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Celebrating variety: First-ever Diversity Showcase packs Krugman Hall

Once they’d hung up their lab coats and pushed in their chairs, an impressive cross-section of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus came together after work recently, filling the Krugman Conference Hall in what organizers called a dynamic show of dedication and celebration.

Visitors to the first-ever Chancellor’s Diversity Showcase on April 23 were greeted by upward of 30 booths displaying a variety of endeavors to foster inclusivity and enhance diversity within the university. Topics ranged from redacting practices in hiring to lactation needs on campus, and the audience teemed with everyone from deans to students.

Allen welcomes crowd
Brenda J. Allen, PhD, welcomes the large turnout for the first Chancellor’s Diversity Showcase on campus.

“I believe we exceeded our goals,” said Brenda J. Allen, PhD, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion for both the CU Anschutz and CU Denver campuses. “Not only were there a lot of people packing both the interior and exterior of Krugman Hall, but the energy was so positive, and I saw so many different kinds of people interacting with one another.” Allen suspects the success will lead to an annual event.

Three aims, three checkmarks

Students at showcase
Many student organizations joined in the Diversity Showcase, including CU-SNPhA, an educational and service group that strives to improve health in underserved communities.

The goals of the event were three-fold. “One was to exhibit and celebrate the rich variety of programs, initiatives and projects that we are engaged in at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to accomplish our diversity and inclusion goals,” Allen said.

All of the major schools and colleges at CU Anschutz were represented in the showcase, along with numerous organizations, from the Community-Campus Partnership to the Center for Women’s Health Research. Every category in the university’s framework for diversity was also embodied in some way, including race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, ability, sexual orientation and veteran and socioeconomic status.

IN THEIR WORDS:

“It’s important to foster and develop empathy and sympathy for other people, because that’s what is going to make the world a more diverse and inclusive place.” – Amanda Beyer-Purvis, Anschutz Inclusivity Alliance

“We’ve gone from having about 20 percent diversity in our student population to 56 percent for this year’s entering class. And last year’s class was 63 percent women, which was a high for us. It’s just a very diverse class in the truest sense.” – Kenneth Durgans, School of Dental Medicine

“We do have a booth at recruitment where we advertise our resources for the LGBT community. We are also in the orientation materials, so we do let students know we are a safe place.” – Claire Gillette, PRISM Gay-Straight Alliance

“We are all about population health, so we have to be in the community eliminating population disparities and advancing equity. That’s what we are trying to do.” – Cerise Hunt, Colorado School of Public Health

“Another goal was to encourage interaction among the persons who are engaged in this work,” an aim seemingly met by the incessant buzz of voices among the 200-plus gatherers. “There were such a rich variety of the roles that represent our campus,” Allen said. “I was especially excited to see students interacting with each other in the section reserved for student groups that focus on diversity.”

Elliman at microphone
Chancellor Don Elliman takes part in an open-comment videotaping.

A third objective – to illuminate areas of possibility and encourage synergy and collaboration – was fueled by “idea walls,” which gathered a number of Post-its, and an opportunity to be videotaped, open to all participants for expressing experiences and thoughts surrounding diversity on campus. Both activities’ responses will become a part of a permanent webpage inspired by the event, Allen said.

A beginning, not an end

Looking out at the rows of booths lining the conference-room walls and stretching beyond the doors, Chancellor Don Elliman also indicated Allen’s team’s mission was accomplished. But it remains just a harbinger of what needs to come, he said.

“I had no idea that we would end up with what we have in front of us today: A graphic illustration of what we are trying to accomplish on this campus,” Elliman said. “I dearly wish that we didn’t have to have it. I wish that we were at a place today where people didn’t care what you looked like, what you thought, what your race or religion was,” he said.

Noting that he was inspired by the level of activity and the genuine enthusiasm in the room, Elliman said it was a great start. “But it’s by no means a finish line. I encourage you all to keep pushing.”

A push-start to more

Inclusivity booth
Participants have some fun at the Anschutz Inclusivity Alliance booth.

Much of the information shared by exhibitors and others will be posted on the new website, Allen said. “It will become one go-to place for people to have some sense of what’s going on at CU Anschutz in terms of diversity and inclusion.”

Many of the idea notes requested more training, particularly implicit bias programs, Allen said. And quite a few were centered on improved hiring and recruitment practices for diversifying faculty, student and staff populations. Allen, who said many people have asked her if she would organize a showcase again, assured that all suggestions would be taken seriously.

“It’s my mantra that we have to be systemic, strategic and sustainable in our efforts,” she said. “There is no magic pill or re-set button. It has to be something that really becomes part of who we are, embedded in our culture, and this type of event is a way to encourage and model that while also seeking guidance from those who care about these issues about what else we can do.”

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Coordinator Fontana facilitates access and equity

Lauren Fontana used to spend her days living in code. A graduate of the University of Michigan with a BSE in computer science in engineering, she designed programs for the health care industry. But in 2004, she felt compelled to take a different path. “As I was sitting in a cubicle, writing code every day,” she tells me, “here was this huge movement of people in 16 states voting on whether I could get married. And I kind of thought, ‘What am I doing?’”

