By Amelia Johnston
Halfway through 2020, as Covid-19 has proven itself extraordinary in its global reach, anti-Black racism has once again reminded us of its resilience. Across the United States, communities are grappling with the legacy of centuries of systemic injustice, with anti-Black racism pervading the criminal legal system and the healthcare system alike.
This dual crisis of Covid-19 and anti-Black racism has underlined our global society’s inability to care equally for all its members. This grim situation has many people seeking explanations as to why it is so difficult to dismantle systems of inequality.
It’s a question that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution was established to address.
Formed in 2017 through the initiative of students and alumni seeking to remedy issues of exclusion and inequality within the school and the broader field of peace and conflict studies, the DEI Committee has since expanded to include a board of elected Carter School faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Its members are committed to developing innovative strategies and initiatives to improve the inclusion of all Carter School community members in the school’s courses, programs, and activities.
“[The DEI Committee] was intentionally created so that it engages members across the [Carter School] community,” explained Sheherazade Jafari, current co-chair of the committee and director of the school’s Point of View International Retreat and Research Center.
Inclusion starts at the level of the committee’s leadership. Its board is made up of elected faculty members, staff members, students (from both the undergraduate and graduate programs), and alumni. It includes two elected co-chairs, as well as two ad-hoc members. While the committee’s action groups are formed by these core members, the meetings are open to anyone.
Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, every in-person meeting also included options for individuals to join online in order to facilitate greater access for the school’s community, which is spread out across the world.
This policy of facilitating greater accessibility is a vital component of how the committee operates. “Opening it up to the broader community speaks to the fact that there are issues [addressed here] that are important for everyone—that we can connect in some way to everyone’s experiences,” said Jafari.
Maintaining accessibility, inclusivity, and the safety of its members has been a core goal of the committee as it continues its work during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the Mason community moved to shelter-in-place in March, the DEI Committee began discussing the ways it could help Mason community members who were affected negatively by the pandemic. They made the switch to virtual meetings and events and found ways to support Carter School Cares, an informal network on Facebook established by members of the school’s community.
Such efforts to ensure accessibility and inclusivity are key if the DEI Committee is to meet the goals laid out in its mandate, which includes increasing representation, accountability, and opportunities, as well as providing resources for addressing systemic injustices such as homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and ableism.
Addressing systemic racism, in particular, has been and continues to be a main focus of the committee’s work.
One of its upcoming initiatives is an examination of the ways in which Mason gathers and presents its diversity data. According to Jafari, the traditional diversity data collected by most universities does a poor job of representing the identities and experiences of individual students, therefore giving an inaccurate representation of the university as a whole.
“The data is, in many ways, very inaccurate when we look at the [Carter School] community,” she said, “and [it is] problematic in the ways they are categorizing [students], who come [to universities] with multifaceted, intersectional identities and diverse backgrounds.”
As one example, she highlighted the problems associated with the specific words used to convey certain identities, such as the term “foreign alien,” which is commonly used to identify international students or other people who come to universities from outside the United States.
“Such a term immediately denotes ‘otherness’ and has a negative connotation, dismissing the diverse experiences students bring to their studies and university community,” Jafari said.
To address this problem, the committee is going directly to students to learn more about how they wish to be represented.
“We want to start with the students themselves—how do they identify themselves, and how do they want to be recognized by the [Carter School] community? We’re starting from the ground up,” said Jafari. As part of this initiative, the DEI Committee is planning to hold focus groups with Carter School students beginning in the Fall 2020 semester.
Read about how Carter School students have been involved in building an inclusive community at the Carter School.
Another ongoing initiative is the Pedagogy Project, which was started in 2019 to analyze the pedagogical legacies of colonialism and ethnocentrism within the knowledge and information disseminated in the peace and conflict studies field.
The project was inspired by a workshop on the “Decolonization of Knowledge” given last fall at Point of View by Pushpa Iyer, who is the Chief Diversity Officer at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where she is also an associate professor and the director of the Center for Conflict Studies. Iyer, a PhD graduate of the Carter School, is currently also a co-chair of the DEI Committee. The project includes an analytical review of the syllabi and materials used by Carter School professors in their courses, as well as recommendations for how to strengthen the field’s pedagogy, research and practice from a decolonial lens.
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has reinforced the urgency with which the peace and conflict studies field must address systemic racism.
It is a reckoning in which the Carter School has vowed to take part.
“It is our firm commitment as a school to undertake an ethos of research, teaching, and practice that prioritizes anti-racism and opposes oppression,” said the Carter School’s dean, Alpaslan Özerdem, in a May 30 statement condemning white supremacy. “That means continually engaging in reflective scholarship and practice that contemplates our own place in this system while lifting up the efforts of our community members working to dismantle white supremacy.”
In this effort, the DEI Committee will undoubtedly play a central role as it strives to foster inclusivity, celebrate and increase the diversity within the Carter School community, and serve as a resource for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn more about how they can make DEI work central to their learning, teaching, research, and practice.
“One thing is for sure, DEI work is meaningless if we do not center an antiracist approach,” Jafari and Iyer told Carter School News in an email following Floyd’s murder. “Peace and conflict resolution research and practice [are] also limited if addressing systemic racism and abolishing white supremacy are not part of our work.”
While such work will include system-wide initiatives like the Pedagogy Project, members of the committee recognize that interpersonal work is also necessary to bring about change within systems that perpetuate racism, discrimination, and oppression.
Susan Allen, an associate professor at the Carter School and a former DEI Committee co-chair, told Carter School News that some of the most valuable experiences for her have taken place at the committee’s meetings. She said that the in-depth, personal conversations between participants at these meetings have been transformative for her. She also highlighted the impact of an event hosted by the committee last year, during which Mason’s Vice President of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics led Carter School faculty in a session about teaching in diverse classrooms.
DEI committee meetings are designed to help all participants engage in DEI work on a personal level.
“Every meeting begins with reflective questions, acknowledging that DEI work must begin with ourselves,” Jafari and Iyer told Carter School News. In recent months, such questions have included prompts like, “When you witness someone experiencing discrimination—or when you have experienced it—how have you responded?” and “What are ways that you work toward addressing your own biases?”
These efforts to provide the space for transformative conversations will continue in the coming academic year, during which the committee’s potential shift to online-only events may lead to finding new ways for bolstering accessibility and inclusivity. A conversation that the DEI Committee looks forward to hosting in particular is a virtual film screening and discussion of the documentary Check It, which follows a resilient group of African American gay and transgender youth in Washington, D.C.
Whatever the 2020–21 schedule of events looks like, Jafari and Iyer are adamant that the work of the DEI Committee, will need to be sustainable if it is to foster true diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Carter School.
“As many others have said, let this be not just a moment but a movement toward real, structural change,” they told Carter School News. “Systemic and structural racism and violence, and the struggles facing people of color and Black people specifically, are nothing new—including for those within our own community.”
That’s why the committee’s work in the fall semester will focus on involving the Carter School community in the types of wide-ranging, transformative discussions that are necessary to bring about structural change.
“While the DEI Committee is gathering resources to support the community [during the summer], when we reconvene in the fall, our members, who are [mostly] students, will set our priorities for the coming year,” Jafari and Iyer said. “We expect that antiracist work will be at the center of these priorities, and look forward to working with the broader Carter School community as well as allies across the university.”