Introducing the Zilkha Center’s DEI Strategy

By Tanja Srebotnjak and Mike Evans

The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national reckoning with racial injustice and discrimination, and the impacts of deepening income inequality has led to a seismic shift in attention to issues of justice, equity, diversity and justice (JEDI). 

Williams College has long recognized that “understanding diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) are inextricably linked to educational excellence,” while recognizing that gaps remain between our aspirations and the lived experiences of members of our community. 

As part of the strategic planning effort that began in the fall of 2018, Williams College elevated diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility to a major cross-cutting issue in order to close these gaps. The DEIA working group that was formed to study and make recommendations identified four main areas of focus for the college:

  • Studying and reflecting upon our institutional history;
  • Developing a common understanding of what it means to be a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus;
  • Recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty, staff and student body; and 
  • Fostering community learning and exchange of respectful dialogue.

It recommended that all units—administrative and academic—develop a DEI plan as a means to reflect on and align itself with the college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and to identify pathways for achieving them.

This spring the Zilkha Center thus partnered with Molly Magavern, Assistant VP in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Aseel Abulhab, Assistant Director for Intergroup Relations and Inclusive Programming at the Davis Center to develop its DEI plan. We began with a series of meetings focused on answering a list of questions prepared by Molly that would provide a baseline assessment of our DEI work. 

Before diving into developing specific DEI goals for the Zilkha Center, we first wanted to get a better sense for the types of frameworks or framing questions that might be suitable for us in the context of our sustainability work. We also conducted a fair amount of research into DEI plans developed by other environmental centers, colleges and universities, as well as mission-driven nonprofit organizations. Out of these efforts grew a better understanding of how DEI and sustainability intersect and mutually reinforce each other.

Another aspect that was important to us was gathering input from students. With Aseel’s help and moderator skills we organized a focus group involving current and former Zilkha Center interns.

With our self-assessment, background research, and student feedback in hand, we then began drafting our plan. It was initially still more of a collection of observations, a few goals, and loosely organized threads, but with Molly’s and Aseel’s input and our own internal discussions, we made progress. We now have a living DEI plan, which means we will continue to refine and adapt it to our evolving needs and the progress we hope to make. 

Four areas (see table below) provide the scaffolding for our plan. They collectively represent the leverage points for us to intentionally and meaningfully integrate DEI into our work, namely leadership, structures, behaviors, and programs. We also set specific goals in each of our work areas and commit to an annual assessment and reflection that will help us track progress, refine and make improvements over time. Some of what we have learned through this process is already informing our recruitment of our next Sustainability Coordinator. The DEI plan also reinforces the need to review sustainability initiatives that are good for the planet with respect to their effects on equity, access and inclusion. It is gratifying to see more clearly how our DEI values and aspirations will enhance our sustainability efforts. We invite you to share your comments and thoughts with us.

Leadership We will …

  • Embed DEI as a Zilkha Center core governance value
  • Espouse and model the principles of DEI in our own work and interactions with others, including by acknowledging the existence of historic discrimination, exclusion and marginalization in the environmental field
  • Hold ourselves accountable through annual reviews and by actively seeking feedback on our words, actions and behaviors
  • Continue to educate ourselves in DEI theories and practices and participate in periodic training workshops
  • Highlight the importance of DEI by emphasizing its critical links with sustainability
Structural  We will …

  • Ensure DEI is integrated into our staff hiring and retention efforts, salaries and professional advancement and learning opportunities, and performance assessment
  • Continue to apply DEI principles in our student recruitment and retention, mentoring, evaluation, recommendation letter writing, and alumni networking
  • Maintaining an internal working environment that is inclusive, respectful, transparent, and accountable
  • Include DEI into our strategic planning
  • Seek out external DEI review and/or certification for the Zilkha Center
Behavioral  We will …

  • Foster a work culture that enables open communication, self-reflection, and restorative justice
  • Promote knowledge, skills and ultimately the mindsets needed to fully live our DEI values
  • Integrate DEI principles in our partnerships and internal and external decision-making, including by inviting feedback from our partners, collaborators, and visitors
Programs We will …

  • Continue to strive to make the Zilkha Center an open, welcoming place for everyone
  • Include DEI as a lens through which we develop and carry out projects, initiatives, and actions
  • Advocate for DEI as part of sustainability improvements college-wide