Huffpost College
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alecia Wartowski Headshot

Change Makers Create Cultural Change on Campus: A Northwestern University Case Study

Posted: Updated:

From racial and ethnic diversity to an influx of "first generation" students and the challenges of being a low-income student, most college and universities in this country have begun to recognize that the face of higher education is changing.

The struggle, however, has been in how to accommodate or support these students. They don't fit neatly into our mold of what it means and looks like to be a college student and we have often focused on how underprepared or under-resourced these students are.

Others shift that argument into a focus on the strengths and resiliencies that got those students into our colleges and universities. Most administrators share best practices and address the deficits that accompany those students. Many talk in circles about the lack of diversity in faces or voices in the academia but don't always address why higher education might present challenging barriers to those who enter.

What we don't examine in higher education is our own practice, values and culture. What would it mean to expand our understanding beyond what it means to serve a largely homogeneous, mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly privileged group of young people?

While we can make shifts around who is admitted to college, we must also shift the culture within the university so that it embraces different perspectives, background and cultures. What happens when an institution steeped in tradition begins to revisit its values to change its culture?

Moving from intentions to outcomes
President Morton Schapiro arrived at Northwestern University in 2009 and immediately saw the struggles that the campus, like many others, faced around race relations and diversity.

By October, 2010, a Working Group had submitted a Diversity and Inclusion White Paper with recommendations around increased recruitment and retention of students of color, diversifying the culture, creating greater infrastructure to support diversity and diversifying the curriculum.

The research and subsequent university wide strategic plan, recommended closing the gap between intentions and outcomes. Three new diversity and inclusion positions were created: Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion; Director of Campus Inclusion and Community in the Division of Student Affairs; and a full time position for the Director of the LGBT Resource Center. A focus on student recruitment efforts as resulted in increased diversity in each incoming class. The incoming class of 2018 reach the highest percentages of Black and Latino students in the school's history at 9 percent and 14 percent respectively.

"I am finally seeing cracks in the ice as we talk about race here," one staff member remarked. And yet, still more change was needed.

As we diversify the colors in a sea of faces at freshman orientation this summer, we must understand that this diversity is only one step in transforming a culture. In order to truly transform, and create an environment where all students are valued and included, staff and faculty -- who strengthen the veins and arteries of the institution -- must be transformed.

Staff and faculty set the culture and pass down the values. If they can shift their understanding of inclusion, what could it mean for each generation of student who comes in contact with them? What would it mean for faculty and staff who have never questioned power and privilege to start to think, and act, differently? It was based on this interest in action, in doing something, that The Women's Center at Northwestern University created the Change Makers program in the fall of 2013.

Creating an inclusive environment

Change Makers is a group of Northwestern staff who are committed to creating an inclusive environment through creating the space for change in themselves and others around issues of power and privilege. We look to provide models of transformation, interpersonal development and social responsibility for the entire University. We believe that by combining our individual and collective power and privileges to make change, we will significantly impact the landscape at Northwestern.
- Change Makers Mission Statement

The group started with a conversation with Professor Charles Behling, the former Director of the University of Michigan's Intergroup Dialogue program, as an offshoot of a series on Power and Privilege hosted by Northwestern's Women's Center.

As we spoke to Dr. Behling, and learned about the research based Intergroup Dialogue model, he encouraged us to create a program that extended beyond a keynote. What would happen if we continued to engage people in dialogues? What if we created a cohort and gave people the tools to take the information that they learned and make real changes?

From there we envisioned Change Makers. The Women's Center recruited thirty mid-level staff members who were open to engaging in discussions about inclusion and wanted to take action. Staff members came from departments and schools throughout the university. Although most held student-facing positions, all acknowledged the need to create change in the ways that Northwestern's environment was inclusive to staff, as well as creating change in the ways that our students experienced the University.

Dr. Behling recruited his colleague, Dr. Kristie Ford of Skidmore College, who led the creation of a two-day workshop for these staff members based upon the Intergroup Dialogue model. The participating staff was divided relatively evenly between white identified and people of color. The group was largely women, largely straight and largely Christian, although issues of gender, sexuality and religion were identified and explored.

When the Change Makers participants were recruited, they were told that their mission would be to engage in a two day self-reflection and dialoguing experience, followed by monthly meetings focused on how to create change at Northwestern around inclusion issues. Each person committed to attend the initial 16-hour workshop and to attend monthly 1 ½ hour sessions throughout the academic year.

During the initial two-day retreat in November, 2013, Dr. Ford and Dr. Behling worked intensively with the group to create safety, explore identities and foster dialogues. Their training followed the Intergroup Dialogues four -model of 1) group beginnings, 2) exploring differences and commonalities of experience, 3) exploring and dialoguing about hot topics, and 4) action planning and alliance building.

Although our dialogues explored many different identities, the workshop was designed to put a particular emphasis on dialoguing around race and racism. The workshop closed with each Change Maker completing the sentence, "As a Change Maker, I commit to. . ." Responses varied from, "Listen to what you need and search for the tools to make that happen," to "Have open and honest conversations," to "Pose challenging questions."

