Equity in the Capital: Luke Wood and Albert Garcia on the importance of ‘equity mindedness’ in higher education

Luke Wood, left, and Albert Garcia. Courtesy photos.

By Nick Brunner

It’s easy to look at the idea of college and adopt a misconception that once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing. You’ll be all set. You’ve got every opportunity in front of you as long as you work hard and study and apply yourself. Well, that’s not always the case.

In this “Equity in the Capital,” two leaders of higher education institutions in Sacramento highlight what their educational institutions are doing to combat those kinds of misconceptions. They are Albert Garcia, president of Sacramento City College, and Luke Wood, president of Sacramento State University.

We’ll hear about the systems that are in play that increase barriers, especially for Black and brown students, the pandemic pivots that both Sacramento State and Sacramento City College each had to make to serve their student populations, and what both college presidents are doing to walk the walk when it comes to serving their traditionally underserved students.

The following is from their conversation on the Equity in the Capital podcast.

Garcia: My lens is particularly through community college education, given that that’s been the bulk of my career, particularly through an instructional lens. So I came into the community colleges teaching English. In particular, as I think about our work and equity at the college, I think about not only what we’re doing currently, but I look back also at how equity work has evolved in our community colleges, and particularly at Sacramento City College. And even to the point where I think about how I taught in the classroom and what I could have done differently and better to serve particularly our Black and brown students who our data tells us, we should be serving better. 

Wood: When I think of equity, the first thing that comes to mind is the work of Estela Mara Bensimon, who is a retired professor at USC; she ran the Center for Urban Education there. What she says is that, essentially, equity is this heightened focus on groups that experience disproportionate impact, and the focus is for us to remediate difficulties in their experiences, because there are outcome differences. She juxtaposes between having a deficit mindset versus an equity mindset. A deficit mindset, see certain student groups are students of color or lower income students, and when they see them, if there’s a breakdown of performance, that they have graduation rates that are lower than that of their peers, and deficit mindset, and says, “What’s wrong with them?” What are they doing, or not doing, that’s resulting [in] the outcome experiences that they have. “They’re lazy, they don’t care. They’re not really here for school. They’re only here for financial aid.”

And that is kind of been the predominant way in which people thought about equity in schools. versus the other side of it, which is an equity perspective, [where] you say: What are we doing or not doing as institutions resulting in the outcome [and] this kind of experiences that we see? And so it’s not focused on the student. It’s focused on the educators and institutions that serve them. 

But then she goes further, and she talks about a concept that’s called equity mindedness. So again, if equity is heightened focus on these groups, equity mindedness is how do we change the ways in which we think about the work that we do so that we can have that heightened focus, and she says that it comes down to four different things. The first thing is to recognize that there are systemic barriers that are in place that are in a range of social institutions and contexts education, employment, health care, the criminal justice system, and recognizing that in each of these systems that outcome disparity in one system only serves to amplify outcome disparities in another system.

As an example … one that we talk about a lot in our field is the focus on what’s the relationship between education and the criminal justice system, which many people refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline, which suggests that over representation in K-12, education in exclusionary discipline, suspensions and expulsions and overexposure to into special education because of perceptions that students, there must be something wrong with them, that you put those two things together, they serve as the pillars of that school to prison pipeline, burst through over representation in the juvenile court system, and eventually in the criminal justice system. 

When she goes back to those framing things I was talking about earlier, her second and third points are that you have to focus on the educator and the institution itself. What is wrong with what we’re doing as educators rather than blaming students? Then the fourth point that she has is that we then have to be reflective on our roles, recognizing that we don’t get to separate ourselves, like, I don’t get to separate myself from Sacramento State. I work at Sacramento State, I don’t get to say, Well, hey, look at what the campus did. Historically, we’ll look at what’s happening here and blame other people. I have to take responsibility, and look at what I’m doing or not doing to produce those outcome disparities, because they’re happening within the organization that I worked with. So it’s taking that ownership, that institution responsibility to create the kind of experience that our students deserve.

