Written by Rachel Brooks, Director, O’Neill Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
As the new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the O’Neill School, I have arrived during a unique time for the school and at a critical point in our nation’s history.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified, we have witnessed an increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans driven by racist language and terminology. In 2020, we watched in horror as the events of George Floyd’s murder—and the fallout from it—unfolded in Minneapolis and around the world. Yet in 2021, we also watched as the man responsible for Floyd’s death was convicted—a first step in a long and ongoing journey toward justice.
These events not only affect us all personally, but they also must affect how we interact with each other and how we operate within our school.
Prior to arriving at O’Neill, I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, paving the way to pursue a doctoral degree with a research focus on the narratives of Black female staff members at predominately white institutions. I also served two terms with AmeriCorps working for after-school programs for underserved middle school and high school students.
I came to O’Neill from a similar DEI role at Purdue University’s College of Liberal Arts after having served in multiple positions related to strategic DEI initiatives and the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
All of these experiences during the past 12 years have led me to this moment and this role within O’Neill.
While times may be challenging right now, I remain committed to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive space for all members of the O’Neill community. To me, DEI goes beyond merely increasing the representation of people of color. Diversity transcends race and ethnicity to include gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and ability. On the other hand, I believe equity recognizes that there are national systems in place that perpetuate continuous cycles of oppression, particularly against Black and Latinx communities. Inclusion brings us all together—not by performative acts, but rather by creating a community where all people feel like they belong, are valued, and are recognized for their accomplishments.
In 2020, the O’Neill School began to take its initial steps toward ensuring the school would indeed live up to its intentions and its commitment to create spaces in which diversity was not only promoted but was celebrated. Prior to my arrival—and based on feedback, discussions, and input from students, alumni, faculty, and staff—work began to develop the following initiatives for the 2020–21 academic year:
- Create a new student-led organization focused on issues of race, equity, and social justice
- Create an annual award for an O’Neill IUPUI student for exceptional contributions toward social justice
- Develop and implement an annual survey or assessment of organizational climate and culture
- Revise our undergraduate criminal justice curriculum to include an additional focus on social justice
- Develop and deliver topics classes focused on racial/ethnic inequality across social service delivery
- Develop a speaker series for students to engage with recognized professionals on how race and ethnicity directly and implicitly affect policy choices, public administration, and nonprofit management
- Create regular opportunities for town halls or Community Conversations where students can share their views
- Develop a diversity strategic plan in coordination with the IUPUI Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
O’Neill has made good on many of these commitments. The school hosted the inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit in November where we honored faculty, staff, alumni, and the school’s Students for Equity in Public Affairs student organization for their work toward equity. We developed the Student Leadership Awards in April 2021, which will become an annual event. The DEI office has hosted student focus groups to get a better gauge on climate and culture within the school. Curriculum and topics class development are both in progress. Other efforts, such as town halls and speaker series, are ongoing events and will continue well into the future.
My team and I stand ready to continue these efforts, to provide accountability for their completion, and to develop them further as we evolve. Malissa Sanon was already working in O’Neill’s DEI efforts as the assistant director at the Bloomington campus prior to my arrival. Now, our office has welcomed Assistant Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ellise Smith onto our team to serve predominately on the IUPUI campus.
As a team, Ellise, Malissa, and I will develop new approaches aimed at fostering a community of belonging at O’Neill, particularly for faculty, staff, and students with marginalized identities. We also are working to create programming and initiatives that provide opportunities for educational development related to DEI issues and the recruitment and retention of BIPOC students, faculty, and staff. In fact, we have implemented a new DEI certificate course in Bloomington that will expand to IUPUI students this fall. We also are planning a welcome reception for BIPOC faculty, staff, and students in August.
At this moment, we are in the strategic planning process, designing a roadmap to guide us in these efforts. This will ensure we can make effective and efficient changes that have measurable results. However, we do not do this work alone. Our efforts are collaborative within the school and across campus, ensuring that we operate as cohesive unit rather than siloed halves.
As we leave behind an unprecedented academic year, one that stretched us in unimaginable ways, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild and repair. Our team is ready to lead those efforts for students, staff, faculty, and our greater community.
Change will happen. I am a change agent; we are change agents. Together as one O’Neill, we will strive for and achieve a diverse, equitable and inclusive community where we all work, grow, and learn together.