A Conversation on Equity, Inclusion, and History at Georgetown University: PART II – Doing Diversity Work at Georgetown

Casey Donahue

At the end of March, I spoke with leaders from the diversity and equity initiatives in Georgetown’s History and Foreign Service departments. The goal of the discussion was to learn how these graduate students understand diversity work in the context of their academic discipline, and how they leverage the study of history in their respective approaches.

Joining me from the School of Foreign Service was Ishanee Chanda, student representative on the MSFS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and the former President-Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Georgetown (DIG). From the History Department came Devinie Lye-Ukwattage and Emmanuel Mehr, both Masters student representatives on History’s Inclusive Climate Committee (ICC).

Below is the second half of our conversation (find the first half here), which touches on what it means to be a student advocate at Georgetown, and includes perspectives on how to improve our community: 

Casey Donahue: I’d like to pivot now to learn a little more about you all. You’re not just leaders. You’re students with considerable course loads and specific fields of interest. So what’s the interplay between your fields of research and the work that you do on diversity and equity? Did one interest beget the next, or do you try to keep them separate?

Emmanuel Mehr: As an historian of immigration, I focus on notions of belonging. And the way that I see this in my work with the ICC is regarding international students. As an international student myself, I feel that I bring some perspectives there. We had the news this past July of the ICE order, regarding international students taking online classes and not being allowed to remain in the country. This was of course revoked after the Harvard lawsuit, but it took a while. And it was a very stressful time for a lot of international students trying to figure out—in the middle of a pandemic—how to get home, especially those who lived in countries with border closures and stuff like that. So it was important for me to use that experience in thinking about immigration history and the history of exclusion and not wanting certain people in the country. 

Ishanee Chanda: I never expected that this would be something I would be a leader of. Growing up and having friends from different backgrounds—and then eventually understanding how folks are treated differently in American institutions—that led to a lot of important feelings. We talked about Ferguson. That in and of itself was one of the defining moments for me, because it was all over the news in a way that I had not [seen] before. Last year, after the murders of George Floyd and Ahmad Aubery and Breonna Taylor, [and then] the lack of comprehensive response that we saw from the MSFS program… it was almost something that I was invited into and then I just never stopped.

A lot of the time, these conversations and these efforts fall on the shoulders of BIPOC people. I don’t think this has been any different. Amanda [Suarez, co-President of MSFS DEI Committee] and I both are women of color, and our first-year representative on the committee is also a woman of color. So it’s a bit hard to navigate sometimes. If you’re not going to do it, who is? We’ve talked about the need to include white voices—voices of the majority, if we’re going to call it that—but at the same time, do you want those people to be absolute lead on something that they don’t fully understand? It’s a complicated dynamic.

All that’s to say, that’s how I got in. It was afterward that I started realizing how related this was to my international focus. DEI and conflict resolution, DEI and refugee and humanitarian aid, how to best approach an aid response, while making sure that you’re being inclusive to populations on the ground. These were questions I started thinking about later. I’m glad I am. I don’t think I would have if we hadn’t had this movement within the school, and I’m thankful that I get to think about these things now. 

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage: As I mentioned, I’m interested in the history of technology and science, and there are endless examples of excluding certain groups, et cetera. But I don’t want to include those examples in my work just yet, because I don’t want to artificially look for things. What I mean is, this [DEI] part of my life came to me naturally, after being in this country for a certain amount of time. So I want to keep it separate from my research for now, until I make sure that I’m not doing something just for the sake of it.

CD: We’re closing out Women’s History Month. February was Black History Month. And in May we’ll usher in Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. But you’re all leaders who see fair representation as a year-round job. How do you take advantage of specific holidays and celebrations without encouraging your broader audience to compartmentalize when and how much they care?

EM: Heritage and history months are a really important way to generate momentum. That’s how I like to think of them. What we’re trying to do is change a climate and foster inclusivity, so there is a heightened enthusiasm during periods of commemoration that I think we can capitalize on to generate momentum. But I think it’s about strategizing on how to do that. And that’s easier said than done.

Another question is: how do we do that same thing when it relates to current events? Take, for example, the recent surge of hate crimes against Asian American communities. We’re seeing an invigorated enthusiasm for learning about this history and addressing these ingrained issues. But I see our role as figuring out how to not let that fizzle when the next thing comes up in the news. It’s really about figuring out how to maintain conversations. 

IC: I will emphasize one thing that I made a point to [include in] our mission statement when I was President-Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Georgetown: celebrate diversity and promote inclusion. It was always really important to us to highlight those heritage months, events, things like that, and my philosophy is that we haven’t done it enough. And I also think that–exactly as Emmanuel was saying about using that to push momentum—if you pass the Equality Act in both houses during Pride Month because of the conversation around Pride Month, that’s a piece of legislation that lasts, right? It’s not just during the scope of that time.

CD: Let’s talk about key areas of improvement within Georgetown. Feel free to tackle this question in the context of recent events, events of the past few years, decades, or however. Are there cultural or institutional areas to be improved in this community?

IC: Our systems are all over the place. We have so many institutions across campus that are doing so many different things and no one talks to each other. CMEA is doing something, IDEA is doing something, CNDLS is doing something. The SFS Vice Dean’s Office is just in SFS, but what about McCourt, what about McDonough? We are not centralized in how we tackle these issues.

Communication and signaling: How many professors sent an email to their class about the GU Law incident? I had one. And maybe that’s because professors think it’s not their place. But we feel that. We feel that we don’t get acknowledgement that these things are happening and Georgetown is willing to just sweep them under the rug.

