At Stanford, inclusion is everyone’s work

Dereca Blackmon
Dereca Blackmon

When the Marshall Scholarship selection committee invited Alejandro Ruizesparza to the British Consulate-General office in Chicago for an interview, the Stanford senior faced a small, but significant, problem.

Ruizesparza, who is the first member of his family to attend a four-year university, didn’t own a suit.

Under a new program Stanford launched last fall, known as the Opportunity Fund, the Diversity and First-Gen Office picked up the tab.

The fund awards small grants that allow students to take advantage of academic, professional or social opportunities they would otherwise not be able to afford, such as travel expenses for a conference. It provides money for one-time or emergency expenses, such as replacing a broken pair of eyeglasses. The program also provides funding to bring parents to campus for major events, such as Parents Weekend and Commencement.

Or, in Ruizesparza’s case, to buy a suit for an important interview.

The psychology honors student, who grew up in a Latino neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, bought a handsome gray suit, which he paired with a red shirt and black silk tie from his closet, for the Marshall Scholarship interview.

“I thought I looked good, and I felt extremely proud knowing a whole community had my back,” said Ruizesparza, who won the scholarship and will begin a sociology master’s program this fall at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Big impact from small interventions

Dereca Blackmon, a Stanford alumna who is the associate dean and director of the office, known as DGen, said helping students with small-dollar needs that are not covered by financial aid awards is the “most humbling and inspiring work” the office does for first-generation and low-income students.

“These students are working very hard, many of them at one, two and three jobs, but they’re using their earnings to pay for textbooks or basic living expenses,” she said. “Some of them are actually supporting their family back home. One student told me that he makes more in a summer than his family makes in a year. Another student talked about sending money home to help with doctor bills for siblings because a parent had lost a job.”

Blackmon said research by Stanford faculty โ€“ including Geoffrey Cohen, a professor of education and psychology, and Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology โ€“ has shown that simple interventions can contribute to a strong sense of belonging among first-generation and low-income college students, buffering them against the stresses and challenges of their first year in college.

The Opportunity Fund is one of several programs Stanford offers to enrich the college experience of first-generation and low-income students โ€“ from admission through graduation โ€“ by supporting their academic and social transitions, empowerment and community building.

This year, DGen also introduced the Spring Break Opportunity Fund, which provided grants for meals when dining halls were closed.

An alumna who never really left the Farm

Stanford established DGen, which is part of Student Affairs, in April 2011.

The office, which is located on the second floor of Old Union, is the hub of support for first-generation and low-income students and the nucleus for inclusion and diversity programs.

DGen is also playing a key role in OpenXChange, a yearlong initiative aimed at strengthening and unifying Stanford through purposeful engagement around issues of national and global concern.

The office is offering a variety of ways for students to get involved in the initiative, including the Courageous Conversations Project, Meal Talk/Real Talk, and UpperClass Faces, a special version of “Faces of the Community” for each class including student monologues and performances followed by facilitated class dinners and conversations.

Before taking the helm as DGen’s director last summer, Blackmon served as a consultant on inclusion and diversity programs at the university for two years.

Blackmon, who entered Stanford in 1987, took a leave of absence from school for several years after a campus visit by director Spike Lee inspired a desire to become a filmmaker. She moved to New York, where she interned at Lee’s company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.

“I was in the room when they were editing ‘Do the Right Thing,'” she said, referring to Lee’s 1989 masterpiece about a day in the life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, which begins with its heroes waking up on the hottest day of the year and ends the next morning, after a night that includes a fight, police brutality that ends in murder, and a riot.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford in 1994, Blackmon stayed in the Bay Area.

Over the last 25 years, she has worked with a wide variety of corporate, government, nonprofit and community-based groups to facilitate “uncommon conversations” on issues of race, gender, class and social justice. In recent years, she served as the vice president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, the executive director of Leadership Excellence, and founder of Aya Unlimited, a consulting firm that specializes in research on the intersection of race, gender and class.

Since graduating, Blackmon has returned frequently to campus to speak at class reunions, to her sorority โ€“ Delta Sigma Theta โ€“ and at the Black Community Services Center.

“In that way, I feel as if I never left,” she said.

Beyond the Line โ€“ an interactive exercise

Blackmon said DGen’s inclusion and diversity programs don’t “create” diversity. Instead, they acknowledge that diversity already exists. Its programs are designed to foster thoughtful conversations among people of different identities and backgrounds and teach them how to develop authentic connections.

One of those programs is Beyond the Line, in which an invisible divider is drawn down the middle of a room; one side is designated the “Yes, I agree” side, and the other side is designated the “No, I disagree” side. She said the exercise is the perfect introduction to thoughtful conversations, because it establishes at the outset that people are going to disagree โ€“ and they’re going to talk about it.

