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The IFSA You Belong Here Initiative Update

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December 16, 2020

In June, I shared our plan to accelerate our integration of inclusive practices throughout IFSA, which we call the You Belong Here Initiative. We have steadily advanced our organizational commitment to Inclusive Excellence since 2016, yet we see that progress must occur more quickly. The state of our society, where police continue to murder unarmed African Americans despite our collective protests, requires more and deeper action where we have power and influence. For IFSA and other educators, our greatest contribution is the ability to influence the student learning experience and to be a community where everyone feels they belong – students, staff, and colleagues. Through You Belong Here, IFSA committed to four areas of action focused on: inclusivity within our organization; inclusive hiring; consciousness raising within our organization; and accelerated change that impacts the student experience. Below is an overview of our efforts and progress to date, with the help of our staff, IFSA’s Board of Directors, and many colleagues in the field who serve as advisors and sounding boards to us.

Inclusivity within Our Organization

IFSA staff were invited to join an Inclusive Practices Working Group along with three members of our Board of Directors: Alma Clayton-Pedersen, the principal architect of Inclusive Excellence; Dave Hilborn, a human resources and organizational development executive; and Levester Johnson, a senior student affairs administrator. Staff members were selected to ensure a diverse range of identities and perspectives, including international representation. Staff representatives are: Jessica Auxier, Director of Human Resources; DyNishia Miller, Assistant Field Director; and Francesco Burzacca, Italy Resident Director.

Our global staff provided the group with critical feedback throughout the summer and fall, generating a healthy a list of short- and long-term ideas to enhance the inclusivity of our organization. Our implementation priorities for this year focus on actions that we believe will have the greatest immediate impact on our culture and future, including:

  • Implementing a robust professional development program for new employees and supervisors that ensures we have a shared understanding of critical concepts, topics, terms, and practices that support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our workplace. This structured program augments the informal, ongoing exploration of DEI topics already in place.
  • Critical review/revision of all elements of our hiring practices to eliminate implicit bias, from how positions are written to how staff are recruited and onboarded. Professional development on inclusive management practices is an important corollary to support employee retention.
  • Revamping our approach to recognized holidays by providing floating holidays, which support staff in celebrating traditions they value.

We see the above as integral to fulfilling our second commitment to hire a diverse workforce when we are ready for that stage. Given the importance and scope of the group’s work, the Inclusive Practices Working Group will continue indefinitely, with rotating membership to bring in new perspectives and provide our staff with new leadership opportunities.

Dialogues on Difference—Elevating Our Shared Understanding

Over half of IFSA staff volunteered for our Dialogues on Difference Working Group, which is charged with creating opportunities for our global team to explore issues of power, privilege, and the experience of marginalized communities in the U.S. Nikki Bruckmann, Director of Student Engagement, Sian Munro, New Zealand Resident Director, and Fiona Pearson, Australia Assistant Resident Director jointly chair the group.

Together, we have explored structural racism and white privilege from intersecting vantage points through “book club” style discussions of films, podcasts, etc. and deep-dive educational presentations. I have been so impressed with the timely, multi-faceted approach they have implemented, which allows us to reflect on complex issues from multiple angles, deepening and reinforcing our understanding of how biases and systemic racism, as well as other -isms, are so deeply entrenched in our daily lives.

While it may seem limiting to only focus on the U.S. this year, we see it as critical to establishing a shared understanding of the cultural framework within which most of our students operate, knowingly or unknowingly. As one of our global staff shared, it was heart breaking to realize how deeply flawed the U.S. is with respect to our ongoing oppression of African Americans. For those of us in the U.S. who work to keep our eyes open—over and over—there were still surprises, and reminders that we must be humble, vigilant learners if we are to be truly inclusive and eradicate biases. For our global staff, these nuances allow for greater empathy and richer exploration of power and privilege globally. Our shared exploration of these topics is integral to reshaping our organizational culture, for the sake of our students and our own staff.

The Student Experience

Inclusive Excellence began as a student-centered organizational commitment at IFSA, one that we are excited to expand and accelerate for future generations of program participants. As with our efforts to strengthen inclusivity in our practices and culture, we focused on our foundation first by rethinking our Student Learning Objectives (SLOs). The SLOs speak to our mission and all four organizational commitments, creating actionable direction on how we will promote future-focused student learning. The new SLOs specifically elevate Inclusive Excellence through: student exploration of their intersectional identities and how they are positioned in local and global systems of power and privilege; developing greater awareness of their worldview and how it is shaped through meaningful engagement with worldviews that differ from their own; and building cultural self-awareness and skills to effectively and respectfully navigate cross-cultural interactions.

This approach is embodied within our newest classes, and we are finding increased richness in our academic offerings because of it. The core course for Life Science Career Accelerator in London serves as a case in point. The program is designed to bridge the career readiness gap for life science majors who are curious about the life science sector by providing them with sector knowledge and industry-identified professional competencies that employers seek. Within that context, students will learn about the -isms within the science community, from gender bias to the lack of, and lack of support for, people of color. They will also explore how individuals can help to disrupt those patterns. How incredible would it be for our collective future if more researchers and scientific leaders were attuned to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces and research agendas?

What I have shared above is a portion of the activity underway at IFSA to deepen and extend our practices as an organization committed to Inclusive Excellence. Substantial, lasting change does not occur because of one large act, it is the product of many small decisions and choices that build in the direction of your goal. Our goal is to embody Inclusive Excellence for our students, our staff, and our partners. It is a journey, not a destination, and one we pursue with passion and conviction. Thank you to our partners who graciously advise us, our Board who supports us and informs our strategic direction, and our dedicated staff who willingly engage in this work to enhance IFSA, the student experience, and the future.

Heather Barclay Hamir, Ph.D.
IFSA President & CEO