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Advancing diversity, inclusion, equity and access at USC Annenberg

“Radical change is what we need, but what does radical truly mean?”

Hector Amaya, who serves both as director of the School of Communication and as associate dean of diversity, inclusion, equity and access (DIEA), posed this critical question to USC Annenberg faculty this past summer.

“Radical” means “roots,” Amaya explained, and roots grow where the nutrients are.

“If you want to change a root system, change the distribution of nutrients,” he said. “Let’s feed the space of racial justice, make it nutrient-rich, and the roots will grow there.”

In July 2020, USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay announced the formation of USC Annenberg’s new Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access Task Force to help lay this foundation. The governance structure is charged with creating an effective and inclusive culture around the school’s DIEA work and advancing USC Annenberg’s Diversity Plan.

“Our intention is to build an organizational, intellectual and cultural foundation that continues our commitment to DIEA, and supports the work ahead to address racial injustice,” Bay said.

Professor of Professional Practice Laura Castañeda has partnered with Amaya to lead the task force’s work, which began with subcommittees focusing on culture, curriculum, professional practices and public programming.

The DIEA Task Force convenes twice monthly on Zoom with meetings open to all USC Annenberg faculty, staff and students. Also, beginning this month and continuing for the remainder of the Spring semester, the task force is hosting a series of virtual events to engage the broader school community, including opportunities for candid conversations among faculty and staff members, brown-bag lunch discussions for students, and sessions for faculty on crafting race-conscious syllabi and on creating more inclusive learning environments.

To mark USC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Week (March 8–12), we caught up with Amaya and Castañeda about the work they are doing across USC Annenberg’s degree programs and what they hope to accomplish moving forward.

How have the events of 2020 opened up a space for USC Annenberg to advance discussions around these critical issues?

Hector Amaya: Right now, we feel it is a unique opportunity to use the energy that was a gift to all of us — the protests and activism that ensued last year — to help us move racial equality forward. This past year we have been trying to figure out how we do that in a school like USC Annenberg. What does it look like? How do we prioritize? What do we prioritize and what are the end goals?

How did you determine where you were going to start?

Laura Castañeda: Last summer, Dean Bay asked specific faculty members to look deeply into four key areas. [Associate Professor of Communication] Taj Frazier looked at public programming, [Associate Professor of Professional Practice] Miki Turner examined student-support initiatives, [Lecturer] Channing Joseph advised on student media training and practices, and [Clinical Associate Professor of Communication] Carmen Lee focused on curriculum. In August, each delivered their review to Dean Bay, and the task force is using this initial work to help guide what changes we recommend implementing.

How are you addressing curriculum specifically?

Laura Castañeda: Curricular change is the most complicated because it involves so many different degree programs — as well as evaluating the school's overall mission to see whether it’s as strong as it should be with DIEA, or whether it needs to be strengthened.

Hector Amaya: Curriculum is one of the most consequential technologies in what faculty do and for this reason, curricular reform should be at the center of our re-imagined vision. We want racial justice everywhere and in everything and we, as scholars and higher-ed professionals, need to select the tactical spaces for change. Where do we battle? In spaces of consequence, and the curriculum is a key one.

Let me illustrate this with a story. Right now, I’m teaching a course on the humanities for doctoral students. One of the topics that we started the semester with was the idea of community. And so, in my reimagining the curriculum, the idea of community is not about sameness. It’s about difference. That totally reshuffles all the questions and issues that actually are pertinent. It’s that theoretically subtle movement, which, at the same time, has profound repercussions. What is difference to a community? How is it that difference manifested in the way communities are organized?

How has this DIEA-focused work begun to reach students?

Laura Castañeda: The undergraduate journalism curriculum committee has been really focused on updating and developing language. Making sure DIEA language is fully integrated into our required courses, looking at assignments to see how they can be modified. Annenberg Media has introduced a new vertical, Black, advised by [Professor] Turner, who also helped start the Annenberg Cross-Cultural Student Association. [Professor of Professional Practice] Jennifer Floto, who oversees the undergraduate public relations program, created a whole diversity guide for PR. And [Associate Dean for Admissions] Allyson Hill held USC Annenberg’s first virtual information session for students at Historically Black and Colleges and Universities in November — and plans to offer more recruiting opportunities for those at Hispanic-serving and Native-serving institutions.

What are the task force’s hopes for the brown-bag lunch series you are hosting for students?

Hector Amaya: I want conversations to be able to normalize both the fact that we are doing this together and the fact that we need each other in order to get better. We all have questions, and we all have expertise. In an ideal world for me, it would be an opportunity for us to bring our successes to the forefront and our fragility to the forefront as well, in order to learn how to be better. All of us can benefit from that. These are not intended to be extraordinary events, but rather something we just do.

How will the “lightning” talks you’ve organized for faculty work?

Laura Castañeda: In five to seven minutes, faculty are given the chance to talk about something they do in class that's related to DIEA. They can talk about their learning objectives and how they’ve worked for them. And hopefully that will inspire other faculty members; while they might not be able to adopt the lesson plan exactly, they can perhaps find a way to modify it for their students.

The task force will also host candid conversations for faculty and staff. How will these be focused?

Laura Castañeda: This is like the brown-bag discussions we have for students, but these sessions are for faculty and staff. We want to hear from this group, find out what they think some of the biggest challenges are as far as DIEA. We want them to consider what we should be doing to make sure we're the leaders in this space.

Picture USC Annenberg in May 2022. What are you hoping will have been accomplished?

Hector Amaya: I feel that I'm riding a wave like a surfer would, and it's partly produced by the political energy of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests all around the nation. What I want to imagine is the wave extending forever. To substitute the energy of those social movements with our internal energy and move it in the right direction together to actually make this part of our culture.

One of my goals is also that the work of diversity is not perceived to be work apart from our regular operations. That it is a part of who we are. It is normalized as one of the ways in which we attend to excellence. USC Annenberg is one of the schools that defines excellence in the field, and we have the capacity to define excellence to all others.