Navigating the path toward inclusion and equity

As Campus Diversity Officer Teresa Maria Linda Scholz nears her one-year anniversary on the job, she reflects on her work so far, where we are, and how far we have to go

Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, diversity officer for the campus Office for Diversity, Equity,
Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, diversity officer for the campus Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Teresa Maria Linda Scholz stood in UC Santa Cruz’s experimental theater on Nov. 14 and watched as 100 students, faculty, and staff sat around tables discussing the complex issue of free speech and the First Amendment.  

It was part of a dialogue series that Scholz, as diversity officer for the campus Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and others had organized in the wake of white supremacist fliers being posted on campus and by controversial appearances across the country by speakers like former Breitbart employee Milo Yiannopoulos, who spoke at UC Berkeley earlier this year.

“From what I could tell, people (at the event) were respectful, even though they didn’t all agree,” Scholz said.

It was exactly that kind of open exchange of ideas that Scholz has aimed for as the one-year anniversary of her hiring as the university’s diversity officer nears. According to her, her goals have been to listen; to open dialogue in a campus that can be siloed by layout and ideology; and to help staff, students, and faculty navigate the sometimes-thorny path of inclusion and equity on campus through programs and education.

“Nationwide, I see a lot of polarization, and it also happens with students, faculty, and staff,” Scholz said. “Part of that is based on assumptions people make about each other, so the question for me is, how can we find points of connection to address issues that are important to all of us while also understanding the impact of systems of oppression.”

Lessons in inequality and discrimination

Scholz came to UC Santa Cruz from Eastern Illinois University, where she was a tenured associate professor in the Communication Studies Department and an affiliated women’s studies and Latin American studies faculty member. She’d earned a Ph.D. in communication studies, a master’s certificate in women’s studies, and underwent a two-year certificate program in mindful facilitation techniques under Lee Mun Wah, executive director of Stirfry Seminars & Consulting, which offers training on cross-cultural facilitation skills.

But Scholz’s understanding of inequality and discrimination began much earlier.

Born in the United States to Guatemalan immigrants, her family moved back to Guatemala when she was 10. It was the 1980s and the height of that country’s civil war between the government and rebel groups, but it was not spoken about in her household.

“I didn’t understand why people were disappearing, why the military was everywhere,” said Scholz, “I didn’t understand why my dad would say, ‘You shouldn’t go outside.’”

It was only when she went to college back in the U.S. that Scholz read 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio about the horrible human-rights abuses against Menchú’s Quiche Indian community in Guatemala during those years, and understood what had occurred.

“It was profound, emotional,” she said of reading the book. “It was really hard because I realized this was what was happening and no one had talked about it.”

Today, Scholz describes herself as a “critical Latina/Latin American transnational feminist scholar in communication studies,” which is shorthand for the long years she spent studying and researching race, inequality, gender, and culture—years that eventually led her to UC Santa Cruz and her new job.

Making changes

Quick to smile and sporting a magenta streak in her dark hair, Scholz has already made changes.

Part of her job is to run the campus’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, which began in 2010 and is offered free to faculty, staff, and graduate students. With classes like Disability 101; Power, Privilege and Oppression; and Supporting Queer & Trans Communities 101, the program has 341 graduates.

Scholz added an orientation session and two-part seminar to the program with the hope of creating a more permanent connection among each cohort of students to spur change. Working with the Campus Climate Action Team, she also co-organized a Take a Stand Against Hate campaign in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the posting of white supremacist fliers on campus, and is working to streamline campus communication so issues that come up can be more quickly addressed.

In addition, she organized, along with campus partners, a new seven-part dialogue series that has included not only the First Amendment event but a screening and discussion of Get Out, a film directed by actor/comedian Jordan Peele that tackles issues of race and hatred, and organized a panel so students could learn which administrators they should contact about policies on campus.

“I also heard a lot from students about not feeling comfortable talking to a professor because they were nervous. Forty-two percent of our students are first-generation,” said Scholz. “And, many of our first -generation students don’t come to college with academic capital that makes them comfortable to talk effectively with their professors.”

Scholz, who was also the first in her family to go to college, organized an event to address that issue.

Striving for inclusion

Scholz, said Carolyn Golz, college administrative officer for Cowell and Stevenson colleges, “has done a really good job in developing solid relationships with students and student groups and building trust—trust that she will be an advocate for them and trust that she can help the campus be more inclusive through policies, procedures, and programs in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

Golz, who completed the certificate program, said the series is critical for a diverse campus like UC Santa Cruz.

“The more we are aware of differences and celebrate differences and create a more inclusive community,” Golz said, “the greater likelihood our students will achieve success.”

“What challenges do I face?” Scholz said, echoing a question as she sat in her small office on a fall afternoon. “The challenge of effective communication on the campus as a whole, the challenge of being able to validate students’ genuine concerns about feeling marginalized while also explaining some of our institutional policies and constraints.”

She paused. “I mean, how do you tell students, ‘I don’t agree with white supremacists and yet hate speech is protected.’ That’s hard.”

The current political climate is “direct evidence of the continued work we have to do,” she said. “Put simply, we have not arrived at inclusion. This is a work in progress for all institutions of higher learning.”

She believes her office and the work she does is important, because it has “the great opportunity to push forward the commitment of the university to work with campus partners and stakeholders on more holistic approaches to proactively work toward equitable practices.”

In other words, we’ve come a long way, but there’s a long road ahead.