Recently there’s been a lot of talk about diversity, equity and inclusion—or DEI, as it’s often referenced. To help create environments that are welcoming, safe and comfortable for everyone, organizations are launching human resource initiatives and task forces, and congregations are forming DEI committees. But how are the concepts of DEI best put into practice?
Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, describes its DEI program as serving the neighbor through community. One of the four pillars of its “Our Brightest Days” strategic plan is: “Create a community where all students, faculty, and staff are known and valued for the unique experiences they bring to the college.”
To support DEI, the school recently renamed a residence hall complex as the Ubuntu Center, based on an African word that means “I am because we are.” The term represents a universal connection between humanity. The school hopes this philosophy will raise DEI awareness among faculty, staff and students and lead to a more diverse and inclusive campus community.
This ubuntu theme well reflects the Lutheran faith, said Krystal Madlock, director of multicultural student services at Wartburg. “Diversity is always at the forefront of the Lutheran faith,” she added. “We’re getting back to the roots of who we are as Lutherans and pouring that out to students. The Lutheran faith is the champion of this.”
Creating the Ubuntu Center is one step in the school’s DEI strategy, which includes recruiting more international students as well as a diverse faculty and staff. Of Wartburg’s approximately 1,500 students, 18% are international and people of color, hailing from 36 states and 66 countries.
Madlock said the college has launched several DEI campaigns over the past 20 years, including “Hate Has No Place Here” and “You Belong.” But none has resonated as well as “Ubuntu.”
“The timing was just right,” she said, adding that the theme of ubuntu was first discussed several years ago by African students participating in a professional development training. The phrase stuck.
“We’re getting back to the roots of who we are as Lutherans and pouring that out to students.”
“We began a shift to discuss more about community—being a community and creating a sense of community,” Madlock said. “Ubuntu is a way of life.”
She hopes students will reflect on the meaning of ubuntu and begin living it out in their daily lives, understanding that everyone is connected. “So that when things happen on the campus and in the world, we realize that we’re all one community,” Madlock said. “I hope ubuntu becomes infused across our campus.”
The next steps in supporting ubuntu include creating professional development opportunities for faculty and staff as well as organizing presidential forums dedicated to living into the philosophy and building an inclusive college community, said Rebecca Neiduski, president of Wartburg.
“At each forum, we’ll give peer-nominated awards to faculty and staff who exemplify the spirit of ubuntu and are leaders in building an inclusive community on campus,” she said. “The remainder of the time will be used for professional development centered around diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Leaders in student life will also be creating programming and opportunities for students to work together to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The process will include steps to make classrooms more inclusive by raising professors’ awareness of DEI, Madlock said. For example, when students self-assign to committees and study groups, she said, people can feel excluded if they aren’t readily selected. Having a professor assign students to groups solves that problem.
The school is also developing ways to make its campus more welcoming to those who come to the small town of Waverly from more diverse cities and regions of the country.
“More than just a sign on a building, the spirit of ubuntu will be used to signify our shared commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and direct our efforts in creating an inclusive community on campus,” Neiduski said. “This will include intentional efforts toward faculty, staff and student development, and a shared aspiration toward inclusive excellence.”
“Our Brightest Days” Inclusive Community value
“Rooted in our values that call us to serve our neighbor, our campus will be a place where we take care of one another. That support will provide our students with the confidence and resilience they need to be thought leaders and agents of change in today’s world.” Learn more at wartburg.edu/brightest-days.