The power of a community focused on inclusion
Responses from the first two days were intense, but hopeful, "I took away the experience of being able to explore power and privilege on a personal and intimate level, to learn about myself and my blind spots, and to make connections that couldn't be made without this format." Another participant simply stated, "I can make a difference. I am not in this alone." Additionally, it became apparent that one significant outcome of Change Makers was in developing a community and place of connection for people at a largely de-centralized university

The real work of Change Makers began, however, when participants gathered in their monthly meetings. Each month focused on creating community and connection, exploring and understanding principles of change management and creating action plans to create change.

From the beginning, participants were encouraged to embrace what Dr. Shirley Collado, Dean of the College at Middlebury College, had termed in her fall keynote address at Northwestern, "moving inclusion to the center."

Each participant started by looking at his or her job description and identifying what he or she could do within his or her role to make Northwestern a more inclusive environment. They were encouraged to look at their marketing materials (for example, did they presume heteronormativity for a program on dating); the timing of their programming (for example, did a Friday evening program exclude people of Jewish or Muslim faith backgrounds); or the presumptions that they made about who was in the room or excluded from a space; and why (for example, did a student theater group not attract students of color because they weren't interested in theater or because the plays that were chosen did not have characters who were people of color in them).

Each person looked at what he or she could control individually and wrote down change goals. They wrote "elevator speeches" to describe the project, which eventually evolved into a mission statement. They set goals for things that they could change. Importantly, they built a community of people dedicated to having conversations about identity and committed to pushing one another's comfort zone and engaging in dialogues where formerly they would be silent or walk away.

Creating cultural change
We evaluated Change Makers at every step -- after the initial workshop, in a mid-year evaluation, in an end of year evaluation, and in exit slips at the end of each monthly meeting. We tried to remain nimble in responding to the group's needs and met with individual Change Maker participants to check in on both their progress and what they needed to feel supported.

In light of participants' desire to continue conversations about identity, we started a study group on white racial identity for the white identified participants and held a people of color support group. In addition, we worked with a new staff member, Noor Ali, Assistant Director of Multicultural Student Affairs, who had recently joined Northwestern from Michigan's Intergroup Dialogue program, to create a monthly Change Makers session focused completely on identity.

This attention to member needs helped us to identify the strengths of the program and look closely at opportunities for improvement. The opportunities for next year are clear and inspiring. We plan to do more work on identity throughout the academic year. We need to use monthly sessions to focus on the power of small changes that people can implement from where they sit instead of looking at larger institutional changes that they have less control over. We need to continue to engage our participants about what is going on at Northwestern and beyond that will make a difference in creating more inclusive environments.

Ultimately, what we saw is that Change Makers has been working and is meeting its goals. As we assessed our programmatic goals, we found that 100 percent of participants reported an increased sense of community and connection to their fellow Change Makers. Ninety-four percent believed that they were part of a cohort with a common language around power and privilege.

Ninety-one percent said they believed that they had a deeper understanding and fluency around power and privilege issues. Eighty-three percent felt more hopeful about the ability of Northwestern to become more inclusive and seventy-six percent felt more hopeful about their ability to contribute to that move towards inclusiveness. Finally, sixty-five percent said they had developed a set of skills to address the challenges of power and privilege at Northwestern.

Over the course of the year, seventy-six percent of participants reported engaging in new or different conversations about privilege and inclusion on a daily or weekly basis. Seventy-one percent of participants believed that they had acted differently around privilege and inclusion on a daily or weekly basis. All participants felt that they had had made personal changes through the course of the program, and eighty-two percent indicated that they had had some impact at an organizational level.

Importantly, people began to talk about their successes. Success stories ranged from re-writing letters to those filing sexual assault complaints to feel more supportive, to purposefully integrating discussion and dialogue around race and equity for teaching fellows so that all internship instructors in the Chicago Field Studies program have power and privilege integrated into the curriculum.

Participants focused on their power in hiring to intentionally recruit and hire staff and faculty more reflective of the student population. They took significant steps to impact curriculum and student activities programming by both engaging in conversations around power and privilege and exercising their own power to make power and privilege a priority in the everyday curriculum. They looked within their divisions and organizations to see who was not seen or heard and sought out new ways to create space for them.

Building a tsunami
Overall, Change Makers participants felt that they had made change, both personally and organizationally. They made decisions within their own powers and hierarchy to be intentional about inclusion. They promoted their work and their program. When asked if or why we should continue this program, one Change Maker wrote, "To build a tsunami, one drop at a time."

While the President and University have made it a priority to embrace diversity, change management theory says that it's a myth that change only comes from the top. A value is only a value when it is chosen.

In our case, thirty-one staff members at Northwestern chose inclusion as their value and have put that value to work in a new way every day. Change Makers are already doing incredible things.

Some have created an inclusion goal for their performance reviews and are strategizing a write in campaign for more Northwestern staff to take on this goal in the future. Some have found new strength in knowing that they are not alone in this struggle.

They have spoken about incorporating diversity training into the Freshman Emerging Leaders program, and have begun to instill cultural competency as a value in pre-med students as they looked toward applications and the future. They have internalized the idea that the personal can impact how the way in which the University works and that they have control and responsibility for the personal.

"I just keep bumping into these issues," one participant said. But now, as they "bumped" into these issues, they knew that it was their responsibility to engage, and not shy away, from critical conversations.