June 26, 2019

Building a More Diverse brightspot Team

brightspot Culture

by Elliot Felix

A More Engaging and Equitable Student Experience

At brightspot, we’re committed to making the student experience more engaging and more equitable. We’re working at the intersection of people, programs, and places to do this by enabling active learning, creating seamless student services, supporting purpose-driven student projects, and fostering more connected communities.

Making this happen means doing the work with our clients and partners to fulfill this mission. These are the clients who have diverse student bodies, see themselves as agents of opportunity, and are tackling retention and completion issues head-on to enable student success.

It also means doing the work internally to build a more diverse and inclusive team of brightspotters – and doing so in a way grows from our existing culture, reflects on who we are, identifies our biases and flaws, helps us work together to address them, and recruits future brightspotters who share this commitment and can join us to better fulfill our mission because of their passions, identities, and backgrounds.

How We Are Working With Our Client Partners

We are working on projects with institutions that are committed to access, equity, and excellence; for instance, in addition to several recent projects with innovative community colleges, we have worked with six of the ten selective institutions admitting the most low-income students, including UCLA, Emory University, Barnard College, NYU, University of Miami, and MIT.

We’re using an inclusive, participatory process to understand the current state, envision an ideal future, and understand how programs, people, and places have to change to get there. We’re also using strategies that have been proven to help all students and help low income students, first-generation students, and students of color even more.

Some of the highlights of this external work include:

  • We worked with a public research university to understand the root causes of low retention in STEM disciplines among students of color. Through on-campus interviews and workshops as well as a literature review uncovering insights like Uri Treisman’s landmark study at Berkeley in 1985, we identified a downward spiral from “I can’t find support” to “I can’t find community” to “I can’t make mistakes” to “I don’t value my degree.”
  • We worked with SUNY Fredonia – a campus that is 30% first-generation students and 33% students of color – to better enable student success by understanding how students define success and what they actually need, what services the university should offer to meet those needs, how to offer them, and how to reorganize staff and spaces to better offer them.
  • We worked with Normandale Community College to rethink their student services building with HGA Architects. Normandale wanted a new service model to help students navigate better, and we observed there was no “there” there – between classes, students mostly work in hallways or in their cars. So, we are establishing a flexible common area that will mix study, peer tutoring, informal advising, and socializing and then surround this by shared student support services that will meet students where they are and reduce the stigma of getting help.
  • We worked with Central Piedmont Community College to create a library and student success center with Morris Berg Architects and Moody Nolan Architects that will provide a diverse range of services and spaces to meet the needs of all students. Rather than just focus on so-called “traditional students” who are 18 to 22 year-olds studying during the day, this included thinking through the needs of students who need access online and in evenings as well as parents who need places to study that also accommodate their children.
  • We are working with Virginia Commonwealth University – a top urban, public research university that just enrolled its first class where students of color are the majority – to create a strategic plan for their Institute for Contemporary Art. Through our discussions, we’ve honed in on the role the ICA can play in using contemporary art exhibitions and programs to enable a more just future in a racially-charged context.

As we work with a variety of universities to rethink and integrate their student services, we are working to rethink the two false assumptions behind the design of so many services: first, that students will know what services are available to help them and second, that they’ll feel able and entitled to use them. Using brightspot’s “I know / I can” 2 x 2 grid, we can also curtail the runaround students get as they get career advice, chose their classes, pay for school, get academic help, seek emotional support, or work on a project.

How We Are Working Internally on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

To better fulfill our mission, better relate to today’s students, and better reflect the student communities we serve, brightspot is committed to increasing the diversity of our team in terms of race and background.

We are starting by reflecting on who we are, what we do, how we do it, and recognizing our limitations, biases, and flaws. Then we’re working to address those gaps so that as we recruit a more diverse team, we are all set up to succeed. Some of the highlights of this internal work include:

  • We devoted one of our quarterly learning days last year to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We used this time as a hack-a-thon to reflect on our process through the lens of inclusion and identified strengths and weaknesses; for instance, we already design workshops for diversity such as enabling introverts to participate and we already meet people where they are through intercept interviews, but we recognized the need to meet with different student groups in their own spaces.
  • We’ve been refining our consulting process to be more inclusive; for example, we recognize that we are primarily reaching those students who are available and feel empowered to participate, and so we need to do more to reach others. On all our recent projects, we’ve built into the process doing the outreach work to ensure that a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff – by gender, race, background, age, and discipline – are invited to workshops but we also to ensure that our activities and facilitation help people feel included and be heard. These general sessions are complemented by focused sessions meeting with different student groups in their own spaces.
  • We are reflecting on our organizational culture and values so that our progress in building a team that better understands and better reflects the students evolves from our culture, rather than is treated as an add-on. Here brightspot’s values provide a great foundation: “Care about each other, clients, and impact. Be helpful and resourceful. Stay curious. Hustle and Adapt. Play in Intersections, Grow and change together.” Beyond better understanding and representation, we know this will lead to better ideas and better performance so we can increase our impact.
  • We are building on the aspects of our business in which we are already leading by example. We have a transparent operating model in which we share our financials, discussions, and decisions. We are committed to learning and development and have offered coaching to employees from day one. We have a transparent salary ladder to ensure our compensation is equitable. Our team is mostly women, including in leadership roles. We have an external advisory board to hold us accountable.
  • We are auditing our communications, symbols, and space for issues like unconscious bias. For instance, one thing we quickly realized is that the “wall of fame” in our office of inspirational figures like Andrew Carnegie, Jane Jacobs, Lynn Shostack, and William Whyte lacked any people of color. So, we are redoing this wall to make our commitment visible and add people such as S. R. Ranganathan, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Shirley Ann Jackson.
  • We are creating a student advisory council this summer that will complement our existing advisory board. The Council will be a diverse group of students in terms of background, race, and perspective who we’ll compensate and then consult with and convene a couple times a year to give us feedback and advice on our approach to working with students, topics for us to address (e.g., active learning), and the values we bring to our work (e.g., designing from the user perspective)
  • With this foundation laid, in the fall, we’ll be engaging a learning and development consultant to facilitate sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion for our team. Through these activities we will create common language, gain a shared understanding of systemic inequities, increase our self-awareness as individuals and as a team, identify our systems/policies/processes that need to be changed, and create action plans to reinforce our lessons learned. We imagine this will not only confirm things we know we need to work on, but also reveal blind spots that we weren’t aware of.

We’ll be sharing our progress as we go. So, watch this space for updates and join us in making the student experience more engaging and effective for all students.

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