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Climate change: Office of Equity & Inclusion sets new goals for CCSU

Dr. Rusty Barcelo speaks during the university's third annual Rainbow Breakfast on Oct. 11. (Photo by John Garaventa)

By Leslie Virostek

Dr. Nancy “Rusty” Barceló doesn’t need to imagine what it feels like to be a student in an unwelcoming environment. She has lived that reality.

Now CCSU’s interim vice president of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, in the fall of 1969 Barceló was the sole Chicana graduate student at the University of Iowa.

“I did not feel comfortable there,” she says. “I was planning on dropping out in January.”

By chance, she discovered the university’s Educational Opportunity Program, which provided counseling and academic support for low-income and first-generation college students.

That chance encounter changed the course of her life.

Within weeks, she became an advocate for herself and others and a recruiter to help bring Mexican and Native American students to the university. Far from dropping out, Barceló became the first Chicana to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and went on to forge a career as a national expert on diversity and inclusion in higher education. She has gone on to develop diversity plans from scratch; create administrative and programmatic infrastructure for diversity and inclusion efforts; and provide leadership leadership for institutional change at venues across the country including the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota, among others.

Four decades later, Barceló says more than anything she would like to be out of a job.

“I strive for a world where there is no more harassment,” she says. “These positions are always going to be needed because diversity and equity are going to be issues with us, and we have to continually learn how to work together and how to help transform the institution.”

President Zulma R. Toro’s hired Barceló in July as part of her 15-point action plan to change campus culture. Since then, Barceló has been working on a number of fronts, including helping to create the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Its members will include diversity liaisons nominated by their department heads or deans and the heads of student affinity groups.

Barceló firmly believes in the power of conversation.

“I need input. I can’t do this work by myself. This is about all of us working together,” she says.

To that end, she collaborated with the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development to sponsor a September meeting about issues of diversity. About 70 faculty members attended. This productive dialogue led to another, when Special Education faculty members invited Barceló to their department meeting. They wanted to know how to change the culture of the department. How could they look at things in a pedagogical way? Barceló believes it is this push to be proactive rather than reactive that creates institutional change.

“This work is about change — at the personal level, at the professional level, and as well at the institutional level. The goal is really to make this a safe and welcoming place, and there are many parts to that, from sexual orientation and accessibility to gender and race issues to harassment of women — for each of us it’s a different kind of safety.”

Historically, the CCSU office of diversity and equity has focused primarily on compliance with state and federal statutes, including Title IX, and responding to harassment complaints and other crises. Dr. Toro has tasked Barceló with expanding the office’s mission, prompting its change of name to the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Barceló will prioritize proactive measures, such as ongoing preventive training on topics that include sexual harassment, race, gender, and disability for staff, faculty, and students. She also plans to initiate periodic climate studies for each of these constituencies to measure progress.

She describes her work as more than a political right. It’s also an educational value, she says.

Barceló explains, “The question is really: How do we prepare our students to work in our diverse world? This is part of educational excellence. Students understand because it is part of their reality. They know they are going to work and form friendships and be neighbors with people who are different from them.”

Years ago, when she nearly dropped out of grad school, Barceló’s mother sent her a care package of touchstones of her Chicana identity, including comfort food and a serape to hang on her wall.

“My mom was trying to tell me I needed to find my community to survive,” she says. “The key to diversity for most universities is to create community for the marginalized groups. The majority, for the most part, already has this sense of community.”

But, as Barceló asserts, inclusion efforts go beyond addressing the needs of special populations, and she points to the many ways diversity work has changed higher education.

“There are daycare centers on college campuses; it happened because women started raising the issue. And we have policies in place that protect people. We can’t discriminate — that protects everyone, not just the affected groups,” she says. “By the same token, we have accessibility measures, and everyone can benefit from that. Plus the curriculum is more diverse with Latino studies, African studies — and education is more multidisciplinary because of diversity efforts. There are more scholarships available for all students, not just the disenfranchised.”

The ever-expanding nature of inclusion will continue to guide Barceló’s work.

She notes, “As I’ve begun to look at all the changes because of diversity I say to myself, ‘How can I continue to use diversity as a strategic tool for the continued transformation of higher education that will benefit all people?'"

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