Thinking about a DEI book club? Here's a look at one.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, you need to know better to do better. That's the ultimate aim for the numerous work teams across campus striving to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in discussion groups focused on relevant books or films.  

In 2020-21, according to the annual diversity and inclusion report from the provost's office, many academic departments held book or multimedia groups for faculty and staff. ISU Extension and Outreach offers a book-based virtual workshop to staff across the state on a regular basis. The College of Veterinary Medicine version is for all employees and students. Materials from past book discussions by ISU library staff are posted online, including proposed schedules, questions and supplemental content.

As part of the faculty and staff preconference portion of the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity March 2, a group of College of Engineering advisors talked about their experiences in a DEI multimedia club. Here are some highlights of their reflections.

What's the intent? 

While working in the registrar's office, Mindy Heggen attended the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education in 2017 and participated in the accompanying professional development academy.

"In academy, we talked a lot about our spheres of influences. What can we do with all the information we were bringing back? We can't just flip a switch and change things. You have to start with your sphere of influence," she said.  

That was on her mind when Heggen joined the mechanical engineering advising team in 2018 and noticed there wasn't a facilitated way for advisors to have discussions about ethnicity and race. Those conversations are important for the predominantly white staff of advisors, who often are the university's most consistent one-on-one contact with students, she said.

"The goal of our multimedia club is to improve our cultural awareness and to be comfortable in uncomfortable conversations," she said.  

Making the plan

Starting with eight members, the aim for the club was to read two books per semester, with discussion times held during lunch hours. Since then, it's grown to 14 members and selections expanded this year to include films ("The Hate U Give" and "Just Mercy").

Books have included novels ("The Nickel Boys" and "Station Eleven"), memoirs ("Educated"), journalism ("The 1619 Project") and non-fiction ("An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States" and "White Fragility"). Heggen selects the books and movies, considering group feedback and availability. Local libraries sometimes have book club sets that can be checked out as a group for longer periods of time.   

Heggen also acts as facilitator, guided by question prompts she pieces together from various online sources. While the conversation flows naturally based on individual reactions and what's happening in the community, she emphasizes tying it back to their work as advisors.

Asking "What would I do? Who would I get them connected to in the Ames community," is a constant theme in the discussions, said Brad Eilers, an aerospace engineering advisor. 

What it's like

Talking about the issues raised in the books and movies can be intense and emotional, making listening to other members' perspectives without judgment essential. 

"We know it's a space to learn, so everybody, especially Mindy, makes it very comfortable," said Tina Prouty, an advisor in electrical, computer and cyber security engineering.  

But challenging each other's points of view is partially the point, said Ashley Morton, an advisor for undeclared engineering students. 

"If I say something that deserves judgment, I want you to call me out on it," Morton said. "I feel like when you're uncomfortable, that's when you're learning. That's why I'm showing up. That's why I'm coming to this. That's a signal of something I need to work on and explore more." 

Heggen strikes a balance in part by making it clear that personal statements and opinions shared in the meetings are private.

"As a facilitator, I try to make it a brave space, not a safe space," she said. "The lessons learned follow us, but the stories stay in the room." 

Recognizing there are differences in communication style is another key. Heggen said while she's an extrovert who often thinks through something out loud, many other club members need time to internally process a thought before speaking. 

"Literally, sometimes I ask a question and count to 20 in my head," she said.  

How it helps

Breanna Kixmiller, a mechanical engineering advisor, said the multimedia club has helped her connect with like-minded colleagues and build on what she learned about social justice as she got her master's degree in student affairs. That makes her more attuned to when to speak up as an advocate and when to step back, she said.  

Prouty, a history buff, said the readings that examine the past through a different lens have made her more cognizant of misinformation and increasingly empathetic and open to listening.

Morton said her takeaway has been a greater sensitivity about others' backgrounds.  

"One lesson I definitely learned is to believe people's stories and understand that their experiences in the world may be very different from mine as a white woman. I try to apply that in conversations with students," she said.