Garcia: So much of what you just talked about there, Luke, resonates. Particularly, because I’ve been in the system for so long, I remember when I was teaching, the chat in the department work room would be, well, we could do so much better if the students only came to us prepared. Right? You know, and if the high schools only did their jobs. It was always a blame game, that students weren’t really ready, rather than focusing on what we could be doing in the classroom to help those students who needed it the most. And I remember reading your study on the school grounds to hear about suspension and expulsion rates for students of color, and how those impacted students not only at the time, but in their trajectory as potential students, or also potentially into the criminal justice system, as well. And that just really struck me. I remember reading that just like, oh, my gosh, you know, we’re not giving certain students, particularly Black students in Sacramento, a chance if that’s what’s happening,

Wood: I think that’s a really important point and why our respective positions with Sacramento City and Sacramento State is so important, because we’re in a community that is highly diverse. We’re also in a community where for our Black students, they’re more likely than most other places in the state of California to be exposed to suspensions and expulsions. And so if you think about a group of students who’ve been systematically excluded from opportunity and told indirectly, “You don’t belong here, you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough that you’re dangerous, you’re deviant, you’re up to no good,” and then these are the students that were getting in where then, of course, we’re trying to provide them with the resources and support that they need. But we’re also doing so recognizing that there are issues that have taken place prior that can impact their trust in school that can impact their sense of belonging in that environment. 

Of course, all of that is further complicated by the pandemic, which has directly created equity issues. I know, in many institutions, you saw big drops in enrollment for Black students, Latinx students, Native American students, Southeast Asian students, Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian Vietnamese, you also saw greater issues around stress, anxiety, depression, and we see that here, even in Sacramento State. We’re doing way more around mental health support services for our students around basic needs. Because the student that we have today is not the same student that we had before the pandemic, it is a different student, they face different issues. … 

But mental health is a real conversation at all times. And we have to think about [how] these are groups that have been more likely to have been exposed to trauma. That’s from like stressful life events that have occurred, right loss of life and family and those things. But then it’s also the same groups that have been exposed to racialized trauma. If you think about the work of William Smith from the University of Utah on what’s called racial battle fatigue, basically what he’s been able to show is that when you’re in an environment where there is a persistent strain around race and racism, persistent stress around race and racism, he says that impacts you in three different ways. First, cognitively, your ability to process information, retain information, your attentional control. Second, [it] impacts you psychologically — constant anxiety, worrying, anger, anger, suppression, resentment. But then he also says that [it] impacts you physiologically, physically, tension, headaches, backache, elevated heartbeats and upset stomach inability to be able to sleep at night. 

So you got to recognize that when we’re working with our students, both with these racialized notions of what’s taking place as it relates to equity, and then of course, coming out of the pandemic, that they’re fighting challenges on three different fronts. Cognitively, psychologically, and physiologically, while they’re just trying to move through an institution like our respective institutions, to create a better life for themselves and for their families.

Garcia: During the pandemic, we took … almost all of our classes online, except for the classes that had to be taught on ground — nursing, for instance. But for students who don’t have a computer, or who only have a cell phone, or who don’t have reliable internet access, all of those kinds of things impacted [them]. … I’m sure we lost students because of that. In other cases, we had students signing up trying to do their entire class on their phone, we made great efforts to try to get everybody set up. We had Chromebook and laptop giveaways and hotspot handouts and that kind of thing — really good efforts by the college and the district to give students an opportunity. But then again, if you’re taking classes online, not all of our students have a good environment in which to take a class at home. So even if they have the equipment, they may not have the atmosphere that’s really conducive to learning, and they really rely on getting to the campus. So that was an impact during a pandemic. But I think we see the sort of lagging effects of that even now.

Wood: The pandemic has definitely shaped how we serve students, the focus on equity has as well. I would also say that at Sacramento State, you know, we learn a lot from our community college partners. And I would say that I’m pretty proud of the California Community College system, and particularly proud of Sacramento City College. You know, I used to work at Sac City, so I have a lot of love for the institution. But you all in the community college space are leading the way when it comes to equity work. There’s no question that the conversation on equity in the community colleges in California is 1,020 years beyond where we’re at with many of our other institutions — not all, but many others. 

So what are some of the ways in which you’re advancing equity in terms of the programs that you’re doing? What are some of the things that you want to highlight?

