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Gonzaga leaders say they're making progress on diversifying staff, faculty and student body

Courtesy of Gonzaga University

What was once lily-white Spokane is slowly becoming more diverse.

That is happening, in part, through the efforts of local businesses and universities, which have recognized the benefits of having a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds in their workplaces.

Charlita Shelton came to Gonzaga two years ago as the university’s interim assistant chief diversity officer. We asked her about what Gonzaga has done to increase diversity, equity and inclusion on campus since her arrival.

Charlita Shelton: “What becomes important in the DEI work first is that everyone be on the same page relative to understanding the importance of a diverse institution, for instance. I always believed in my career that that comes from a level of development, the development of the person, in other words, how are we to ensure that our faculty and our staff, beginning with them, and then students, become culturally fluent and that’s through education. We figured if we could create programs around education that folks are now more informed, understanding the need that we need to increase our diversity collectively within the institution.”

Doug Nadvornick: “How do you make the case to folks who are on the fence or who just don’t understand?”

Charlita Shelton: “I will tell you, out of my getting to know many faculty, getting to know many of the administrators, getting to know the staff, I never got that feeling at all that they were on the fence. As a matter of fact, it was the opposite, the need to understand and to learn more. And I say to those who were on the fence, hopefully in the processes, at least, us being inclusive enough to bring them in, whether they believe it or not, but to bring them in to have the good conversation, and we should as a higher education institution, it is about learning. It’s about teaching and it’s about learning. So, bringing individuals in to the conversation that might be on the fence and then you find maybe they’re not on the fence anymore because they have a better understanding of the importance of a diversified institution or a diversified workforce.”

Doug Nadvornick: “So, in your two years here do you see progress and how do you measure that?”

Charlita Shelton: “I do see progress and I’m not directly involved in the Office of Diversity. My colleague, Dr. Robin Kelley, now leads as the chief diversity officer. We meet at least once a month. In one way I will tell you that there’s never been, to my knowledge, a formalized program for all individuals at Gonzaga, meaning from a staff and faculty perspective in the way of education, I can tell you that more than a thousand employees have gone through development work that’s called Diversity EDU. It is a three-module training, exercise if you will, to learn about DEI, talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, so whether we’re talking about the notion of cultural fluency, whether we’re talking about unintentional bias, white privilege, white fragility, we’ve had that many individuals in the past two years go through that type of training or development exercise, which I consider to be progress because that’s never happened before. Also we now have a post-doctoral program. We’ve had it for a little while, but we’re kind of stepping up in our game in terms of bringing in those individuals from historically underrepresented institutions who have completed their doctorate degree to come to Gonzaga and teach in our College of Arts and Sciences or one of the professional schools for a year period of time, for that experience, but also for the students to experience them. That program is really becoming much more robust. And then, just in the way of each department, the work that they’re individually doing around diversity, equity and inclusion, which has increased over the past couple of years. But it starts at the top. It really is about our president and members of what was our cabinet, now our executive leadership team, that lead the charge. It has to be leadership by example and so we’re seeing progress.”

Charlita Shelton is the chief of staff to Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh and the university’s former interim assistant chief diversity officer.