Campus Community / People of SU

Inclusive Excellence in Action

Written by Andrew Binion

November 29, 2023

Illustration for ODI centerpiece story

Image credit: Illustration by Tatjana Junker

From holding a campus-wide Racial Equity Summit to elevating intersectional voices and working to increase and retain BIPOC faculty/staff, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is doubling down on its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The shockwave rippled across the country in August 2017, as images of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, flashed on phones and TV screens, showing it growing large and violent. 

That summer on campus was fairly quiet, but nonetheless Seattle University Vice President Natasha Martin, JD, could sense the anguish caused by such highly visible and disturbing images. 

“There was a lot of angst on campus and across the country at higher ed institutions, just a sense of, ‘What does this mean? How do we respond to this?’” says Martin, who at the time had just been appointed to her role as the VP of Diversity and Inclusion. “There was a lot of confusion, frustration and desolation and all of the things around it.” 

Thinking it helpful to give faculty and staff a place to process what was being seen in the context of students and the future of education, Martin organized a forum, calling it “Educating for Justice.” The thinking was maybe 20 or so people would show up—instead, it was nearly four times that. 

“It was standing room only,” she says of the convening. “And I think what in that moment it reflected to me was a real need to elevate the work at this higher level for the institution. Inclusive excellence is the work of everyone.” 

Natasha Martin in her office
Natasha Martin, JD

Rather than as a reaction to an outside event, a two-year task force commissioned by former SU President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., recommended the university should create a role such as Martin’s, elevating the work of DEI institution-wide and embedding it throughout the strategic priorities of the institution. 

And from there, the work of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) started to build momentum, launching with Martin as essentially its sole staffer. Prior to the office’s formation, DEI work was being spread among offices like the Office of Multicultural Affairs, now The MOSAIC Center, and through faculty and staff individually.

Today, the office serves as a central source of collaborative campus outreach, education and coordination. ODI is also a driving force for strategic initiatives and efforts related to a broad range of diverse and intersectional experiences such as Black history and the impact of anti-blackness, LGBTQ+ support and allyship—including transgender visibility—Indigenous Peoples’ rights and more. 

And it has added two more full-time employees, Senior Executive Coordinator Paige Powers and Assistant Vice President Laura Heider. All three are working toward the goal of promoting the full participation of students and the entire SU community around inclusive excellence and centering those who have been historically marginalized or excluded because of their identity. 

“This is not peripheral work,” says President Eduardo Peñalver. “It’s not an add-on to what is seen as the real work of the university, but rather it’s integrating it into the heart of what we are trying to do.” 

In the years since the office was founded, Martin and her team have been hard at work, serving as an umbrella for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and touching all points of campus, from academics to professional development, programming to events. The office has convened two campus-wide Racial Equity Summits. The last, in April—and the first in-person following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions—saw the crowd grow so large that when the Pigott Auditorium filled up with participants, organizers had to continuously open overflow rooms to accommodate all who wanted to attend. 

In July, Isabelle Alamilla, ’25, attended the National Jesuit Student Leadership Conference at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and told others about the Racial Equity Summit. 

“The other schools were just in shock we were able to do that as they don’t have the same opportunities we do at Seattle University,” says Alamilla, who is this year’s Student Body President and has helped promote the work of ODI on campus. “It’s nice and refreshing to see the university is putting in the effort to have hard conversations and educate people who aren’t sure how to approach different topics.” 

In partnership with the Provost’s Office, ODI has hosted numerous Red Talks, which is a quarterly lunchtime speaker series built around a theme—meant to elevate intersectional voices on a variety of timely topics—with a featured faculty member as keynote speaker. 

SU hired an ombudsperson that reports to Martin and instituted a Campus Climate Incident Reporting and Response structure, formalizing a process where biased actions or engagement that impact the learning and working environments of the campus community can be reported and addressed. From September 2022 through May 2023, the Campus Climate team received 54 reports through the system, most of them from students. The reporting and response process prioritizes restoration and thriving, as well as offering support for productive engagement across differences.

The Campus Climate reporting process is part of the LIFT SU initiative, a roadmap toward inclusive excellence and part of Goal 4 of Seattle University’s Reignited Strategic Directions (LIFT SU stands for Listen and learn, Impact through intentional action, Fail forward and Transform together). 

Another element of LIFT SU is hiring and retaining BIPOC faculty. As the various departments and colleges on campus conduct their own hiring, ODI, in partnership with the Provost’s Office, released in the fall a guidebook for inclusive and equitable faculty hiring, including a practical toolkit.

Professor Jennifer Marrone, PhD, who teaches in the Management Department of the Albers School of Business and Economics, says she has sat on search committees that have benefited from the diversity guidance provided by ODI.

“I have seen the shifts and improvements in our processes as a result,” Marrone says. 

Meanwhile, Heider and Powers have met with staff and faculty to help facilitate workshops and lead training sessions for equitable faculty hiring. These interactive sessions encourage open dialogue and rich discussions.

With these accomplishments, President Peñalver says the office’s greatest achievement is making itself a vital part of the mission and fabric of the university. 