Garcia: I appreciate the kudos, by the way, and you know, it feels good. I mean, it feels as if we’re doing good work in the sphere of equity. However, it also feels like we have a long way to go. 

Wood: That’s a good mindset. [Laughs]

Garcia: Well, we need to be there. A few things that we’re doing that I think are really helpful: [One], we know, for instance, that hiring and hiring new faculty and staff with an equity mindset is really important. So when we hire new faculty, for instance, we give them one class of release time in their first semester with us in order to go through what we call the New Faculty Academy. That academy teaches them everything about the institution, but it’s all through an equity lens and that your job here at the college is to work with students through an equity lens that’s in the classroom, out of the classroom, everywhere. 

For faculty who have been here who have already been hired and who’ve been here for a while, we have a Teachers For Equity — free if you will — program so that current instructors can learn more about equitable practices in their teaching. I think we have great programming in terms of helping students belong on campus. For our Latino students, we have … a center. For our Black and African American students, we have a … center, we have an Asian Pacific Islander center, all with the goal of helping our students feel at home on campus and feel as if this college place is really for them. And I feel like we are doing really good work. We know that the data shows that we still have improvement to make in terms of disproportionate impacts on particularly our Black and brown students. So we are really focused on that.

Wood: We are doing in similar ways, cultural centers, academic resource centers that are focused on populations. We have our Black resource center — [the] MLK Center. We have our Serna Center, which is our Latinx resource center, a Dreamer center. We just opened up a center for Southwest Asian North African students. … [We have] a Jewish-life center. 

So here’s why that matters: We are a Hispanic-Serving Institution and HSI a federal designation, that means that we have at least 25% of our students who are Latinx — here at Sacramento State, [that] is actually 37%. So we’re super HSI. In addition, we’re also … an Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander-Serving institution, which means that at least 10% of our students are Asian or Pacific Islander; 22% of our students are actually API … so we serve a beautiful tapestry of diversity. 

But we’re also the No. 1 institution in the California State University system that enrolls and serves Black and African American students. No one in the Cal State [system] serves more Black students out of all 23 campuses … and we’re proud of that. We’ve been recognized by the City of Sacramento, the County of Sacramento, and most recently by the California Legislative Assembly, as being a Black-serving institution, which is essentially a state recognition for our desire to support Black and African American students. 

So when you have these different designations, one of the things that you don’t want to do is just be an HSI or an NPC or a Black-serving institution of BSI, and then not actually be doing things to serve those populations. So we’re very passionate about walking the walk. Otherwise, we serve as a false promise to those communities. So we’re doing right now, a cluster hire, we’re doing 25 faculty lines, with a focus on educators for teaching and serving Latinx students … [looking] for those faculty members who will be coming into our organization with a history of working with our Latinx community. We started the Black Honors College, which is a first in the country, an Honors College that’s specifically designed to serve Black and African American students. They have over 6,000 square feet of space on campus at the heart of the campus in our library, which is the pinnacle of learning and excellence, where they have their own seminar room, office suite. They have their own student center. We’ve reassigned eight staff members who basically are leading this effort, a dean of students, our director, their own counselors, their own academic advisers, and outreach team offer support. And then we’ve got 17 faculty members on assigned time who have been handpicked based upon a demonstrated record of success in teaching and serving Black students. 

So those are just a few really quick things about a lot of things that we’re doing. But I would say that when you work in an institution that’s as diverse as Sac State or Sac City, you wake up in the morning saying, What am I doing for X community, whatever that community might be? Because it’s important to you to make sure that your students don’t feel like they’re guests in someone else’s house. You want them to feel at home.

Garcia: As leaders at the college, or really, as is any kind of employee at the college, you really have to walk the walk. This equity work can’t be like an additional program that you’re doing. It really has to be the work that you’re doing every day and so when you get up in the morning, you are asking yourself: What do I do to help this particular population? And it’s really a good way of looking at it. And I think more and more Sac City and Sac State and both are making it the normal part of what we do. Right, not the additional extra work, you know that we think we ought to do that kind of thing? Yes, we think we ought to do it, and we need to do it all the time.

