2020 News Stories

Professor leads workshop series to promote inclusion, equal opportunity at USF

Lightbulbs hanging from ceiling on green background

by Jessenia Rivera

To educate the University of South Florida (USF) community on issues relating to racism and equity, a team led by College of Education Associate Professor Ruthmae Sears, PhD, launched an online series focused on promoting inclusive excellence on all three USF campuses.  

Hosted by USF’s Black Employee Steering Committee, the Institute on Black Life, and the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA), the Enlightenment Workshop Series invites faculty, staff and students to learn about topics such as cultural competence, bias and systemic racism. The initiative’s purpose, Dr. Sears said, centers on getting participants to think about ways in which they can impact change in their classrooms, work environments and organizations to cultivate equitable and inclusive spaces.   

Ruthmae Sears

Ruthmae Sears, PhD

“Our goal (for the series) is to create opportunities for individuals to reflect on how they can contribute to the educational environment, how they can foster partnerships, and engage in productive discourse relative to race and representation” Dr. Sears said. “We want it to be space to catalyze hope, and illuminate best practices that support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.” 

Launched in October, Dr. Sears and Geveryl Robinson, an English instructor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, introduced the series with a presentation highlighting the meaning of inclusive excellence and how individuals can intentionally support the model within their own spaces.

During the first session, Dr. Sears and Robinson presented the five dimensions of inclusive excellence that are targeted throughout the year-long project: intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curriculum transformation, inclusive pedagogy and inclusive environments. 

While discussing the third dimension of curriculum transformation, Dr. Sears explained the vital role professors have in making sure underrepresented identities are included and afforded equitable opportunities in the classroom. 

Dr. Sears mentioned the need to embrace differences and acknowledged a need for individuals to reflect on the following question, ‘How is the written, enacted, and assessed, curriculum embracing our cultural differences, to increase the likelihood that diverse groups are present and valued?”

Another dimension, inclusive pedagogy, entails reflecting on what’s being taught and recognizing student experiences as “worthy knowledge.” While approaching this subject, Dr. Sears shared how essential it is to elevate the voices of all students.   

“We always talk about providing education and access, but I ask: ‘Access to what and education for whom?’ because two people can be in that same space, but one can have a whole different experience,” Dr. Sears said. “Those spaces can marginalize subgroups of the population if intentional efforts are not implemented to support the diverse needs of students. So, our goal is to figure out how we can disrupt systemic injustices to create positive change.” 

Featured speakers in the series include experts such as Michelle Madden, EdD, the Campus Diversity Officer at USF’s St. Petersburg campus; Kristofer Newsome, the President of USF’s Black Faculty and Staff Association; Fenda Akiwumi, PhD, a full professor and the director of the Institute on Black Life, Elizabeth Hodge-Freeman, PhD, an associate professor and Senior Advisor to the President and Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at USF, and Tangela Serls, PhD, an instructor and director in USF’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

Throughout each session, participants have opportunities to share opinions and openly discuss their stance on issues amongst others. Each presenter, Dr. Sears said, presents topics in an order that allows participants to engage with the content and fully understand the information delivered to them.

“After our session on inclusive excellence, we followed with (a session on) cultural competence,” Dr. Sears said. “(This) coming January, we’re going to discuss bias. However, before we were able to address bias, we first wanted individuals to appreciate the beauty of difference. Only then, everyone can conceptualize how an individual’s bias may hurt or suppress culture, and negatively impact the university’s climate and culture.”

Since its launch, the Enlightenment Workshop Series has expanded due to participant demand — more than 100 attendees joined the first session, and there’s been more than 280 participants in the series throughout its first semester.

This December, with sponsorship from the Florida Center for Partnerships in Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT) and Denise Davis-Cotton, PhD, individuals will have the chance to hear from Adrian Miller, a James Beard Award Recipient and author of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas.”

In the spring, LaSonya Moore, PhD, a College of Education professor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, and a team of collaborators will present a session titled “Painting the Picture of Autism: Supporting Exceptionalities through the Arts.”

Much like the series, which emphasizes the need to collectively come together to solve a persistent problem, the team deliberately chooses speakers from a variety of disciplines at USF to showcase the power that exists in unity. From the beginning, it became evident to the USF Black Steering Committee that making a true difference in how individuals approach race and equity issues would require sustained support over time.

Dr. Sears said she wants the series to educate and facilitate systemic changes.

“The series provides an opportunity to form a network of people with similar minds, who can start looking at curriculum transformation collectively,” Dr. Sears said. “We can also begin to examine policies and practices that can support inclusive excellence at USF.”

For more information about the Enlightenment Workshop Series and to view future sessions, visit USF's Anti-Racism website. 

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