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Immersive Outreach Programs May Be a Better Investment than DEI Initiatives

Erec Smith

Recently, the University of North Carolina‐​Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted, unanimously, to divert money from its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives into public safety. This is on the heels of other institutions shuttering diversity offices and laying off or repurposing positions focused on DEI work. Are we starting to see a trend? Is this the beginning of a “Great Diversion”?

Contemporary DEI initiatives have been a point of contention for years now. Anti‐​DEI sentiment, which does not necessarily mean an aversion to the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion per se, grows with every exposition of DEI’s driving ideology, Critical Social Justice, which is inherently, divisive, illiberal, and, actually, racist.

However, any opposition to DEI programs is usually seen as a right‐​wing attack on anything that can improve the lives of minoritized groups. That accusation holds more water in response to calls for the eradication of DEI initiatives. But the diversion of DEI funds to another worthwhile endeavor—that is, trading one good for another good—is harder to scrutinize.

Yes, UNC‐​Chapel Hill has chosen to divert DEI’s funding to public safety to prevent disruption of university operations. Whether the good of public safety constitutes a “good for good” trade is understandably debatable. However, DEI funds can also be diverted to initiatives more clearly aligned with diversity, equity, and inclusion in the true sense of those words. Initially, I thought of outreach and immersion programs.

Outreach programs geared toward K‑12 students are created by colleges and universities in collaboration with local high schools to help students understand what is necessary to get into college, what they need to do to prepare, and what to expect when they get there. When I say “immersive,” I refer to outreach programs where students visit campuses and experience what it is to be a college student or a particular major. According to the Compass Education Group’s “Guide to Successful Outreach Programs,” students and colleges benefit from such programs in distinct ways.

According to Compass, outreach programs can achieve the following for students: clarify career goals, assistance with access to resources, assistance with the application process, academic advising, introduction to a college’s academic support services, and, obviously, better prepare students for college‐​level work. This kind of outreach can assuage any “culture shock” that may set in among students from marginalized communities. It can also introduce students to the necessary merits for college success at a younger age, thus demystifying academic merits.

The benefits to participating colleges include greater student readiness, better resource management, and increases in enrollment, retention, and, of course, diversity. Regarding diversity, Compass does not mince words: “Helping these students prepare for and transition to postsecondary education helps colleges meet their diversity goals.” Redistributing money from DEI initiatives to outreach programs that can be geared toward underrepresented students may be a better way to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Perhaps outreach programs are the new—and more effective—DEI initiative.

Several colleges already have outreach programs that, typically, take place in the summer. However, with sufficient funding, these programs can become more robust. In fact, non‐​profit organizations exist to do that. For example, The Hidden Genius Project, started by five black professionals, “trains and mentors Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities.” This project has locations all over the country and offers a variety of programs to introduce students to entrepreneurs, leaders, and technologists through either single or multiday events or deeper and longer immersion into a professional culture. What’s more, this project’s effects align with concepts important to DEI initiatives, like cultural representation.

Hidden Genius alum, Tehillah Hephzibah says,

Growing up, I was never really in a place where a majority of the people looked like me. In the program, I enjoyed being around people who look more like myself and connecting with them. Throughout my life, all of the schools I attended were predominantly white or Hispanic students so joining The Hidden Genius Project was a sigh of relief and comfort for me.

Another program graduate, Brandon Bazile, shares a similar sentiment.

As a Black man who has only ever had at most two other Black boys in my grade, to suddenly having a group of Black males who look like me was eye‐​opening. Being taught and surrounded by excellent Black minds, inspired me to believe that I could always better myself, which was a feeling I had never felt before.

This program is a clear source of agency and empowerment for young black students, a goal DEI proponents claim to have.

MIT’s Introduction to Technology, Engineering and Science (MITES) is an outreach program that has strong partnerships with universities nationwide. The program “provides transformative experiences that bolster confidence, create lifelong community, and build an exciting, challenging foundation in STEM for highly motivated 7th–12th grade students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.” As with the Hidden Genius Project, representation and confidence building are some of the most salient effects of MITES.

Indigo Davitt‐​Liu, a graduate of the program, stated, “I’ve always loved math, but I always saw STEM kids as a group removed from me, a type of person I could never be. Through this program, I realized the true amount of diversity there is in STEM fields. I now see myself as part of a STEM community.” Also similar to the Hidden Genius Project, MITES immerses students in environments indicative of a given STEM field. This immersion helps students gain merits they would not have otherwise. MITE graduate Moses Stewart says,

MITES connected me with so many other brilliant and passionate people and gave me an avenue to explore a brighter future for myself. It gave me the opportunity to learn about career paths that would have otherwise been inaccessible. And, to apply and assert myself in challenging courses. Most of all, it gave me guidance and helped me grow into someone who is more confident, hard‐​working, and optimistic about the future.

The outcomes of MITES, the Hidden Genius Project, and comparable programs strongly suggest that funding for DEI programs that have proven to be more ineffective than effective could be put to better use elsewhere.

I must be clear, current DEI initiatives are often undergirded by Critical Social Justice, an ideology that frames the world into an oppressor/​oppressed dichotomy and insists that oppressive forces are present in every human interaction. Surely, funds should be diverted to initiatives that don’t promote divisiveness, resentment, and even a kind of racism. However, I believe diverting funds to immersive outreach programs for K‑12 students is so important that even DEI initiatives steeped in classical liberal values cannot be justified. Workshops on the history and nature of discrimination, cultural differences, and policy are important and should take place, but these things need not be expensive or necessarily whole offices.

No matter what ideological foundation a DEI program has, funds are better spent on programs like The Hidden Genius Project and MITES.

A great diversion is in order. DEI programs have proven relatively ineffective at enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, thus proving to be a waste of money. Continuing to spend money on these programs is indefensible, especially when better ways to help our students abound. The day after UNC‐​Chapel Hill diverted funds away from its DEI initiatives, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University did away with required DEI courses for students. The tide is turning when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Let’s make sure it turns in a healthy and generative direction.

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