School News Network feature: GRCC's commitment to promoting equity earns national award

A School News Network feature -- Strengthening policies and practices that align with principles of diversity, equity, and social justice are factors that make Grand Rapid Community College a promising place to work, said B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, GRCC’s chief equity and inclusion officer.

The institution is committed to building a foundation that promotes equity — a key part of the underlying goal of diversity — and embraces the philosophy of meeting the needs of all students, McNeely Cobham said.

“One of the things GRCC can be credited for is they are aware of the pieces of the puzzle to do equity work,” she said.

GRCC is among 16 schools in the nation recognized as one of the 2020 Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) and the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

According to fall 2019 data from GRCC, 22 percent of staff members — 137 of 637 — are minorities, which demonstrates that ‘more work needs to be done,’ said McNeely Cobham. But she is very optimistic about recent changes in hiring practices. Those include GRCC’s Office of Human Resources moving to align hiring practices with a project called HireReach, a collaboration between West Michigan Works!  and Talent 2025.

As part of this work, GRCC is shifting to an evidenced-based selection process model to reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment and hiring process. “It focuses on the cognitive and tangible skills of prospective employees,” she said.

The annual award recognizes commitments to diversity through best-in-class student and staff recruitment and retention practices, inclusive learning and working environments, and meaningful community service and engagement opportunities, according to a press release. This is the first time GRCC has received the honor.

“Achieving equity is a strategic goal at GRCC and an important focus of all aspects of our work,” President Bill Pink said. “Addressing disparities in education and the workforce is essential for us to serve our students and our community as a whole. We are still a work in progress, and have much more to do, but we are honored by this recognition.”

NISOD is a national organization committed to promoting and celebrating excellence in teaching, learning, and leadership at community and technical colleges. It is based at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

“We are proud to honor these colleges for their sustained commitment to diversity,” NISOD Executive Director Edward J. Leach said in the press release. “We are also pleased about the large number of applications this year. It shows that a growing number of colleges appreciate how critical diversity and inclusion initiatives are to their campuses and communities.”

Moving forward toward equity

Of GRCC students, 62 percent are white, 15 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American, 4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 1 percent Native American and 6 percent are unknown. The average age of students is 24, with 27 percent being 25 and older.

McNeely Cobham emphasized a commitment to continuing to move forward with equity-centered projects. GRCC’s Campus Action Plan focuses on studying GRCC’s climate; creating courageous conversations and safe places for those to happen; and offering professional development training for equity and inclusion, including training for intergroup dialogue.

The Campus Action Plan is also focused on increasing faculty retention and increasing the recruitment and enrollment of historically underserved and underrepresented students. Other goals include implementing employee mentorship initiatives for underrepresented populations; implementing leadership development initiatives to help underrepresented populations prepare for promotion opportunities; and identifying and coordinating opportunities for students to be involved in decision-making processes.

McNeely Cobham was hired in 2018 to provide oversight of equity and inclusion practices, culturally-competent training and development, and community partnerships. She retooled student engagement programs (NIA, ALAS and Brother 2 Brother) that focus on the academic success of historically underserved students, but are open to all students that desire the level of support provided through these equity-centered initiatives.  

The goals of these programs are to provide advocacy, referral to resources, and expose students to cultural experiences. “Our students come to GRCC from all walks of life, she said. Many have economic challenges, face food insecurity, are single parents or veterans. GRCC tailors services to help them navigate the college experience.

For staff members, she said GRCC offers opportunities for professional upward mobility within the institution. If that is not feasible, “staff can gain enough skills and expertise to move on to another institution and advance in their career.”  

This story was reported by Erin Albanese of the School News Network

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