“It’s very much different from the experience I had as an undergraduate,” says President Peñalver, who at an anniversary celebration of ODI in June shared that as an undergraduate student he felt that a lack of representation—of faculty and leadership that looked like him—led to a feeling of not belonging, of the “university not being our place.”

Conversely, the president spoke of SU being in the moment and on the right side of history at a time when dozens of states are exploring, if not enacting, anti-diversity legislation, including bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community. He noted that in some states, just the words “diversity” or “inclusion” are being scrubbed from literature, programs, curricula and more.

“This office didn’t begin the work of DEI at Seattle University,” Martin notes. “But I do think it has been elevated and amplified as a university-wide priority. And it serves the purpose of shaping the vision and the culture of the university so that we can have a unified agenda.”

Engineering Professor Frank Shih, PhD, served as president of the Academic Assembly for six years, a term that ended in June, and engaged frequently with ODI as initiatives and proposals were presented to faculty.

“With that office we are a better place and getting better with its increasing capacity,” Shih says. “We are here to do a job, which is to provide a good environment for our students to thrive and grow and it contributes immensely to that mission.”

What exactly is diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI? It’s a question Heider loves to field.

“It’s an endeavor to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, their identity, their demographic group or the circumstances of their upbringing has an equal opportunity for success,” Heider explains. “Some people are born into situations that burden them with systemic disadvantages. This happens simply because of the way our society functions. What we endeavor to do in our line of work is try to change those systems in such a way that we’re able to mitigate the impact of these disadvantages and help our systems work equivalently well for everyone.”

There are high-impact practices that can lead to more equitable environments for students, staff and faculty, Martin says, but there is no magic wand or recipe to make racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry disappear. Rather, DEI requires both a systemic and personal response—what Martin refers to as requiring work on both the “systems and the self.”

“It is through human beings that the work of DEI is executed,” Martin says. “We can have all of the strategic plans and all of the roadmaps, but if we haven’t internalized our obligations and are not continuing to grow, we will be limited in what we can achieve.”

The work of ODI is more important than ever, considering that the office’s very existence might have been outlawed in another state.

The backlash against DEI work is real, Martin and Heider say, and intensified as Americans turned out in protests by the thousands after the murder of George Floyd during the summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. 

“Honestly, I think it comes from a place of profound fear,” Heider says. “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

As more and more states roll back DEI efforts, like Florida and Idaho, and other DEI initiatives in higher education and corporate America are being criticized as fragmented efforts at best, Seattle University has gone in a different direction. 

The university is positioning itself as a national standard bearer for ushering in a new era in higher education and confronting a resurgent status quo that seeks to undo and stamp out progress. A recent example of this is the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that ended affirmative action in college admissions. 

“We need to work to roll back the tide,” President Peñalver says. “We need to change the conversation, not just in Seattle, but in Idaho and Florida and Texas. And that means finding new ways to become inclusive, innovative ways to do this work and change the political dynamic that gives rise to that kind of legislation.”

Martin, who is also a professor in the Seattle University School of Law, notes that students are now more than ever clamoring for an open and accurate account of history and preparing for a more inclusive future.

“What’s so striking about all of these things that are happening in these other states, the backlash that we’ve been talking about, is that it’s also happening at a time when young people, our future college-going students, are quite clear that for them, diversity and inclusion matter.” 

The work of true and authentic diversity, equity and inclusion, what it asks of the institution and its individuals, isn’t always easy or comfortable.

And that aligns with one of Martin’s messages—the work of ODI requires the people of the institution to be willing to be vulnerable and open to change. It also requires members of the community to give grace and allow people room to grow and to be held accountable for the collective aims. And it goes for everyone.

“You’re going to get it wrong,” Heider says. “So you have to be willing to take the risk of getting it wrong. And I think a lot of people don’t even try because they’re afraid of that. You’re going to use the wrong pronoun by accident. You’re going to say something you didn’t know was a micro-aggression. You’re going to make a reference to something that you didn’t realize was oppressive. But if you don’t try anyway, and learn as you go, you’ll never get it right.”

It’s about working to grow intercultural fluency and deepening one’s understanding, says Martin.

“We have to remain focused on the growth mindset as opposed to the mindset of, ‘I’m a progressive person, I get it. I have no more learning to do,’” Martin says. “That’s just not how it works.”

Students say the office has been increasing its profile on campus and have availed themselves of its resources.

Isiah Martin Lopez, ’24, has been involved with ODI for years, both in assisting with events and also seeking support from office staff. With plans to become an attorney after he graduates, Lopez says he’s received resources regarding law schools along with academic support. He credits Martin with taking the time to help, which is meaningful.

“It’s from somebody who looks like myself, in a position of power, in a field I’m interested in,” Lopez says. “This is a huge thing that a lot of times can be overlooked. … I hope more people get involved with it.”

The future is about staying the course, Martin says.

“This is legacy work. The next five years is not going to solve all of the ‘-isms’ that we are facing now. But what I hope is that together we can co-create the kind of institution where our students feel a sense of belonging so that they can go out and create a world that is more just and more loving and more equitable.”