Opinion: DEI practices shouldn’t be removed from schools. They should be improved.

Refusing to acknowledge our differences only creates more division.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Supporters of Mecha cheer listen to the speakers, during a protest on the University of Utah Campus, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

I once received feedback that a course I taught was “too political.” The course itself being “The Mexican-American Experience,” I could only respond that to be Mexican-American is inherently political.

As the daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant, I stand rooted in the knowledge that I cannot escape the assumptions that come with my physical appearance, nor can I escape the ripple effects of generational trauma. It is not a choice for me, so it is disappointing to witness the minimization of the need to acknowledge the various experiences of those in our state.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) were pillars of my undergraduate studies and core to best practices, yet they have become three terms of controversy. I believe that the best DEI initiatives go beyond physical representation and into experiential representation.

Take, for example, the first day of my doctoral program at the University of Utah: I questioned if people like me belong in spaces where people openly make derogatory comments about “seeing their first crackhead” during their first TRAX ride. In my second master’s program, a presenter claimed that having a perfect credit score was easy.

Both statements disregard difference as an opportunity for growth. We can pretend that everyone has access to healthy, safe homes, a protective factor against addiction, but that’s not always the case. We can pretend a perfect credit score is within reach for everyone, but we ignore it’s often out of reach for those whose credit lines have been used to support their families.

On one end, DEI efforts symbolize progress, hope and safety; on the other, they allude to conspiracy and discrimination. Somewhere in between are the frustrated efforts of those who want to conduct best practices and have the most positive outcomes for those they serve.

Despite the irreverent descriptions of DEI, including those moving them away from what I hope would be my higher power’s calling, inclusion is in the very name. By pretending we do not need to acknowledge differences, we only further create division. I’m concerned that this division is going to be the final demise of the American promise.

DEI should be improved and strengthened, not removed. I was taught that if we are not taught our history, we are doomed to repeat it. No figure before us mastered equity or equality, regardless of the quote. It is our job to do better with what we now know. It’s okay to fear change, but it is not okay to allow fear to take the wheel.

Brown v. Board of Education is but one example of how the superficial appearance of progress does not equate to actual progress, and yet it is cited as a marker of just that. The fallacy both sides succumb to is that blame is to be placed on a single individual, and so we move to strip them of their dignity. When we are influenced by emotion, whether it be anger, passion or a righteous motivation to do good, we are ignoring the system.

The situation with MECHA and the University of Utah exemplifies systems over people best. While MECHA demanded that individuals be fired, I wondered what firing them would actually do. The university will continue to be what and who they are; ultimately, the system will remain. Would firing the messenger be a symptom of the system functioning in the way it is meant to by positioning bodies on the margin as targeted spokespeople when things go wrong, maintaining that system long after the protest, firing and lynching via social media? I use the word lynching very intentionally, as the assassination of character and explicit verbal harassment feels like that to me — especially when those with real power to influence systemic change remain out of the spotlight and allow this to continue. This includes community members who contributed to making racially based slurs in comment sections for those they blamed via social media. DEI holds those actions accountable too.

Arguments against DEI shout fire without pausing to ask, is the fire burning us or keeping us warm?

We must think more broadly about impact beyond our understanding or experience. If I had to pose a question to myself, it would be, “How can I ensure that I advocate for accountability in a way that does not ignore the system?” This is not a claim for civility. But my statement is that there is a place for rage and fear. As a trauma survivor, both have served their purpose in survival. But both ultimately fed my pain when left unchecked.

Removal of DEI falls short of its intent. It falls short, in my opinion, because DEI, without real self-reflection, becomes nothing but a slogan falling short of its promise. Removing it falls short in that, even with removal, what has been brought to light can never be hidden again. There will always be great Utahns striving to keep Utah safe for all.

Isn’t that what we are all talking about?

Susie Estrada

Susie Estrada is a doctoral student at the University of Utah. Susie has a master’s degree in education, culture and society, as well as a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Utah.

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