Wood: One-hundred percent. But as you know, there’s also challenges to getting the work done. There’s some limitations around the solutions, right? It’s not uncommon for some of the educators that we work with, not all, but some of them that have those deficit perspectives. It’s not uncommon to have challenges in the fact that we’re in bureaucratic organizations that are trying to operate for the public good, while at the same time adhering to significant state policies that go along with that, that can sometimes complicate our efforts. We’re in institutions that were historically founded, to serve demographics that are very different from what we currently serve. So we have to continue to readjust and reform and refine the work that we’re doing in order to be able to do that. 

We have a lot of, I would say, limitations and challenges around this work that we have to think through. We’re also in a budget crunch right at the state level. The state [has] billions of dollars in deficit. Of course, that has an impact on us and how we operate at the daily level. But even with those challenges, I see more opportunities. Even with those challenges, I see more educators who each and every day are committed to serving our students of color. For me, I think it’s the best possible time to be at a place like Sac City or Sacramento State, because we can really do some really good work that can truly transform lives, and create that upward socioeconomic mobility for our students.

Garcia: You talked about a deficit perspective. And I think it is, again, I think a lot about instruction, because that’s where I came from, right, I came from the classroom. I think a lot of times faculty may not know about equity and know about what’s right in terms of serving our students, all our populations of students, but they may be kind of stuck in inequality, perspective, meaning that the thought that if students come in the door, if I treat them the same as everybody else, that I’m doing my job, right, I treat everybody the same, I give everybody the same chance that I’m doing my job. 

A basic tenet of looking at equity and equity practices is that it’s different from equality. I think we still have that bridge to get over that some students are going to need more help, more assistance, more support. And that’s great. That’s our job to do that. So I think it takes time to overcome that. But it’s one of the things that we need to be looking at, but I sort of took the buzz off your positive message there at the end.

Wood: I mean, that’s just being real. I mean, the work is hard, right? And that’s why you got to continue to wake up in the morning with, why are you doing what you’re doing? What is it that is personally driving you to keep this work going? For me, personally, I’m a Black male. I’m a former foster youth or foster child, rather. I struggled with food and housing insecurities when I was in college. And I want to make sure that my students have the experience that I feel like I didn’t. That doesn’t mean that my experience was all bad, because it wasn’t. But there were certainly times when I needed support. And it wasn’t there. When I was in college, I [would] go two or three days at a time without eating. And so you can get validation from your faculty, but if you’re hungry, it’s hard to focus in class. So it’s about waking up every day to try to make sure that the students are getting what they deserve. Because these are students who too often they’ve been given false promises from people who don’t believe in them, who don’t think that they’re capable. We have to create an environment that instead extols their brilliance or dignity and their morality. And that takes looking introspectively at your own experience, and using that as a source of fuel and motivation to do the good work.

Garcia: Yeah, I completely agree. It’s really an honor to be working at a community college, such as Sacramento City College, and actually in partnership with Sac State. I think we create a higher ed ecosystem here that is really working on providing all the supports for students.

Wood: If you’re from a minoritized community or you have close proximity to it … what I tell folks, whether they’re going into leadership, or it’s a student who’s looking for what they want to do in their future, in terms of how you treat those experiences, you have to embrace them, you have to embrace the good experiences. And I would argue even more so the challenging ones, because they perfectly prepare you for the next step in your journey and your purpose in your role. I don’t think that if, from my background, if I hadn’t had the background that I have, I don’t think I could be as effective in doing this work. Personal experience does truly matter. And I think that they have to embrace those good and bad experiences.

Garcia: I would also say for someone who’s thinking about higher education, California community colleges are for you. It may not feel that way to you before you come to us, it may not even feel that way to you when you’re here with us all the time. But that really is why we’re here. Sacramento City College is here to help all students, regardless of the experiences you’ve had in high school, regardless of your ethnic background, or whatever background you happen to have. We have a lot of adult students over the age of 25 coming to us. … We really want to welcome them and for them to feel like they’re not going to be out of place here. …

Wood: If I were to close out, I’d like to give one word of advice for any potential prospective students who might be listening to this: Go to Sacramento City College, and when you’re done, transfer on over to Sacramento State.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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