Building Communities for Success

Fostering inclusivity in higher education creates a welcoming and motivating environment.

By Maria T. Madison

July 2021

Building Communities for Success

Maria T. Madison is the Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. Photograph courtesy Brandeis University

The role of higher education in fostering student opportunities for success rests in the need to promote cross-cultural respect and appreciation through structural, psychological, behavioral pedagogy, infrastructure and activities.

Within higher education, the moral imperative is to create inclusive learning environments yielding equitable opportunities for academic and lifetime success. To achieve that level of success, we must believe that the institution is no better off than the worst experience of its worst-off community member. As in the words of the poet John Donne, highlighting the importance of community, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

In 2015, students from across the campus of Brandeis University demanded the institution address issues of structural, psychological and behavioral discrimination. They requested the school create the post I currently hold, Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (EID) at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management for graduate students. Within this role, I work across the community to promote belonging and inclusion through education, training, curriculum and cultural awareness events and courses. We strive to create a community that mirrors the diversity of the broader world. We track our progress through climate surveys, course evaluations and faculty activity reports. Our philosophy is that everyone at the school is a member of the EID council. Every academic program within the school needs to have a standing agenda item advancing routine discussion on contextualizing and embedding anti-discrimination pedagogy, research and policy.

Creating a pluralistic learning environment means providing a concierge service that says to individual students, “We’ve got your back, you belong, and you are reflected in the faculty, staff, researchers as well as in the syllabus.” The steps to achieve this inclusive culture include:

1) Defining community,

2) Creating a concierge of messaging, services and support,

3) Campus-wide cross-cultural trainings, including diverse conversation and communication styles,

4) Recognizing and reducing bias and learning how to respond to bias,

5) Diversifying syllabi and varying teaching and learning styles.

Defining community

Various definitions of community exist around the world. Gathering people at orientation, before the school year starts, to share their definitions of culture and community increases mutual understanding and respect. In the United States, for example, there is a rapid demographic shift transforming how many languages, cultures, racial/ethnic groups and religions are increasingly represented in university classrooms. Some might summarize community as “a body of people having common rights, privileges, or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations.” Understanding differing definitions of community can promote cross-cultural understanding from day one.

Creation of a concierge of messaging, services and support

Recognizing the richness of diversity in the student body and across faculty, staff and researchers means students will also be represented in the university’s posters, statues, symbols and communications, including multiple languages. Other elements would include events celebrating various cultures, including food and the arts, and service providers, especially those related to mental and physical health, who are either as diverse as the student body or trained in global cultures.

Campus-wide cross-cultural trainings, including diverse conversation and communication styles

Trainings should include all members of the community including allies, mentors, gatekeepers, advisors, faculty, researchers, staff and peers. Through campus-wide trainings we can undergo quality control of ourselves and our organization to reduce microaggressions, microinvalidations, microassaults, and reduce students’ feelings of imposter syndrome, where they think they are unworthy of being a member of a particular institution.

Discussions in some U.S. universities include, for example, prohibition of discrimination on the basis of legally protected class categories such as race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, genetic information, disability, protected veteran or caste. To be clear, at such institutions, retaliation is prohibited.

Other forms of harassment and discrimination are often considered to be below the threshold for “official reporting” but may still be injurious to individuals’ health and well-being. These include implicit or unconscious bias, where individuals may exercise automatic stereotyping driving them to behave and make decisions in certain non-objective and uninformed ways.

Recognizing and reducing bias and learning how to respond to bias

To create a thriving community, members must learn to recognize bias in themselves and others. Our brains are wired to react to bias triggers like age, gender or race; time pressure, cognitive overload, multitasking, ambiguity, lack of accountability, fatigue and/or stress, or cultural levers. How we react and treat each other has a ripple effect throughout the community, with the potential to impact individual health and well-being. To build strong communities, our goal is to promote multicultural, cohesive, inclusive and respectful dialogue and interactions.

Learning how to reduce one’s own bias and/or respond to bias means engaging in respectful dialogue and building ally skills. Dialogue is not just about words but also what is communicated to others in non-verbal ways.

  • Share your perspectives, listen to the perspectives of others, notice and respect differences and seek to understand them.
  • Observe and track behavior rather than judge and interpret.
  • Acknowledge and inquire with interest about the perspectives of others. Let all ideas and perspectives be respected.
  • Inquire about and seek to understand the assumptions of others. Understand and share your assumptions.
  • Suspend debate and the need to prove the other person wrong. Focus on learning and suspend the need for a specific outcome.

It is also important to learn cognitive reframing for stress management. Ultimately, it is not what you ask but how you ask questions in conversation—teaching community members to be genuinely curious, deeply listening, breathing and reflecting before responding. In the heat of a classroom discussion, for example, it is important to teach how to avoid posing biased questions or singling out students based on their real or perceived identity. It is often said that community is an act of courage, especially in the classroom where ideas and assumptions are challenged. It takes courage to engage with different beliefs, reframing dialogue to diffuse stress.

Diversifying syllabi, and varying teaching and learning styles

Let’s face it, you don’t need a diverse classroom to teach from a diverse syllabus. Syllabi should reflect the world of scholars and intellectuals, multiculturally influencing our evolving understanding of every discipline.

In conclusion, there are numerous ways to foster inclusivity in higher education to create a welcoming and motivating environment. It begins with each individual undertaking self-reflection and adopting best practices toward mutual respect across cultures and various identities. It also takes monitoring and tracking community progress toward reducing harm and promoting thriving communities.

Maria T. Madison is the Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University.


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