New initiatives across campus amplify DePaul’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion
By Chris Quirk
DePaul alumna Niria Rodriguez-Davila (LAS ’21) was grinding through the reading comprehension section of the LSAT examination last summer when she came across a passage she recognized from her class on Latinx literature with Bill Johnson González earlier that year.
“One of the texts we read was ‘With His Pistol in His Hand,’ a book on ‘El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez’ and the importance of ballads on the borderland and Rio Grande area,” says Rodriguez-Davila. “It was kind of reassuring to come across it. Seeing something I knew about calmed my nerves a bit.”
That moment inspired Rodriguez-Davila to reconnect with Johnson González, an associate professor of English at DePaul, and they had an extensive conversation about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the curriculum. “We discussed the coincidence of coming across the text, Latinx literature and my law school plans. My biggest takeaway was the importance of having professors who come from similar cultural backgrounds,” says Rodriguez-Davila. “Literature tells stories, and it is important to note whose stories are left out of academic settings. Having a Latinx literature class available in the curriculum was incredibly important.”
The concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion (or DEI) are becoming a more important part of expanding dialogues about power, accessibility and justice as the nation grapples with its history of systemic inequality. As Rodriguez-Davila’s experience attests, having faculty and curricula that reﬂect and celebrate one’s culture and cultural history can be transformative. At DePaul—where the student body and faculty are increasingly diverse—university leaders, faculty and students are working together to ﬁnd ways to ensure all students feel they are an integral part of the campus culture and that as individuals they each are empowered to pursue their highest aspirations.
“In part, the importance of embracing and increasing diversity and inclusion in the curriculum and the university community at large is about people being able to see their own culture reﬂected in the institution,” says Johnson González.
Answering the Call for Greater Diversity
There are DEI initiatives emerging or expanding across DePaul. One that will move the ball forward is achieving Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) status, a U.S. Department of Education certification, which will make the university eligible for federal funding to support greater educational opportunities for Latinx students.
HSI certiﬁcation requires that 25% of the full-time undergraduate student body be Latinx, and Elizabeth Ortiz, vice president for institutional diversity and equity, expects that the university will reach that point in the next year or two. But Ortiz is not waiting around and has established a task force to set up the structures and planning so the university can start right away once the funds are available. “We want to be proactive and ﬁnd more ways to recruit, retain and graduate Latinx students, and create a climate that is conducive to supporting their cultural identity,” says Ortiz.
“The funds will benefit the entire university,” adds Johnson González. “You can hire more faculty and create student-service programs that will do things like help first-generation college students get the support they need to succeed here.”
“In part, the importance of embracing and increasing diversity and inclusion in the curriculum and the university community at large is about people being able to see their own culture reflected in the institution.”
— Bill Johnson González
Johnson González and Julie Moody-Freeman, an associate professor of African and Black diaspora studies, co-direct the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences’ Social Transformation Research Collaborative, which supports the retention of diverse faculty and students through research fellowships and other initiatives, such as a new summer institute for incoming first-year and transfer students from all over the university. The collaborative, launched in fall 2021 and funded by a grant of nearly $2 million from the Mellon Foundation, aims to apply the humanities to eﬀect social change and build new structures of anti-violence and anti-racism. It comprises key academic units that focus on the history and culture of people of color in the U.S. and around the world: African and Black Diaspora Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, Global Asian Studies and Critical Ethnic Studies.
The summer institute is a free, weeklong program centered around a large theme (this year’s is Inﬂuencers for Racial and Social Justice) in which students engage academic content, meet peer mentors and faculty, visit key theme-related sites in Chicago, and learn about resources and academic support DePaul has to oﬀer while earning college credit.
“The program is for all our new students, including those transferring here, from community colleges for example, but we think it will have a big impact on our students of color,” says Johnson González. “It’s going to be an immersive and fun experience, and we’re hoping to create a real sense of community among the students with this pilot program.”
An Entrepreneurial Boost
Over at the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, part of the Driehaus College of Business and Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, a new Social Impact Incubator program kicked oﬀ in January. The incubator is a six-week boot camp for aspiring local entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses in Chicago.
“About 80% of our students at the college are from the Chicago area, and about 60% of business alumni live here,“ says Bruce Leech (MBA ’81), director of the center. “Because of that, we were looking for purpose-driven businesses. There’s a social-impact element to these business ideas, and we wanted to embrace that.”
The incubator pairs entrepreneurs with professionals to workshop their startups through the planning phases to launch. Participants meet weekly to discuss their ideas, get frank feedback from mentors and prepare the businesses to take ﬂight. “These are for-proﬁt businesses, mind you,” says Leech. “They have strong missions to do good in the community, but they need solid business models to sustain their ideas.”
Participants who are designing and creating products also have access to Chicago makerspaces 1871 and mHUB. “The students can get immersed in these entrepreneurial ecosystems and work with makerspaces using things like laser cutters and 3D printers to help with manufacturing,” says Leech.
