Ridgewater College

Over the past year, Ridgewater College has been engaged in dialogue related to the Minnesota State system’s Equity 2030 commitment to eliminate all opportunity, performance and achievement gaps in our student population by the year 2030. While this activity is helping us address equity issues in our college, many of us still struggle to clearly understand the difference between equality and equity.

Equality can be defined as providing the same opportunities and access to resources for everyone. Equity, on the other hand, involves a focus on specific needs of individuals and groups, particularly underserved and marginalized people, that must be considered in order to genuinely provide equal access and opportunity for all.

To illustrate this difference in visual terms, a current popular example of “equity in practice” presents an image of three people of different heights, trying to look over a fence to watch a baseball game. An equal format gives all three people the same opportunity to stand at the fence, however, only the tallest person can actually see over the fence. In contrast, an equity approach provides boxes for the shorter individuals to stand on in order to position all three people at the same height where each of them can see equally as well over the fence — giving all three individuals an equal opportunity to enjoy the game.

At Ridgewater, we are striving to “provide the boxes” that will ensure every student has an equal opportunity to engage with our college community and succeed in the classroom.

Our students begin their educational journey at a wide range of starting points and with different backgrounds, skills and needs. We are working to develop strategies and services that will help every student effectively learn and successfully complete their courses and program of study. Every student is required to meet established standards, but with varying levels of assistance and support, depending on individual needs. Rather than applying a “sink or swim” philosophy that allows a percentage of students to struggle and fail in the classroom and possibly drop out of school without earning a degree or credential, we are working to provide the necessary support resources and services that will genuinely give every student an equal opportunity to gain the skills, knowledge and credentials required for career and life success.

Our commitment to equity largely involves an internal focus on how we teach, support and serve our students. We are equally concerned, however, about broader community issues related to equity, so Ridgewater has also made a commitment to actively work to eliminate racism and promote inclusion and social justice.

We have created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council on each of our campuses in Hutchinson and Willmar to bring people from the community and college together to discuss racism, equity and social justice issues on our campuses and in the local communities. We are currently collaborating with students to develop an anti-racism statement for the college. We are also in the midst of an ongoing review of college policies to identify language or processes that may create equity gaps or barriers for individuals and groups, and we are developing training and development opportunities for our faculty, staff and students.

In addition, we are exploring ways to translate our academic-based Equity by Design initiative into a community model that can help local businesses and organizations better reach and serve a broader base of customers and clients. We have also been actively involved in Willmar’s Vision 2040 “Take a Stance Against Racism” initiative that has developed an anti-racism commitment statement for community endorsement. The college has signed on as an organization to support this commitment, along with individual faculty, staff and students, and I have been part of the effort to encourage people in our region to “sign on” in support of the anti-racism commitment.

These are just some examples of activities at Ridgewater that are intended to put our guiding principles and commitment to equity into action to help bring about social change by actively opposing racism and promoting equity and social justice.

In addition, through our collaborative work with colleagues in the Minnesota State system office and at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, as well as with local community partners, we have developed an initial framework to guide this work in the college. Our initial list of strategies and action items includes:

  • We will actively watch for and engage in efforts to address racism, equity and social justice issues on and off campus.
  • We will be positive and proactive, focusing on who and what we are as a college and avoiding any negative focus on individuals or groups that may conflict with our institutional beliefs and values.
  • We will base our actions on the college’s guiding principles.
  • We will ensure that we have institutional policies in place to proactively position us to address situations and incidents of racism, bias and hate that may occur on our campuses.
  • We will employ a dual strategy that combines active monitoring of community and campus issues with proactive responses to racism and hate issues and incidents.
  • We will establish a bias incident response protocol to ensure that we have an internal process in place to respond to racism and hate incidents on our campuses and in the community.
  • We will proactively communicate with our students to engage them and keep them informed on college activities.
  • We will increase our efforts to ensure that our college and campuses are welcoming and inclusive environments that provide a sense of community and belonging for every student, employee and visitor.
  • We will seek ways to bring community partners into the college, including the classroom and student clubs and organizations, to encourage learning and dialogue on critical social issues.
  • We will reach out to other communities and colleges to learn from their experiences and model our work on their best practices.

These strategies will help position Ridgewater College as a key community partner and resource to counter the forces that feed racism, fear, bias and oppression. I invite any interested community members to consider joining one of our campus-based Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Councils, or to reach out to us to explore how the college and community can work together to help ensure that our campuses and communities are truly safe, welcoming and inclusive places for everyone.

Craig Johnson is the president of Ridgewater College.