April 2024

No Turning Back: Social Work’s J.E.D.I. Summit Advocates for DEI Amid Challenges

April 19, 2024    |  

Amid a national atmosphere increasingly hostile to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, the University of Maryland School of Social Works (UMSSW) inaugural J.E.D.I. Summit, held April 11, 2024, carried a powerful message of resilience and resistance.

This sentiment was accentuated by recent events surrounding the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, an event that sparked a flurry of derogatory comments against Mayor Brandon Scott, dubbing him the “DEI Mayor” in a pejorative context. These attacks, rooted in racism and a misunderstanding of DEI’s role in leadership, underscored the urgent need for continued advocacy and education, setting the backdrop for the summit’s discussions.

Attendees of the University of Maryland School of Social Work J.E.D.I. Summit listen intently as panelists discuss strategies for sustaining diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

Attendees of the University of Maryland School of Social Work J.E.D.I. Summit listen intently as panelists discuss strategies for sustaining diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

Illuminating the path forward for DEI initiatives under the theme “No Turning Back: Sustaining Progress Toward Equity and Inclusion,” the J.E.D.I. (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) event, a half-day filled with enlightening workshops and panels, provided a forum for discussing vital DEI strategies amid rising anti-DEI legislation and the growing inclination toward educational gag orders.

Keynote speaker Jeremy C. Young, a leader in combating censorship in education, set a formidable tone, highlighting the importance of resisting oppressive legislation that hinders academic freedom and stifles diverse voices in higher education. His insights drew from his extensive experience at Freedom to Learn PEN America, underscoring the imperative to maintain a free and inclusive academic environment. 

“We’re currently seeing bills that particularly ban certain types of speech from faculty on campus relating to race and gender identity in U.S. history and particular ideas within those areas,” Young said. “This is censorship that bans speech not based on some sort of abstract principle, but a particular viewpoint expressed in the speech which ultimately suppresses the voices of those in minority identity groups.” 

Moderated by Neijma Celestine-Donnor, JD, MSW, associate dean of DEI, UMSSW, the first panel delved into the complexities of defending and advancing DEI in the current climate. Panelist Tara Berrien, JD, assistant vice president of diversity and equal employment opportunity, Morgan State University, and Jasmine A. Lee, PhD, MSW, vice president of equity and inclusive excellence, Goucher College, shared insights into the daily battles faced by DEI practitioners.

Lee articulated the resistance to DEI with a compelling metaphor: “For those who have always held the entire pie, the idea of making space to share equitably can feel like a loss. But what we’re really talking about isn’t taking away — it’s correcting longstanding wrongs. This perceived loss is a significant part of the resistance we encounter.” 

The second panel, titled “Dialogue Not Debate: The Importance of Cultivating Courageous Conversations During Difficult Times,” led by Julia Scott, assistant director of EDI programs, UMSSW, underscored the transformative power of open, honest dialogues in creating inclusive spaces. Panelists, including Melissa Zieve, MSW, senior director, Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, discussed best practices for navigating challenging dialogues that foster connection and understanding across diverse groups. This panel emphasized how authentic conversations could transform professional and personal interactions, creating spaces where everyone feels valued and heard. 

The summit, resonating with the theme “No Turning Back,” served as a crucial platform for dialogue, strategy sharing, and a collective reaffirmation of the commitment to DEI in the face of growing adversities.

Echoing the resolve of the day, Celestine-Donnor remarked, “Let us defend our work by rooting it in the mission of our universities, in the missions of our disciplines, in our codes of ethics, and in what we do.”

This statement encapsulated the summit’s call to action: to persistently advocate for DEI, not as a separate agenda, but as an integral part of the very fabric of our educational institutions and professional practices. The collective message was clear — despite the challenges, the commitment to building a more equitable and inclusive society remains unwavering and essential.