Emelyn A. dela Peña joined LMU in January 2022 as vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She brings 26 years of experience in higher education and a focus in justice, equity, diversity and inclusion scholarship and practice. Most recently, she served as associate vice provost for Inclusion, Community, and Integrative Learning at Stanford University, since 2019. She spoke with LMU This Week about her priorities and vision.
LMU This Week: Too often the meanings of diversity, equity, and inclusion are assumed, but not defined; how do you see those qualities and communicate your understanding to the greater community?
Emelyn A. dela Peña: There are so many ways to define diversity, equity, and inclusion. For some they are interchangeable. I find it helpful, therefore, to have a common understanding of how our campus defines these terms. At LMU, as with many other campuses I’ve worked, we often utilize the definitions from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Diversity is simply valuing difference, whether individual (personality, lived experience, personal identity) or social/group (race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability, etc.). We become a diverse institution simply because of who shows up on our campus. Inclusion, however, is “the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity — in people, in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and in communities with which individuals might connect.” Equity is about the creation of opportunities for historically underrepresented folks to ensure that each person/group has equal access to the resources needed in order to achieve equitable outcomes. This is not the same as equality, which is about making sure everyone gets the same thing.
My own experience with diversity work on college campuses has shown me that while diversity can be achieved in a variety of ways, justice, equity, and inclusion are much more elusive. It is, therefore, imperative that our diversity and social justice paradigms be action-based and intentional about creating inclusion and achieving equity.
LMUTW: Have you had a chance to assess the DEI climate at LMU? What are your initial impressions?
EDP: I’ve had more of a chance to assess the infrastructure and commitments around DEI. Since I’m working mostly remotely until June, I’ve spent a lot of time on LMU’s websites, reading documents, and meeting with different stakeholders. Everyone I’ve met so far has a deep commitment to DEIJ (I’m adding the J for Justice!) … or as I like to call it — JEDI (because if you’ve ever been on Zoom with me from my home office, you’ll notice the Star Wars posters on my wall). I’ve witnessed people’s personal passions for this work as well as the commitments to embed values and JEDI practices into the fabric of LMU. There have been so many individuals who’ve been eager to welcome me and to offer their support to me as an individual and to my office.
I’ve also assessed the work we’re doing here along the lines of the Anti-Racist Framework developed by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and the Inclusive Excellence Framework advanced by the AAC&U. I actually started doing that before I even had my final interview for this position. One of the things that impressed me most about the work here at LMU is that it was intentional about naming anti-racism as a paradigm, but also that this commitment was made a top priority in the university strategic plan. The commitments move beyond surface level and symbolic gestures to identify institutional barriers to equity and structural opportunities to advance anti-racism. I’ve been doing this work for nearly 30 years, and I know how easy it can be to go after “low-hanging fruit” that can be put on a report or displayed on a website. At LMU, however, we’ve acknowledged we have a long way to go and that it’ll take a sustained engagement with JEDI issues to fully become the campus we aspire to be.
With that said, I’m looking forward to finally moving to Los Angeles in June and becoming fully immersed in the life of the campus so I can get a sense of the campus climate and hear the stories of folks who’ve been committed to this work long before I got here.
LMUTW: What successes from your work at Stanford do you see bringing to LMU?
EDP: As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s easy to become satisfied achieving the low-hanging fruit that brings high visibility to diversity work — the new programs and events, high-profile guest speakers, one-time concessions to demands with no sustained engagement or commitment. However, the things I’ve been most proud of at Stanford have been those things that very few people know about — the kind of work that will never make it onto a website or dashboard and that won’t likely win me any awards.
For example, I revised the way we did salary planning in my unit after I recognized the ways the current model disproportionately disadvantaged BIPOC staff. When I was charged with cutting $1M from my unit’s budget, I did so from an equity lens rather than from an equality lens. In other words, rather than doing a 10 percent across the board cut to all departments in my area, I assessed where the greatest impact would be for minoritized and marginalized students and worked with my managers to cut in areas that would have the least-negative effects for the most marginalized students on campus. That meant some departments took more than 10 percent while others only had to cut 2 percent. For two years I was involved with a group comprised of myself and four Black women administrators. We served as advisors to the vice provost for Student Affairs, meeting regularly and advising her on the actions, policies, and practices within Student Affairs that mapped onto the Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. Our work influenced some key changes in the practices of the division, although most people don’t know such a group exists.
I say all of this to give folks a sense of the behind-the-scenes work that often goes unnoticed, but that can have the most meaningful effects on changing the culture of an institution. Many of these efforts will be hard to quantify and report, but they are necessary nonetheless. My hope is that we always have a sense of forward momentum at LMU, even if the visible and reportable evidence of this work isn’t always apparent.
LMUTW: We live in contentious times and there are critics to DEI initiatives; how do you answer those critics?
EDP: I first want to know what precisely their objections are. For some it’s the approach, for others it’s the semantics of words we use to describe our work. For example, I’ve worked at an institution where my work was rooted in social justice, but never used the words social justice because there was a negative (i.e. radical) connotation to the words. I try to meet critics of my work where they are and get to the root of their objections. Sometimes we can come to a mutual understanding or find some common ground. Other times, we just have to acknowledge that we will not come to any agreement despite our best efforts. In those moments all I can do is make sure my work is mission centered and aligns with the priorities of the university.
LMUTW: You are also a basic physical defense instructor; will you continue that training at LMU?
EDP: I sure hope so! I’ve been teaching since 1995 and I’ve kept up with my training and certification through the pandemic. As we return to in-person, close-contact activities, I look forward to exploring what’s possible here.
- Check out the DEI spring 2022 calendar.
- DEI Office Study Break: All students are invited to register here for a chance to win a ticket to “Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free” on Thursday, April 21 at 7 p.m. All who register with their Lion email by April 14 will be entered in a lottery, and final notification will be sent by April 18. We have 40 tickets available, so the odds are good.
- RSVP for the Cabinet Associates Program Culmination Ceremony on Tuesday, April 19, 3-4 p.m., ECC 1857, University Hall. RSVP here.