CSSW Opens Dedicated Office Space for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

February 19, 2020 @ 8:31 pm
By Communications Office

Assistant Dean Karma Lowe is bringing the School of Social Work’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion to life in a brand new space.

The fifth floor of the Social Work Building is known as the place for students to go for advice on registration, financial aid, advising, practicum, and careers, among other services. And now it will be known for a new reason: as the home of the School’s first office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The attractive new office space, which officially opened on February 12, represents the culmination of years of activism. During the 2015–2016 academic year, a group of students of color presented the administration with a list of demands, one of which was that the School create a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy that would be housed in a distinct center.

Karma Lowe, the School’s first Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, knows that history very well, having experienced a chunk of it firsthand while working in various capacities for the Office of Student Services for more than a dozen years. During her tenure at the School, she has advised student advocates who shared a passion about seeing the School adopt diversity and inclusion best practices. At this moment, she can hardly believe that there is now a brick-and-mortar testament to their hard-fought campaign. She is further thrilled to be playing a central role in trying to achieve their vision for a more inclusive environment at the School.

On the eve of the official opening of the new office space in mid-February, we spoke to Lowe about the significance of this moment for herself and for the School of Social Work, and about her plans for making use of the new facility.

You are at the forefront of an exciting new initiative for the Columbia School of Social Work. Tell us about the path that led you here.

The issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion have been topics at the School since, well, probably its founding. But the pace of change began to pick up in the 1990s, when there was a concerted effort to introduce training for students on “self-awareness for practice in a multicultural world.” Over time, and in response to what we were observing in the field and our social climate, that evolved into the creation of PDSA—Professional Development and Self-Awareness—as the action arm of the School’s Diversity Committee. PDSA runs a daylong orientation program related to these concerns for new students, as well as various events throughout the year that push the community to have critical conversations. Since its inception, I’ve served as a PDSA trainer and advisor, developing and facilitating workshops on having difficult dialogues about race and related issues. And, along with other faculty and staff, I actively supported the students who demanded that the School establish a multicultural center. This is now the Office of DEI. In addition to these formal measures, I spent much of my time over the 16 years I’ve worked here—my roles have primarily been in Student Services—providing support to students of varying identities who were experiencing marginalization at the School. In fact, it was a group of students who advocated for my appointment as the Assistant Dean of DEI. I am really excited about the opportunity and have enjoyed digging into the role this academic year.

The opening of an actual physical space—the DEI office and lounge—is a big milestone for the School of Social Work. Can you tell us why having such a space is so important?

The opening of this office and lounge space is a hugely important accomplishment. While other Columbia graduate schools may have a dean of diversity, or similar office, they don’t really have dedicated space for students who feel marginalized. I envision it will be similar to the Malcolm X Lounge or Stephen Donaldson Lounge on the main campus, where usage is prioritized for students from historically marginalized groups. I hope our students will come to view the space as warm, comfortable, inviting and a place where they can “just be.” It will be important to ensure that the space feels inclusive and reflective of the diversity of identities within our School’s community.

We noticed that some art is already going up on the walls. Where does that come from?

All of our students take a foundations class called “Decolonizing Social Work Practice.” The class was one of the demands put forth by student advocates, which included developing a PROP [power, race, oppression, and privilege] framework for our curriculum. Working closely with Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn and Associate practicum Director Ovita Williams, students and alumni created a syllabus that requires all students to complete a Self-Assessment Synthesis Project. The project explores their experience of grappling with their social identities through the PROP lens. We’ve begun using the wall space in the lounge to feature artwork from students’ SASP projects for this class. I hope to create a rotating gallery of students’ works each year.

Clearly, the creation of this new space will mean a lot for our students. What about faculty and staff?

They are of course welcome, too. While waiting for the new space to open, the diversity team has been working closely with faculty on the PROP implementation, which was formally introduced in Fall 2017 in the core foundation-year course I mentioned previously. One of the goals of the coursework is to help students become mindful, self-aware practitioners who feel empowered to challenge and create change within white supremacist systems. And they do so with a lens that centers race, and more specifically anti-Black racism. We are now working on suffusing the PROP framework across the entire curriculum, as well as our academic policies and administrative practices. In addition, we have been providing supportive spaces for various affinity groups at the School. These have included a Women of Color Support Space, a Men of Color Support Space, and a Queer Students Support Space. With the opening of the new DEI office, we’ll be introducing affinity group meetings for faculty and staff.

Have you received any early feedback on the new space?

Before the space opened officially, a few of the students meandered into the lounge and told us they really enjoyed the feeling of comfort and solitude. Faculty and staff keep saying they like how the space has turned out. There’s been an overall buzz in the building to see the space come to fruition, particularly after so many years of advocacy and hard work by students and alums.

Are there any final words you’d like to add?

For any student—no matter their identity—please come see me if you are feeling marginalized and need support. This could be to discuss an incident that happened in class or with a professor or at your practicum placement or with classmates. The same applies to any faculty or staff member. I’m here to support everyone. If you need to brainstorm about how to manage a challenging conversation, or wish for me to mediate a conversation, I’m always willing to meet to discuss that. Additionally, I welcome students, faculty and staff to just come talk to me about anything DEI-related, particularly if they have event or programming ideas, or wish to see the School address particular concerns in a better way. Actually, because I’ve been here for so long and have worked in various capacities, I’m happy to help with answers to most questions. If I don’t know the answer, I at least know to whom someone should be directed. Though my focus is now on DEI-related matters, I don’t mind being a resource for “traffic directing.” Even for DEI or PROP-related concerns, I often collaborate or problem-solve with other deans to address those issues. I work very closely with our Deans of Advising, Academic Affairs, Faculty Development, Practicum Learning, and Enrollment and Student Services, as our respective roles often intersect when it comes to dealing with complex or challenging scenarios.

Thanks so much, Karma! We wish you the best of luck settling into your new space, and thank you for all the work you are doing to deepen the School’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.