How higher education allies can create a culture of inclusion


Higher education has an essential role in allyship

3.7 min read

Caregiver holding a senior woman's hands

By Dr. Shawn C. Todd-Boone, associate dean of instruction in the College of Doctoral Studies.

“Allyship” is a bit of a buzzword, but it describes an essential need in our diverse society: We all require allies who intentionally create a culture of inclusion, and we especially need allies willing to build relationships with marginalized individuals and groups.

Who better to do this than online higher education institutions? In fact, who better to do this than community colleges and universities that make learning more accessible to underserved populations? With these institutions, those who have a desire to learn are allowed to learn, no matter their background.

As one who was raised in poverty, in the public housing projects of Brockton, Mass., I often looked for mentors and allies who looked like me, in institutions including K-12 and higher education. Few could be found. Let me offer some suggestions on the role of higher education and business should play in supporting marginalized students at this critical juncture in our nation’s development.

Diversity is not about opinion

First, we need to challenge the notion that we accommodate diversity simply by having people with different opinions at the table. If everyone at the table comes from a similar background — such as socio-economic upbringing — then the conversations at the table are still void of the experiences of others. And when attempting to represent others, we fundamentally miss the call to serve and inspire those who are marginalized.

For instance, a college degree means something very different for a student who grew up poor than it means for a student raised in a middle-income home, and those at the table need to hear that perspective. A marginalized student may not have had the same educational experiences and enrichment opportunities— a tutor, for instance, or educational summer camps.

Community colleges and open enrollment universities can continue to lead the way by demonstrating allyship, by listening to those around us, believing their experiences and their truths. It requires emotional empathy, becoming comfortable in our discomfort, and cognitive empathy, placing ourselves in each other’s shoes. Allies should exist at all levels of education, including students, faculty, staff, and administrators.


Role models and mentors

Higher education institutions that want to be allies should form alliances with businesses and other institutions to break down barriers to hiring people of color.

Experience shows us, and research confirms that people hire people who look like them and who share their culture. We need to make real connections with businesses and organizations that are willing to create mentorships for students who do not look like the majority of their current employees. We also need to encourage others to hire and promote people from marginalized backgrounds. Businesses need to be willing to create these critical alliances in support of marginalized communities.

To be a true ally, higher education institutions need to forgo the complacency that things will change over time, but instead, they need aggressively to insert themselves into movements to support marginalized students. Higher education institutions have long been a beacon of hope for marginalized students, and we need to create concrete ways to transform that hope into reality. We must continue to guide our students to be agents of change within their fields ― particularly as working adults.

Higher education students want to see faculty, staff, and administrators who look like them. They want to feel that the university is hearing them, and they want a sense of hope regarding their career trajectories. Building a culture of allyship is everyone’s responsibility.

Dr. Shawn C. Todd-Boone is a former educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, recognized by the district in 2013 as one of 22 teachers of the year. He earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Wheaton College in Norton, MA, a master’s degree in elementary education from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, and a doctorate in education from Walden University, Minneapolis, MN. He joined University of Phoenix as an instructor in the College of Education in 2009 and moved to the College of Doctoral Studies in 2011, joining the latter full-time in 2014.

Editor’s note: As a higher learning institution, University of Phoenix recognizes that there are a diversity of viewpoints and opinions in the marketplace of ideas. This blog series provides a forum for discussion that represents that diversity of thoughts and ideas and does not necessarily represent the position of University of Phoenix, but rather advances openness and discussion of sometimes controversial topics.