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Research Report

3 language mistakes to avoid in your institution’s DEIJ plans

April 7, 2021

Why Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ)?

Working towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, while important goals and disciplines on their own, must be animated by the ongoing pursuit of justice for those harmed by systems of oppression that operate throughout society. Institutions must recognize their role in perpetuating systemic oppression to ensure that any strategies developed seek to address this harm and create a more just society.

Justice can be defined as the systematic and proactive reinforcement of public policies, institutional practices, cultural messages, and social norms needed to achieve and sustain equity for all. It includes, but is not limited to, racial justice, economic justice, and social justice.

As institutional leaders develop diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategic plans, it’s important for them to consider how they frame their priorities and commitments. EAB reviewed over 40 DEI plans from institutions across the U.S., Canada, and Europe and found that many used generic and deficit-based language to articulate their priorities. This inattention to language impedes the specificity of action plans and can raise doubts amongst students, faculty, and staff about the institution’s commitment to DEI progress. To create a common foundation and a shared understanding of institutional priorities, academic leaders should avoid the following common mistakes made in DEI plans.

  • Avoid using generic definitions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

  • Contextualize definitions to your institutional reality.

Often, institution leaders use DEI and J terms interchangeably without recognizing the distinct meaning each concept brings to this important work. To make progress on DEIJ priorities, institutions must have a clear understanding of what each theory actually means. However, including standard definitions of DEIJ is not enough.

DEIJ plans should be unique and relevant to the distinctive context of your institution. This also applies to the language used in these plans. Leaders should ensure that all community members have a shared, institution-specific understanding of what diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice means at their institution. This creates a common foundation for progress.

Resources to get you started

  • Do not use euphemisms when discussing target populations.

  • Be explicit about who you are trying to serve while recognizing how individual social identities intersect.

Most DEIJ plans include goals related to supporting “underserved”, “underrepresented”, “marginalized”, or “minoritized” communities on campus. While there are implied definitions of these terms in a higher education context, it’s important to consider how they vary for each institution. Leaders should unpack these terms to provide greater specificity into the populations they hope to serve and support through their plans. Without this foundational work, it is challenging to develop targeted solutions and to accurately assess progress and the impact of proposed action steps.

Further, it is important to recognize how different social identities impact one another. An intersectional DEIJ approach recognizes that social identities do not exist in isolation and instead are interconnected and impact one another. When applying an intersectional lens to DEIJ strategies, institutions acknowledge how systems of oppression affect one another. For example, they consider how race and gender intersect to shape the experiences of women of color or recognize how class and ability status impact the needs of disabled low-income folks. This perspective will help institutional leaders develop solutions that account for the holistic experience of their community members.

Resources to get you started

  • Avoid using a deficit-based approach in your DEIJ plans.

  • Use asset-based language throughout your document.

When drafting DEIJ plans, institutional leaders should refrain from using a deficit-based approach which places the onus for current disparities on marginalized communities. This runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes. Instead, plans should focus on how institutional processes, policies, or strategies contributed to or exacerbated entrenched inequities. This asset-based approach centers institutional responsibility over perceived “deficits”. For example, instead of pointing out how students lack college navigation skills, institutional leaders should consider why their institutions are hard to navigate in the first place and work to rectify that.

This approach is essential in ensuring that institutions take responsibility for their actions and recognize their role in dismantling systems of oppression. It also ensures that action steps and strategies are addressing systemic and structural issues that perpetuate inequities on campus.

  • Deficit-based language

    Focuses on rectifying a perceived “shortcoming” of a person or community and assumes that they need to be “fixed” to succeed. Example terms include achievement gap, at-risk, learning loss, underprepared.

  • Asset-based language

    Emphasizes that institutional structures and systems must change to better serve historically marginalized communities – not the other way around. Examples include equity gap, education debt, opportunity gap.

Resources to get you started

Review the Center for Urban Education at University of Southern California’s toolkit to learn more about the pitfalls of deficit-mindedness.

Unsure about the language in your DEIJ plan?

Participate in EAB’s DEIJ plan review service. EAB researchers provide a customized report that evaluates your institution’s plan, highlighting strengths and making recommendations on opportunities for improvement. Email your Strategic Leader to get started.

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