As a facilitator reads a statement aloud, participants decide whether they agree or disagree and move to one side or another. Blackmon tailors the questions to the audience. In a recent Beyond the Line exercise for a gathering of the Student Affairs staff, she presented 11 statements, including:

  • Being involved in activism is good for our students.
  • Using “him” or “her” without knowing someone’s gender identity is rude.
  • Said to a person of color, “you’re so articulate,” is an insult.
  • Class is a bigger issue for students today than race.
  • Stanford students are honest about their mental health challenges.

Blackmon said the statements are meant to be ambiguous. After participants choose sides, a few on each side are invited to explain their choices. Throughout the exercise, participants are encouraged to change sides if an explanation causes them to think about the statement in a different way.

Separating intent from impact

One of the goals of Beyond the Line is to teach people how to separate intent from impact. Blackmon often uses a metaphor about an accident in a coffee shop to explain the idea.

“If someone spills hot coffee on you, you’re not really interested in the story about how it’s not their fault,” she said. “If you’ve spilled coffee on someone, you don’t say: ‘Don’t be upset. It wasn’t my fault. The person behind me bumped into me.’ It’s not about you. It’s about the impact you’ve had. Instead of explaining why the spill wasn’t your fault, you could say: ‘I’m sorry. Are you OK? Can I get you some paper towels?'”

Frequently, people have a defensive reaction when someone tells them they have made an offensive remark, Blackmon said.

“We say things like: ‘I didn’t mean it. You’re too sensitive. You misunderstood. You don’t know me. You don’t know what kind of person I am. Here are my credentials. Here’s the work I’ve done in my life. Here’s whom I’m married to.’ There’s a whole litany of things that we rush to say,” she said. “But we need to separate intent and impact. Just because you didn’t intend to say something offensive doesn’t mean it didn’t impact someone. And just because it impacted you a certain way it doesn’t mean that’s what the person intended.”

Blackmon said it’s important to approach uncomfortable conversations โ€“ that touch on race, socioeconomic status, gender, ability and gender identity โ€“ with cultural humility.

“Cultural humility invites us to stay curious about the impact we’re having on other people, and to address that impact when we inadvertently offend someone,” she said.

Expanding the concept of privilege

Blackmon said it is a “privilege” to be able to discount the impact we have on people. One of DGen’s goals is to expand the concept of privilege so people understand that everyone has privilege. She drew on an example from her own life to explain the idea.

“In graduate school, there was a white woman who made it clear she didn’t like me,” Blackmon said. “I thought it was because I was black. I finally asked her why she didn’t like me. She said: ‘It’s that you come in here with your Stanford sweatshirt and think you’re smarter than everyone else.’ I was mortified.”

Blackmon realized that she herself “walked through the world” with educational privilege.

“I really grappled with that situation,” she said. “My Stanford sweatshirt is offensive? Do I not get to wear it? Do I not get to think that I’m smart? But it helps me a lot in my work when I’m asking folks to confront their white privilege, their male privilege, their socioeconomic privilege, to remember my own privileges.”

The DGen staff has trained the professional staff in dorms โ€“ resident assistants and resident fellows โ€“ how to do the exercise.

In addition to Student Affairs, DGen has done Beyond the Line exercises with staff members in Undergraduate Education, the Graduate School of Education, the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, the Department of Psychology, the Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the School of Engineering, and a robotics class.

Inclusion is everyone’s work

Blackmon has personally done Beyond the Line exercises in ethnic theme houses and fraternities and sororities.

“I wanted it to be clear from the very beginning that inclusion is all of our work,” Blackmon said. “It’s not just the work of people who are marginalized. It’s also the work of people that are privileged. It’s the work of everyone. And it’s part of a great Stanford education.”

She said the exercise is adaptable to any space and any size of audience. Last year, she conducted the exercise in Memorial Church, during Part II of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a recitation by Anna Deavere Smith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic letter defending his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. She also conducted Beyond the Line for 300 people who attended Stanford’s Black Alumni Summit in Atlanta.

“I took them from the conference hall into the hallway, and we did it right there” she said. “It was probably one of the liveliest groups I’ve ever dealt with.”

At the start of the 2015-16 academic year, DGen hired a full-time staff person to handle the high demand on campus for the Beyond the Line program, and to develop new diversity and inclusion training programs around transgender student issues.

“Gender is an exploding concept right now,” Blackmon said. “At Stanford, students frequently introduce themselves with their pronouns. Since I started working here I’ve learned to say, ‘I’m Dereca โ€“ she, her.’ Even though I’ve been a diversity trainer for more than 20 years, I’m struggling to keep up. I’m staying humble. I’m getting training in trans student sensitivity. It really is a lifelong learning process.”