Since 2004, Fontana has done quite a lot: she obtained a law degree, moved to Colorado, worked for the State Supreme Court, became a legal advocate for incarcerated people and became a civil rights attorney. Building off her work in individual litigation, Fontana now hopes to “look broader,” tackling the “big issues” of accessibility and discrimination in higher education.

As an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Affirmative Action coordinator, Fontana uses her flexible expertise to work with employees, supervisors and hiring committees across both campuses in order to ensure our work lives are more equitable. Fontana sat down with Today to tell us what justice means to her, and to explain how the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus is working toward it. 

Could you describe what a day in the life of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Affirmative Action (AA) compliance coordinator looks like?

Every day is different. On the ADA side, sometimes I’m talking to supervisors about working with employees to come up with accommodations that work for the employee, who needs the accommodation, and for the work that needs to be done. Sometimes I’m talking to employees who are requesting accommodations in the first place, learning more about what their needs are, and learning what we can do in order to actually accommodate them so that they can do the job.

Lauren Fontana speaks with CU Denver Today

What do conversations about employee accommodations typically involve?

We have a form that the employee takes to their doctor that asks a standard series of questions, essentially determining if the employee has a disability that’s covered by the ADA. The employee works with their doctor to figure out what might be the best possible solution, and then they bring that either to me or to their supervisor, and we figure out if what they’ve proposed works in terms of their business unit functioning.

It’s sort of a puzzle between the employee, the doctor, the supervisor and me figuring out what’s going to enable the employee to do their job in a way that works for the department and works for them.

Are there things about the ADA that you wish people understood better?

A lot of people view accommodation as “cheating,” whether accommodation means giving a student more time to take an exam, or giving an employee an extra break because of a medical condition. There’s pushback around the idea that accommodation isn’t fair.

“Equality” is giving everyone the same thing, no matter what. “Equity” is giving everybody what they need to have a fair shot, to level the playing field. I wish we could get away from this idea that giving someone an accommodation is like giving someone an unfair advantage; it’s not – it’s enabling them to do the same thing that someone who doesn’t need an accommodation can already do.

I know that you have a background in law, but how did you get started in ADA and AA work?

Before I came to CU I was a civil rights lawyer in private practice. I also taught in the civil rights clinic at the University of Denver’s law school for a couple of years. I got to the point where I didn’t want to litigate anymore, but I still wanted to use my civil rights and legal background, so I ended up here in a civil rights investigator position. That was a perfect transition.

What inspired you to work in equity and civil rights?

I was an engineer before I became a lawyer. I was a software engineer, and in the 2004 election, 16 states had anti-same-sex marriage state constitutional amendments on the ballot, including my home state of Ohio, and Michigan, where I was living at the time. As I was sitting in a cubicle, writing code every day, here was this huge movement of people voting on whether I could get married. And I kind of thought, “What am I doing? Nobody cares about this code that I’m writing.” So I decided to apply to law school.

I wanted to do gay rights policy work, but then I realized that was too close to home. So I ended up shifting toward advocating for people with other marginalized identities that I don’t necessarily have. I was more productive as an advocate for other folks.

Lauren Fontana speaks with Callie Rennison, Director of Equity and Title IX Coordinator

Around your civil rights and equity work, do you have a particular philosophy? Is there a quote you point to and say, “That’s the kind of justice that I’m working toward?”

The specific quote is so important to me that it’s tattooed on my arm – is “Silence is betrayal,” which is from a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech about the Vietnam War.

The gist of it, to me, is that if you’re not speaking out for other folks, you’re really not doing anyone any justice. And that can look like different things. So, if someone else doesn’t feel safe, or doesn’t have the emotional capacity, or just doesn’t feel like they should have to advocate for themselves, then that’s the time to step in.

Justice also, more importantly, involves amplifying other people’s voices. Particular marginalized communities can say all they want without being heard. So, if I can use my position of privilege – and I have lots of positions of privilege, even if I have marginalized identities too – to say, “Hey, let’s listen to this marginalized community,” then that’s also eliminating the silence.

What are the most common misconceptions around affirmative action?

I think the most common misconception is that affirmative action is a “quota system” –  it’s just not.

In the context of employment, the whole idea is that if we’re not discriminating against people, then the pool from which we’re selecting employees should look pretty similar to the people we select. That’s just probabilities. The reasoning behind having an affirmative action plan is that, absent discrimination, we should have a representative number of all marginalized groups.

This idea is that, historically, employees and students have been predominantly, if not all, white. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, that’s what we’re going to get, leaving out vast quantities of people who deserve to be here.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT EQUITY?

If you have questions or concerns about accessibility, Title IX, or harrassment, please reach out to the Office of Equity.

Equity@cudenver.edu
303-315-2567
Lawrence Street Center, 12th Floor

If you weren’t an equity coordinator, what would you be?

I would be a farmer. I would grow all of the vegetables, and that’s what I would do all day. We’re working on expanding our garden at the moment, because the first year we planted, everything got killed by bindweed. So, we’re building raised beds – we have two of them, out of the 10 we plan to have. That’s what grounds me.

What gets you up every morning, and what keeps you up at night?

In the summer, I get up early to play in the garden before work. But really, what gets me up is being able to come up with creative ways to solve problems, and that process – particularly here. This whole office is very collaborative; I talk to my colleagues all the time. Having that sense of community around social justice issues is really motivating to me.

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