Diversity Action Plan is a go
Chico State launches its new diversity initiative
Last fall, Walter Torrence joined a Chico State panel whose mission was to build a more-diverse campus community. It was an intimidating assignment for the senior sociology major, who years earlier never would have envisioned himself working in this endeavor alongside administrators, professors and staff members.
“I was scared out of my mind at first,” he said during a recent sit-down interview.
Torrence is one of two student representatives on the Diversity Scorecard Committee. Over the past 18 months, the group, a sort of campus think tank, has been hard at work crafting Chico State’s Diversity Action Plan. The plan launched this month with the goal of fostering a more inclusive learning community.
Inclusivity is something Torrence has become familiar with only since coming to Chico State back in the spring of 2007, as a transfer student out of Sac City College in Sacramento.
To hear him tell it, he was a completely different person at that time.
“I had no interest in getting involved on campus,” he said, reflecting on his first year in Chico.
Torrence recalled struggling academically during those first couple of semesters. In fact, he very nearly was disqualified from attending the university due to poor grades. That changed, as did he, in the fall of 2008. He was welcomed into in the campus’ Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, which is where he spent a year working as an intern.
There, he was introduced to C.C. Carter, CCLC’s director and a long-time Chico State staff member, with whom Torrence quickly formed a mentorship relationship.
It was a life- and career-changing experience for Torrence, who started out as a business major but switched to sociology. Working at the center led him to his calling: working with people.
Eventually, he earned a paid student position at the CCLC as a para-professional, working as a sort of ambassador of diversity, planning programs and outreach events. He also joined Men of Honor, a student organization composed of African-American men.
His passion became reaching out to folks, especially those who, like himself years earlier, appeared reticent. That’s no longer the case. “I’m that guy who’s always smiling,” he said, wearing his signature friendly grin.
Torrence was happy, then, to lend his thoughts to the formation of the Diversity Action Plan.
While one of the goals of the Diversity Action Plan is to bolster racial diversity on campus, Torrence noted that there’s a lot more to it.
He was echoed by Tracy Butts, an English professor who has been appointed as Chico State’s chief diversity officer, a new position created to coordinate the development and implementation of the plan. Like Torrence, Butts noted that the plan comprises efforts related to age, religion, locale, disability and socio-economic class, as well as race, gender and sexual identity.
“Just because you’re not female, gay or a person of color doesn’t mean you don’t fit within that diversity tapestry,” she said.
Butts flew into Chico for the first time a decade ago last month, fresh out of a doctoral program and eager for a job. She was still working on her dissertation when she landed here for an interview. She was looking elsewhere, too, and had never heard of Chico State during her undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech in her home state or during her graduate studies at the University of Georgia. In fact, a friend who lived in Southern California had never heard of Chico, either.
Nevertheless, she chose Chico State. After 10 years the campus is home, and Butts is committed to helping foster diversity.
It’s not a commitment she took lightly. In addition to teaching, primarily American literature courses, including African-American literature, Butts has been the director of Chico State’s Multicultural and Gender Studies program. She’s now co-directing that program to be able to concentrate on her new role heading up the Diversity Action Plan. She’s also temporarily given up her teaching duties. It was a tough choice, and not only because she loves working with students and introducing them to the many voices responsible for helping shape America.
“If I don’t teach, that’s one less person of color students are coming into contact with when they’re here,” she said matter-of-factly, noting that she can count the number of black professors at Chico State on both hands.
Butts praised the university and its long-standing commitment to diversity, citing the formation of the CCLC and other programs and outreach efforts. She noted that such work has led to a campus environment in which a diverse group of students—black, gay, female, and now Palestinian—have been elected to the position of Associated Students president.
She said the Diversity Action Plan helps centralize the ongoing efforts, and it also creates a sense of accountability for the work ahead. The plan is not esoteric dogoodery; it includes tangible, quantifiable tasks for a wide cross-section of the campus community designed to achieve many noble goals, such as increasing access to underrepresented groups of students.
For example, quarterly progress reports beginning in June are expected of the Office of Graduate Studies, University Advancement, and Enrollment Management; the three are charged with developing and implementing a student-recruitment plan to increase the diversity of undergraduate and graduate student populations.
It’s one of the important goals that university President Paul Zingg touched on during his mid-year convocation last week. “Students from diverse backgrounds … will have richer and deeper experiences than not. Diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own and thus to think more vigorously and imaginatively.
“It helps students learn to relate better to persons from different backgrounds; it helps students to prepare to function effectively in a multicultural workforce and other environments; it helps students become better citizens.”
Butts was careful to note that the efforts to construct the Diversity Action Plan preceded her time on the Diversity Scorecard Committee. She joined the group in the fall of 2009, about two years after the formation of the panel.
The Diversity Scorecard Committee doesn’t assign the university a score or grade based on the current state of diversity, and Butts hesitated to give even a figurative rating. “I think we have made pretty good progress, but there’s a lot of work to do,” she said. “We’re nowhere near a spot where we can rest on our laurels.”
Torrence had no reservations in calling Chico State “a solid C+” after thinking about the question for a few seconds. “The effort is definitely there, and the potential is amazing,” he added.
The 25-year-old senior admits that he was “extremely standoffish” when he arrived in Chico. He described coming into town with a chip on his shoulder. Before he made the 90-mile move north from Sacramento, several family members warned him that Chico might not be the most welcoming place, especially for an African-American.
“That left an impression on me,” he recalled. “They told me, ‘They are not friendly to black people up there.’ ”
With that in mind, Torrence had his guard up, from his attitude to the way he dressed (baggy pants and T-shirts). That image fed into the thug stereotype, he said, but it certainly wasn’t him.
Torrence has encountered racism in Chico, mostly close to campus in the form of racial slurs shouted from passing cars. He was quick to point out that bigotry happens everywhere, but admitted he’s never been faced with it so overtly. It’s upsetting, of course, but then again he puts it into context: These are people who are literally drive-by racists.
He said it’s been through his experiences reaching out to others on campus that he’s learned to deal with such instances with a mature outlook.
Torrence is certainly a success story of the campus’ current diversity programs. He graduates this spring, and is planning to get his master’s in higher education. His goal is to work in student affairs. He’s been humbled by the work of the Diversity Scorecard Committee, whose members worked on their own time, including weekends, to get the plan in order.
“It really showed me that if you’re dedicated—and passionate about something—you can make change,” he said.