Participants receive a $1,000 grant upon program completion to help kick-start their enterprises, thanks to the support of Byline Bank, an incubator partner. DePaul also sponsors paid internships for students who embed at one of the new businesses to help out and get startup experience of their own. Leech hopes cohort members bond and beneﬁt from shared experience and counsel. “A lot of startups might think they’re the next billion-dollar unicorn tech startup in Silicon Valley,” he says, “but our students want to have an impact in Chicago.”
Getting Past Talking Past Each Other
In another initiative to advance the universitywide dialogue on contemporary and sometimes contentious topics, the Center for Communication Engagement’s Open Learning Project (OLP), based in DePaul’s College of Communication, sponsors conversations, research and resource development focused on particular themes. The 2021–22 theme, Communication Beyond Polarization, targets the increasing societal divisions that are sparking discord, aggression and, at times, violence in our communities.
Maria De Moya, associate professor and chair of the Public Relations and Advertising program, who is leading this year’s OLP program, kicked oﬀ the initiative last November, moderating a conversation on misinformation with David Axelrod, a chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns who is now a political analyst and director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
De Moya and Dustin Goltz, Vincent de Paul Professor of Communication and co-lead of this year’s beyond polarization initiative, have taught courses that examine polarization in society. “This is a central theme for the college, a place to come together with activities, discussions and classes. We’ve started off with our own classes serving as models where we could talk about the project and our experiences,” says De Moya. “The project broadly deals with identity, so in that sense it is closely related to themes of diversity and inclusion, and we want every faculty member and student who engages with the project to make it their own.”
Goltz has an MFA degree in studio performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in addition to a doctorate in communications, so he is implementing performances with his students.
“There’s a macro-media, political problem regarding polarization, but in our class we worked with an individual approach,” Goltz says. The in-class performance events tested students’ reactions in various situations and asked them to examine their preconceptions. One assignment, called simply “Them,” asked students to perform in the persona of a perceived adversary.
“In a performance laboratory like this, there’s a chance to really engage with other people, listen to their stories and ﬁnd diﬀerent modes of connection,” Goltz explains. “That doesn’t happen in rapid-ﬁre political discourse where people are tethered to their identities. It opens up space for people to empathize and connect, which is connected to the DEI work we need to be doing now.”
In De Moya’s course on communication for social change, she tasked students with ﬁnding ways to work around issues aﬀecting speciﬁc communities, and come up with eﬀective and targeted strategic communication campaigns.
“Let’s say we’re talking about recycling or waste management. To really help the community they are working with, they ﬁrst need to consider the client and learn about that community quickly,” De Moya says. “It was a very positive experience. The students came up with goals, objectives and tactics to implement, and they realized that everything they were learning was applicable to issues of polarization as well, especially with regard to how to address misinformation and how it aﬀects the communication environment and outcomes. They even proposed initiatives that the college could take up and communication campaigns to increase media literacy.”
Law School Initiatives
For Jennifer Rosato Perea, the long-standing commitment to diversity at DePaul’s College of Law is partly what attracted her to take the position of dean in 2015. Rosato Perea, who is one of the ﬁrst Latinx law school deans in the nation, has accelerated DEI initiatives at the College of Law.
“We began with some diversity, equity and inclusion work in orientation and in the Preparing to Practice program,” says Rosato Perea, “because it was a quick way to start students strong on these issues.”
Rosato Perea was also approached by faculty and students, including members of the Black and Latino law student associations, to discuss possibilities. “It wasn’t just about diversity. The students talked about feeling like outsiders at times, and I thought of them as my better angels,” says Rosato Perea. “When we had the opportunity to make some curricular changes, I thought the stars had aligned.”
The events of 2020, including the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing outrage at that and other racial injustices, were a catalyst to do more faster, says Allen Moye, associate professor and associate dean for information technology and library services. “The dean had initiated some changes, and we began to think as an administration about more ways we could respond,” says Moye.
The law school started a community conversations series to provide College of Law community members an outlet for dialogue. The college also hosted lunchtime seminars for faculty on diversity and inclusion in the classroom and curriculum. “We had speakers who shared how they incorporate discussions of race and racism in their classes, and that informed a broader conversation around these issues,” says Allison Brownell Tirres, associate dean for academic aﬀairs and strategic initiatives.
The curriculum committee recommended adding a required diversity component to the JD degree program. It includes substantial opportunities for students to learn and practice cross-cultural competence and to study social inequality, racism and bias embedded in legal systems. “To be eﬀective advocates, it’s important for students to understand the importance of equity, equality and access to justice, and know how to work with a wide range of clients from diverse backgrounds and with varied perspectives,” Tirres explains.
Moye created a digital repository of resources—including cases, books, scholarly articles and multimedia sources—that faculty can use in their courses. “For a lot of our students, these measures will help broaden their horizons in terms of understanding how the law functions and where the law can fall short,” says Moye. “Having an understanding of the context of these problems and the role that law can play will give them the tools they need to better address these issues.”
It’s just one of the pieces coming together in a multifaceted commitment to DEI.
“If you want to change the world, whether you’re in a business setting or doing public interest law, the lawyers who are going to be eﬀective in the world today have to be those who are culturally competent,” says Rosato Perea.