OPINION: Advice on creating an inclusive community

By Janelle Aaker | July 7, 2020 12:18pm

Janelle Aaker is an alumni and former employee of the University of Portland. Photo courtesy of Janelle Aaker.

Dear UP Community,

My name is Janelle (Neva) Aaker and I am ‘02 alumnus of the University of Portland. I am also a former employee - I was an Admissions Counselor from 2003 to 2005.   

I have read the brave words of Sandy Chung, a person who was hired by the University to lead the Human Resources strategy and efforts. I have been an HR professional for many years, and I understand deeply the complexities of that world. I have been in situations where the interests of leaders and the integrity of my work has been at odds.  It’s a difficult and lonely position to be in.   

I applaud Sandy for her courageous stand for equity, inclusion and (quite frankly) humanity. My only regret is that I haven’t been by her side, standing for justice. That is because, even though I haven’t been closely connected to the university for over 15 years, I always knew. I knew there were problems in the system, including racial and gender bias which results in a lack of representation in leadership. I knew university officials were talking out of both sides of their mouths. I haven’t seen it recently myself.... but I knew. And I, as a member of the community, am personally responsible for not doing more to fight injustice.   

I recently left my position as VP, Global Diversity & Inclusion for lululemon. In my parting email, I shared my words of advice to my lululemon community. I would like to offer this advice to all of you, with slightly modified words to acknowledge the minuscule differences between a corporate and academic setting.   

Advice for the University of Portland students, faculty, staff and alumni to create an inclusive culture, one that celebrates diversity and creates a sense of community, belonging and support for all:

1. Speak your truth. Always. Don’t allow a person, situation or culture to take the power of your perspective away. Say it. Write it. Embody your truth in every inch of your being and let that truth radiate from your very existence.  

2. Hold leaders accountable. Document what is said and committed…. And remind them when they are not acting with integrity.

3. Create brave spaces where people can share their perspectives and ideas without judgement. Listen with curiosity, grace and empathy. Speak with courage, conviction and respect. 

4. Expect greatness from each other and the university. This community has the potential to change the world. Don’t play small. Demand excellence.

5. Be curious. Ask questions, challenge assumptions, break the status quo and recognize that you don’t know everything.  

I ask all of you to recognize your own role in sustaining the status quo and your own opportunity to break the cycle. 

In this with you,

Janelle (Neva) Aaker

*Living and working from home in North Vancouver, BC; on the unceded Coast Salish territory, represented today by the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh [tSLAY-wah-tooth] nations.

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