A group of mid-career professionals-turned-students stood in front of American Red Cross leaders in a Georgetown University classroom last week to talk about a poster that landed them in hot water. Their goal was to make recommendations on how to check their blind spots before publishing potentially racist materials.
It wasn’t a tense conversation. It was the nonprofit’s idea to seek out advice from students enrolled in the university’s diversity and inclusion program.
The Executive Certificate in Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Management at Georgetown is a six-month course that was born out of the two-year master’s program in human resources management. It started with just eight students in 2011. The 2016-2017 cohort, the program’s fifth, admitted 25 participants leaving nearly as many on a waiting list, according to Professor Sukari Pinnock, who organizes the program.
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Once a month for six months the group meets in Washington, D.C. for a three-day weekend of classes. This structure caters to working professionals and allows many out-of-town students to participate. In the most recent cohort, the majority traveled for each session, flying in from Connecticut, Texas, and Minnesota.
This speaks both to the program’s reputation — many chose it for the experiential approach — and its rarity. There are still relatively few post-graduate certificate or degree programs that focus specifically on diversity and inclusion. Cornell offers a similar certificate at their New York City Industrial and Labor Relations school and Tufts University has a masters degree in diversity and inclusion leadership, but curriculums that address these topics are still limited.
The students include private sector employees and public officials, academics and educators, nonprofit workers and corporate consultants. A few already from the most recent class had a background in human resources, but most were hoping to gain new perspective or transition into a more people-focused roles.
One of the students, project manager Mary Ford, has worked in the defense industry for her entire career.
After raising a special needs son, Ford is looking toward early retirement and what comes next. “I’m very passionate about human behavior and cognition and especially just disability, so I thought this was a good way to test the waters and look for a second career,” she said.
Her classmate, Annette Reimers, is a patent judge for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Her own experience with cerebral palsy led her to the Georgetown course. She’s working to start a professional mentorship program for people with disabilities and felt she needed more expertise.
“I don’t have a lot of familiarity with this area, it’s not my line of work,” Reimers said, “so I wanted to dive in and get information from this program and use it as a resource.”
The curriculum of the class also blends personal and professional, leading students to self-reflect first, look at interpersonal interactions next, and then apply all the theory they’ve learned to advise a real-world client.
“The primary focus is on using yourself as a tool. It has completely changed the way that I do my job at the Department of Energy.” said Amber Haggins, who leads its diversity and inclusion office.
The course also teaches students to assess how individual, organizational, and systemic changes affect the whole.
“To really address the system you have to have a plan,” said Felicia Wilson Young, PhD, deputy director of certified staff care services at USAID, “You have to have a toolbox. And that’s kind of how I feel, like this [course] has given me a toolbox.”
The toolbox is put to the test at the end of the program with presentations to real-world clients, like the Red Cross.
For the Red Cross, the students suggested the nonprofit add new review process. For TBWA, an advertising firm, it was reimagining their recruitment process to attract more diverse job candidates. For Sodexo, a food services company, it was implementing a paid maternity leave policy.
Whether the clients choose to act on the suggestions from their student teams or not, many participants of the program said they feel personally transformed by what they’ve learned.
“One thing I’ve learned in this class, if I didn’t know it before, is we bring all of who we are to the table,” said Wilson. “We can sort of hide it and push it away or we can use it.”