Updated: Oct 4
DEI, IDEALS Institute planted many seeds for the future
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on September 28, 2023)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
Over the past few months, many people have asked my thoughts on why the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the IDEALS Institute at the University of Arkansas, where I formerly was employed, were dissolved. Let's reflect on these important questions from my vantage.
In 2017, Dr. Yvette Murphy-Erby was selected as vice provost for DEI. Without a moment to waste, she started implementing her vision of facilitating a culture and climate that is diverse, equitable, inclusive and antiracist. In 2019, Dr. Murphy-Erby saw a "need for the university to leverage its land grant mission of being in service to the community and the state of Arkansas." Thus, the IDEALS Institute was born.
IDEALS is an acronym for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, Leadership Development, and Strategic Supports. The main goal of the institute was to be a training, consultancy and research institute dedicated to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and communities.
In the spring of 2019, Dr. Elecia Smith was hired as the executive director of the IDEALS Institute. Soon after, Dr. Smith hired her small but mighty team: Anne Shelley, Magdalena Arroyo, Marcia Shobe and me. As an institute focused on transformational change, we offered six months to multi-year contracts to consult with non-profits, for-profits and school districts.
So, what did we accomplish in our four years from inception to dissolution? Well, we worked with more than 800 organizations/entities, logged 15,000+ participant engagements, provided 590+ hours of consultations, acquired a $2.1 million grant to better support Northwest Arkansas non-profits, and provided more than $2.2 million directly to nonprofits for organizational growth and DEI development. Along the way, our team grew to nine dedicated professionals who worked tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of Arkansans.
In my humble opinion, this data doesn't come close to effectively summarizing the impact that IDEALS had on the lives of those who needed visibility regarding their experience, exposure and environment. Sophia Stevenson, director of the Arkansas Environmental Education Association, stated that working with IDEALS "gave us more confidence in taking the next steps with DEI." Brandon Petit, former executive director of the NWA Center for Sexual Assault, stated that engaging in sessions with IDEALS "helps you realize that you are not alone in your journey and that we all have struggles, barriers, and opportunities as we lift each other up in serving our communities."
Despite its impact and success, the division of DEI at the University of Arkansas was dissolved after 20 years. Despite our impact and rapid growth based on community demand, the IDEALS Institute is slated to be dissolved as of Dec. 31.
Many people have asked me why these decisions were made. If I were to respond honestly, my response would be based on speculation or assumption. I was not directly informed of the strategy behind these decisions. I think the most informative and enlightening answer should come from the person who made the decision. As we have a national conversation about whether DEI is needed, I think it would be valuable if we simply looked to our past right here in Northwest Arkansas. We can look to the 2010 book "Remembrances in Black," which is an oral history of the personal stories of African Americans that "illustrate the anguish, struggle and triumph of individuals who had their lives indelibly marked by their experiences" at the University of Arkansas. We could also look to the #blackatuark movement in the summer of 2020 where hundreds of students and alumni shared their experiences of anti-Black racism on campus via social media.
I am confident those who worked in the division of DEI and IDEALS impacted the lives of thousands of people. While I am saddened by the abrupt end to a mission that I hold close to my heart, I am confident that we empowered Arkansans to work toward self-awareness, community care and inclusiveness. I am reassured that more Arkansans are now prepared to stand with and for those who are overlooked. Personally, I learned a lot from our small but mighty IDEALS team.
I could sing the praises of the IDEALS team until the sun goes down! Dr. Murphy-Erby was a truly inspirational leader. Not just in words, but in her everyday actions. As my mentor says, "Being in charge is not the same thing as being a leader." From the moment I started at the IDEALS Institute, Dr. Smith explicitly stated, "I am preparing you for your next role." As a leader, she worked tirelessly to draw out and develop my skills and abilities. Dr. Smith pushed me to attain the five certifications that I rely on in my current job.
Anne Shelley gave me two gifts that I am forever grateful for: her friendship and her feedback. When I joined the IDEALS team, I was a presenter, not a facilitator. I was not very self-aware. Anne's decades of experience in DEI, behavioral competencies and empathy, led to me expanding my "box." At the same time, our friendship blossomed into what I believe will be a lifelong bond.
Magdalena Arroyo shared with me her wealth of knowledge about culture, community, and community care. She also helped me understand and develop my emotional intelligence. Believe it or not, she is an expert at finding educational TikTok videos that are easy to understand and based on research or real-world experiences, that really seal the deal in training.
So, as I continue to process how 18 years of service at the University of Arkansas impacted my heart and mind, I'm not sure that I'm ready to summarize or provide insight into why these meaningful DEI institutions were dissolved. For now, I'll lean on the wise words of Dr. Murphy-Erby: "Even though the division of DEI and IDEALS are dissolved, the seeds that our team planted will live on in ways that we don't yet have the capacity to know."