And also, resource investment: I’m going to come to that every day of the week. We talk a really big game about DEI. Where’s the money for it? Yeah, okay, we have a lack of money right now…we’ll go with that. But it’s also a matter of priorities, and [GU is] prioritizing where that money goes. And I’m not saying that there aren’t other things on campus that deserve resources and investment, because there are. But if you’re going to say out loud that DEI is important to the way that you’re restructuring your institution for students, there has to be money behind it. The MSFS [DEI] committee doesn’t have any money. We don’t have any admin positions; we don’t have things that, structurally, will allow it to last. You got to put your money where your mouth is. 

DL: I’m a big fan of anonymous [reporting systems]. What are the systems we can develop to encourage people to report things anonymously? How can we come forward and say something when we feel like something happened that was wrong? I think the Me Too movement sparked creative ways of getting women to come forward and say something. These sorts of programs are very important, ones that keep things anonymous. Because people are scared sometimes. When you’re in a powerful area with powerful people, you kind of want to be safe, right?

CD: Let’s end with a lightning round: Before you graduate, you get to give a 20-minute TEDTalk and/or rant to the entire Georgetown community on whatever you want. What’s your big presentation before you drop the mic and leave? What do the people need to know?

EM: One of my favorite things to rant about is how, why, and when immigration shifted from state to federal jurisdiction in the United States. I think this shift in the late-19th century shows a lot about how the modern American state developed after Reconstruction and how a lot of issues and exclusionary mentalities became ingrained on a federal level within this sort of mindset. It’s an underemphasized role in the formation of Americans considering who they let be Americans. And I think this is extremely relevant anywhere, but it is even more valuable since this is a TEDTalk at Georgetown–such an avowedly international institution that prides itself on that. 

DL: Okay, I have one. Really big institutions have a terrible way of following through on plans they have. For example, we apparently have a Pass/Fail option for these past two semesters, where you can decide not to get a grade. So this is something I was really considering, because I have toddlers and I didn’t have daycare, and I didn’t want to get a B, so I thought I’d consider it. But in one of the classes that I had, we never got a grade before the end of the semester. We never got any feedback. And then finally, at the end of it, I got a B. So I was like, “what?” How was I going to select the Pass/Fail if I didn’t get any feedback [throughout the semester]?

This is something that should have had a structure: they have a date by when students have to decide, but how will the student decide that? And I know it was planned quickly and all that. But it’s just crazy. $6000 a class, and I have a B [laughs]. So I have a problem with big institutions. 

IC: In terms of what I would want the entire community to know, I would probably do cultural competency. I keep coming back to that, this idea that DEI and being culturally competent is relevant to every single field of work. Every single one. So right now, what I’m doing in the Vice Dean’s Office is writing a proposal that we’re going to present to each of the graduate programs that show how to do a cultural competency training that’s grounded within each program. And a lot of that is–look, DEI in the Arab world is going to look different from DEI in Latin America. And you can’t just expect students to pick that up. You can’t just say, “Oh, this is a degree about Latin America, therefore its inherently DEI, and that’s that.” No, there’s more to it. It’s about how students navigate those areas. 

We’re not all going to do it right. I’m not trained in DEI. I’m not out here trying to be a practitioner saying that this is what I do. I can’t train other people. I barely trained myself. But at least I think about it, and its something that’s important to me and so I’m naturally going to try to incorporate it into all the things that I do. And if we can have students leave with that, that’s enough to me. That means Georgetown has done something. 

CD: So how could a student in each of your departments get involved in your work? And do you have any ongoing initiatives or projects to plug?

IC: If you are in MSFS, we have an ad hoc student committee you can join. Otherwise you can just lobby the leadership team, the professors, if you have any concerns. I’m going to do a plug for Diversity and Inclusion at Georgetown (DIG), because I think it’s a great way for graduate students to get involved. We have a great new board, headed by Elizabeth Pantaleon. It’s fantastic. They’re going to be putting on events, talking about a lot of these issues, and I think that’s a great way to check it out. And then in the School of Foreign Service as a whole, talk to the Vice Dean if you have issues about DEI that you want to address within the school. Vice Dean Taylor’s office is always open, and he is always there to sit with students and discuss what’s important. 

EM: We have two things to plug. The first one is that one of the things we’ve been working on this year is developing a peer mentorship program for grad students. I think that’s really important for community-building and such, so we’ve been sending out a Google Form to figure out how we can match interests, so people can have the option of having a sort of peer mentor in the department. 

The second thing is that we are hoping to have our bystander training this semester [on Thursday, May 6th, 12:30-1:45pm]. Definitely keep an eye out for that. We are going to find a way to do it virtually. 

Ishanee Chanda is a second year MSFS student graduating in May with a degree that focuses on refugees and humanitarian emergencies. In addition to her leadership work with DIG and the MSFS DEI Committee, Ishanee works in the SFS Office for Diversity and Inclusion under Vice Dean Scott Taylor. Post-graduation, Ishanee will be working on climate change and food insecurity issues for rural Bangladeshi communities. 

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage is a Graduate student at Georgetown University’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. Devinie‘s research interests explore the political and socioeconomic factors that shaped the development of science and technology in the West. She also serves as the History Department Inclusive Climate Committee representative for the MA Class of 2022.

Emmanuel Mehr is a M.A. candidate in Georgetown’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. His research explores immigration policy, eugenics, and nation-making in the early twentieth-century United States. He also serves as the History Department Inclusive Climate Committee representative for the MA Class of 2021.

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