Participants at Washington State University’s recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit told stories about how the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare existing and historical inequities in their communities. They also shared messages of hope and programs that are making a difference.

“I believe that we are living in a time of great consequence, and we must consider what matters the most right now,” said Jaime Nolan, the associate vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Division of Student Affairs. “I believe it is through the sharing of our human stories that we experience our connectedness, where there is always a potential for empathy.”

Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs, said that history has shown only some have been authorized to tell those stories as many have been silenced by those in power.

“We need to constantly challenge who we are and what we are doing in these spaces and locations,” Gonzales said. “The only way we can do that is by listening to each other’s stories.”

Starting with our students

The pandemic has impacted WSU students in many profound ways.

Jose Riera, a second-year doctoral student in the College of Education, said that the pandemic cost him a summer internship and a job. As a teacher trying to manage in a virtual world, he is also concerned about how the lack of human contact is impacting students, especially those with learning disabilities.

“We need to fight the inertia, keep moving forward, and not let the pandemic get the best of us,” Riera said.

WSU-Tri-Cities senior Brenda Ixta said the pandemic hit her undocumented community hard. She worries about her parents, farmworkers who have no choice but to continue working in conditions that put their health at risk.

Sam Lopez, a junior on the Pullman campus, lost a relative due to COVID-19 and has family friends who have experienced the same heartbreak.

“This fear and loss of hope has caused many of my friends in my community to drop out of school, feeling it isn’t worth it,” Lopez said.

WSU Pullman senior Zainab Guizani longs for the day when she can once again hang out with her friends, attend live classes, talk with her professors, and connect with her Muslim community at Pullman’s mosque. Her advice to people is to focus on any positives that come to light.

Taking it to the streets

It was evident during the summit that there are many positives to note across the WSU system when it comes to addressing inequities.

Luis Manriquez, clinical assistant professor in the Elson S. Floyd Medical School and medical director of the Range Mobile Health Clinic, helped create the Spokane Street Medicine Program to better serve homeless people during the pandemic.

“For homeless people, there are tons of barriers that keep them from seeking access to healthcare even if we are standing at the clinic door with open arms,” Manriquez said. “We need to go to them.”

A mobile team, which includes medical students, provide everything from COVID-19 testing, some vaccinations, needle exchanges, and even screenings for Hepatitis C.

“In addition to the medical aspect, the program gives us an opportunity to check on their social needs–things like do they need groceries or someone to talk to about how their illness is impacting their housing or job,” he said.

Innovation shines at WSU Vancouver

The new Center for Intercultural Learning and Affirmation on the WSU Vancouver campus is having a tremendous impact on students’ sense of belonging, wellbeing, and access to help, according to Felix Braffith, director of student equity and outreach in Division of Student Affairs.

Braffith also reported on the success of the summer bridge program: Truth, History, Resilience, Intersectionality, Voice and Equity program, more commonly known as THRIVE.

The Building a Community of Equity (BaCE) program continues to enjoy strong support among Vancouver faculty and staff. The program has expanded to include self-care sessions and held its first-ever faculty academy last summer.

“The academy has a proactive strategy to assist a faculty cohort in decolonizing the classroom,” said Obie Ford, III, associate vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “It included strategies for equity-mindedness, universal design, and implementation of culturally-responsive teaching practices to increase student retention and success, specifically for historically underrepresented students.”

Equity 360 Program

Allen Sutton, executive director for the Office of Outreach and Education in the Division of Student Affairs, and Cliff Stratton, director of the WSU University Common Requirements (UCORE) Program, will pilot a new program called Equity 360 this spring.

Equity 360 will help students integrate academic coursework, co-curricular experiences, and service-learning engagements that will help them navigate a global society and be a champion for equity, inclusion, and social justice at all levels.

“We are intentionally trying to blur the in-and-out of classroom learning experience so students can understand that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not an add-on and that it prepares them for career success,” Sutton said.

Stratton added, “In talking with faculty across the university, it has become apparent that UCORE can, and ought to, center equity and justice in very clear ways.”

Community and Equity Certificate Program

Faculty and staff systemwide have a new professional development opportunity with the Community and Equity Certificate Program. According to Dion Cromarty, coordinator for Outreach and Education in the Division of Student Affairs, the program strives to build equity-mindedness across the WSU system, teach the basics of ally-ship, and create more equitable work spaces. Visit the Student Affairs website for more information.

Building bridges through mindfulness

Trymaine Gaither said the Mindfulness Based Emotional Social Intelligence (MESI) program in the WSU Honors College was created four years ago to help students manage stress and provide them with emotional competency skills.

Recently, he has been studying how mindfulness practices can help support people who are suffering in our world, and more specifically, the additional suffering that results from histories of oppression such as racism, ableism, sexism, and more.

“I have witnessed first-hand how conversations and actions around mindfulness can help individuals and communities find common ground, build bridges, and create capacity within themselves where real transformation and healing is possible,” Gaither said.

In her closing remarks, WSU Provost Elizabeth Chilton called mindfulness the glue that holds everything discussed during the summit together. It gets us to look within ourselves and view the outside world in a new light.

She shared how her grandparents lived through the Spanish flu, her older siblings lived throughout the polio scare, and one of her cousins contracted the disease.

“We heard those stories, but they were erased as if the later generations decided to forget that really difficult history,” Chilton said. “As an anthropologist and archeologist, I care about what happened in the past, but also why it matters in the present. I am inspired by everything we are doing to address inequality across the system, and I look forward to supporting this work.”