We don’t live in the same world we did six months ago. We cannot ignore the health inequities in minoritized communities, laid bare by the pandemic, or our country’s history of sustained racism, and the deeply distressing injustice and particular racism faced by the Black community, says Mary Ann Villarreal. The U’s inaugural vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) has been on the job for a momentous year. We asked her about the responsibility higher education has to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus.
You describe your own path as “twisty-turny.” Why?
I grew up a queer kid in a small, religious town in Texas. In high school, my sister said it was probably safest for me to leave the state and not come back—although she became my biggest supporter and ally. It took strong mentors to keep me on the path to earning my degrees, because I tired of being the outsider. My mentors reminded me I had a responsibility and an opportunity to make room at the table. And it became clear that I wanted to be involved in social justice work.
How do we help people care about EDI issues?
For decades, the conversation has focused on diversity, the social and economic public good of diversifying our teams. However, that’s not enough, because diversity without equity and inclusion simply changes the composition. It does not change who has opportunities nor erase the structural hierarchy of racism. We help people care by demonstrating that EDI does not simply replace one body with another. EDI seeks to ensure equitable access and uproot the conscious and unconscious beliefs that make us think our socially constructed oppressions are inherent in our being.
How can universities rise to the call?
We have to revolutionize the way we think and act. And I don’t use that word lightly—revolutionize. It’s a call to action to find the areas where we’re complicit in our own racism. And especially right now, we must stand in solidarity with the Black community. We must acknowledge and mourn the aggrievances of our nation, the injustices and killings over the past 400 years. When we say that Black lives matter, we must also act like Black lives matter. We need to face painful, uncomfortable truths and work with urgency and compassion to build a more equitable campus and community.