Building a Culture of Equity-Mindedness

Kentina Smith and Lori Perez
Innovation Showcase

Across the U.S., colleges are structuring and implementing strategies, initiatives, and programs to address equity gaps in academic achievement. There is much work to be done, as inequities continue to exist in policies and practices. The good news is that under the right conditions, with the right team members and supportive leadership, it is possible to build a community of equity-minded faculty to work toward more inclusive classrooms.

Cultural change takes time, and change is a learning process. Change “requires institutional actors to unlearn normative perspectives that students alone are responsible for their own academic success” (Felix, Bensimon, Hanson, Gray, & Klingsmith, 2015, p. 27). Those who hold normative perspectives consider students’ motivation, self-efficacy, and behaviors as the sole explanations for whether or not they achieve academic success and expect students to be college ready when they arrive on campus. College readiness is most often determined by academic indicators, but community colleges accept 100 percent of students who want and/or need to further their skills and education. So, what happens when students are not college ready? It takes a village for some students to achieve academic success, so it becomes the joint responsibility of faculty, staff, and students. Equitable practices that contribute to academic achievement can require changes to policies, expectations, instructional methods, assessment methods, and/or communication. According to Dr. Mike Gavin, Vice President for Learning at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), the college needed “a shift in perspective to focus on being student ready.”

A Culture of Equity-Mindedness

In 2016, Equity Resource Teams (ERT) were formed by AACC leadership. Each ERT team, representing a different discipline or department, was charged with examining data and best practices regarding equity and achievement gaps, and each team member worked collaboratively and purposively within a discipline cohort as well as across disciplines with colleagues. The psychology department ERT consisted of four faculty members. In addition to critical analysis and decision-making about changes to course policies and practices, instructional methods, and assessment methods, we discussed the importance of building a culture that embraces equity and change.

Change can be difficult. A key element of innovation and the implementation of change is having colleagues and leadership who are supportive, willing, and motivated. Garnering and maintaining buy-in and support, even from those resistant to or skeptical of change, is part of the process. Addressing issues related to inequities requires real talk about diversity, race and ethnicity, power, and privilege. Equity-mindedness focuses on inclusion and social justice as well as achievement gaps.

Four major themes, or elements, emerged from the psychology department’s efforts to build a culture of equity-mindedness: information gathering, implementation, team development, and accountability.

Element 1: Information Gathering

The foundation for promoting a team growth mind-set was self-reflection and mindfulness about the current cultural climate. The types of information examined were

  • Departmental strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats;
  • Faculty interests;
  • Faculty values; and
  • Institutional values.

The information gathering process included meaningful conversations about how each faculty member within the department could support institutional and departmental goals. Promoting a distinct culture should involve “an analysis of resources, a positive group climate, leadership, organizational contribution, and the ability to identify the effective working of faculty in individual, organizational, and leadership characteristics” (Kanu Da, 2011, p. xi). We learned about faculty interests and values through online questionnaires, department meetings and discussions, one-on-one meetings with our department chair, and regular meetings with the psychology ERT. Our team goal was to ensure that faculty and institutional values were aligned. Understanding values helped to guide decision-making and planning, but faculty core values do not have definitive limits. Values may shift over time and need to be revisited. The psychology ERT plans to reassess values when there are changes in leadership and faculty and/or when the strategic plan is updated.

Element 2: Implementation

After assessing individual faculty interests and values, the psychology ERT focused on who we wanted to be as a department in the future. Discussions were had and decisions made to determine a long-term vision and short-term goals.

Using the information gathered, we developed a long-term vision inclusive of departmental values and institutional planning. In addition to a culture of equity and inclusion, we considered teaching excellence, professional development, collaboration, mentorship, student engagement, and academic excellence. This information was shared with full-time and part-time faculty through meetings, departmental retreats, and emails. According to Kanu Da (2011), developing a culture requires members of the organization to be clear about the vision, purpose, and goals; at this stage, we were able to assess whether or not faculty supported the vision.

The path to our cultural vision included developing both long-term and short-term goals. In the long term, we would accumulate a repository of resources to support equitable policies and practices. For the short-term, in order to structure a manageable path, we divided the work based on faculty interests, strengths, and motivation. The four major departmental structures were data and assessment, engagement and outreach, teaching effectiveness, and curriculum design. Each structure was led by department faculty member(s) with the support of the entire department, as needed. Planning and outcomes for each major structure functioned with equity and inclusion at the forefront. For example, the psychology department’s learning outcomes assessment (LOA) team addressed the area of data and assessment by collecting and analyzing data for equity gaps.

Element 3: Team Development

To develop productive teams within the department, the ERT established foundational guidelines and expectations for respectful and productive discourse and leveraged faculty strengths. Working in teams involves interacting with people who have different value systems and unconscious psychological factors that drive attitudes and behaviors. As we designed relationships, we were able to bring awareness to some of these factors, including what is important to each team member, what each person needs, and how each team member wants others to be when our work gets difficult. As a result, our team agreed on the following needs: honesty, integrity, transparency, respect, supported risk-taking, self-evaluation, reflection, and an openness to sharing successes as well as areas for growth. As time progressed, we revisited the designed relationship structure to determine if updates were needed.

Individual faculty members bring unique perspectives to ongoing discourse about student needs, instructional methods, and professional development. To maximize efficiency and effectiveness, each individual’s strengths should be identified and analyzed. To maximize contributions, promote a cohesive team, and leverage strengths, we used the four domains of leadership model (Ames & Riley, 2013) to determine who can best

  • Execute, or put ideas into action;
  • Influence, or enable groups to communicate big ideas to a broader audience and influence forward;
  • Build relationships to strengthen the group; and
  • Facilitate strategic planning.

Element 4: Accountability

Building a culture of equity-mindedness takes time and constant reflection. The following are ways we held each other accountable:

  • A system of checks-and-balances
  • Reports on equity gaps
  • The use of data to design interventions
  • Faculty retreat attendance requirement

During department meetings, each team reported on updates, needs, accomplishments, struggles, and next steps. Through a system of checks and balances, faculty members across teams provided insight and were a part of the decisions-making process. This ensured that we each keep equity and inclusion in the driver seat. The ERT and LOA teams reviewed equity gap data and reported results during full-time and part-time faculty meetings. The data is used to plan for interventions.

Each academic year, the department facilitates three retreats to discuss student achievement data, offer professional development that supports department and institutional goals, and continue to build community between full-time and part-time faculty to help ensure a cohesive department culture. We understand the difficult task part-time faculty have in staying connected to the college and department, so part-time instructors are required to attend at least one department retreat per academic year. Accountability is an ongoing process and we continue to brainstorm and research ways to make good use of data and feedback.

The results of our efforts include

  • More consistent department messaging
  • Professional development to support faculty
  • Increased engagement
  • Increased communication
  • Increased collegiality between full-time and part-time faculty
  • Structured, manageable interventions
  • Essential input and feedback from students and part-time faculty

We will continue to revisit and revise our strategies as new experiences, evidence, and insights develop.


Ames, A., & Riley, A. (2013). Play to your strengths, shore up your weaknesses: The dynamic duo of project manager and strategic information architect. Intercom, 60(8), 25-27.

Felix, E. R., Bensimon, E. M., Hanson, D., Gray, J., & Klingsmith, L. (2015). Developing agency for equity-minded change. New Directions for Community Colleges, 172, 25-42.

Kanu Da, A. M. (2011). Faculty development programs: Applications in teaching and learning. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

For additional information, contact the Lori Perez.

Dr. Kentina Smith, is associate professor, Psychology, and Dr. Lori Perez, is chair and professor, Psychology, at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.