacting the greater community on issues of equality. What has the community work group discussed?
One of the things is looking at the composition of FIU’s academic and institutional advisory boards and whether there is Black representation there from our local community.

So many times people are making decisions about populations that are not physically represented, so we want to look to see what those are. We also know that many board appointments come with the requirement of 2,500 or 5,000 dollars [as a membership contribution]. That’s a barrier to many because they don’t have the money. However, they can bring other things to the conversation: expertise, time, resources from their own scope. Our recommendation is first to look at the boards, see what the composition is, see what the requirements are, determine whether those are requirements that need to be modified so they can be more inclusive.

FIU’s Metropolitan Center did a [communitywide] prosperity study a while back. Most studies as they relate to Blacks have been about their being socially disadvantaged and what they don’t have, but we’ve not examined what the prosperity levels look like among Black people. So we want to enlist support to do such a study of Black prosperity, particularly in South Florida. That begins to change the narrative about how Blacks are viewed.

We also want to establish FIU as the leader in developing a ranking of organizations, in South Florida in particular, that embrace and model inclusion and diversity, a list that companies will aspire to be on. Remember, FIU is 1.6 billion-dollar economic engine in South Florida, so we have a voice. So let’s use that voice to say who we will and will not do business with, which will also change behaviors and allow people and businesses to begin to step up in that area.

What has been the general response from folks at FIU so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People from all walks are saying, ‘Whatever I can do, I want to be a part of that.’ I tell people all the time, this is not my work. No, no, this is our work, our initiatives, and [we three leading it] are simply the vehicles, the conduits that are being used to move it forward. I’ve had conversations with deans, directors, staff, at every level, and people feel hopeful. Oh my goodness, they feel hopeful in a way that’s palpable. You really feel that something is happening.

And the students have been engaged. We’ve attended student meetings, they’ve invited us to activities and events, and we’re incorporating their thoughts.

You’ve mentioned that not everyone is on board with this work. How can you bring more folks to the table?

What we have to do, in my opinion, is really address the mindset and the erroneous thinking and really unlearn some of the things that we have learned.

At its core, it’s a mindset. Recently I attended a Palm Beach County Clergy Alliance meeting. There was a pastor online, a white gentleman, who shared how he grew. He says he didn’t see his first Black person until he was in seventh grade. So his sister brought one of the kids home, and his father told her, ‘Don’t you ever bring a Black person here again.’ So what the pastor shared—for which he now apologized to the point that I was crying—was how his parents began to literally teach him that he was different, that he was superior. That’s what we’re battling. It’s not the application but the mindset.

I know this work is very personal for you even as you bring to it all the professionalism one would expect of someone in your position. How do you deal with it?
It’s a lot. I have difficult days. Let me tell you, it’s not just theoretical, it’s not just book work, it’s emotional work. To some extent it feels therapeutic because I personally feel like we’re moving, we’re doing something.

I’m willing to go the distance. I’m at a place in my life where if there’s ever a time to do it, the time is now. This may be the very last thing I ever do in my life, and I don’t have any fear. I’m not concerned about losing my job or concerned about how I am going to be perceived because my motives are pure and whatever happens, happens.

My husband, my brother, my son-in-law—if the police stops any of us, we are always rehearsing: just don’t move, keep your hands on the wheel. Do you do that? You don’t have to. But we’ve learned to live in that world.

I grew up in Liberty City, where we had riots frequently. My mom was an educator and so teaching and learning was critical. So she would literally take us out into the community, not to put us in harm’s way but to see what was happening.

There is a tipping point that one can reach when others are not hearing the complaints, the request for equality. Some people only hear it when it financially impacts them. This is not about whether or not to support rioting and such, but I can appreciate and have an understanding as to why people get pushed to that limit.