I recently had the opportunity to represent NACAC at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE). Since 1988, this annual conference has served as the premier forum for members of the higher education community to discuss and work to create college campuses that are more equitable, accessible, and anti-racist.
NCORE was an incredibly valuable professional development opportunity. My participation in this conference helped affirm the importance of some of the work already underway at NACAC and sparked ideas for new avenues for advocacy. Here are some of the things that have kept me thinking in the weeks that have passed since the conference concluded.
The Intersection of Education and Mass Incarceration
Community colleges are too often ignored in conversations about higher education, despite serving more than one-third of all undergraduate students – more than half of which are students of color. I attended several sessions at NCORE that discussed the student-centered support being modeled at many of these colleges, including two sessions showcasing some impressive work serving formerly incarcerated or justice-impacted students. These sessions shared resources and lessons learned from programs built to support such students, including Project Change at College of San Mateo (CSM) and Opening Doors at Portland Community College (PCC).
As a member of NACAC’s government relations team, I’ve helped advocate for federal policies that would make higher education more accessible to these students. NACAC worked with US Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-HI) office on drafting the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, which would encourage colleges and universities to remove criminal and juvenile justice questions from their admission applications, and endorses Schatz’s REAL Act, which would reinstate federal Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. Like many of the challenges we face in higher education, it is important to take a “both/and” approach — both advocating for more equitable policies and providing on-the-ground services and resources within the existing parameters. It was made abundantly clear during my time at NCORE that educators and practitioners at places like CSM and PCC are doing their part.
Being a Better White Person
For those of you who haven’t met me or seen a picture of me, I have some news to share: I am white. In my view, it is the responsibility of white people to dismantle the barriers that we have created for people of color. We must take seriously our role in creating systems that are more equitable, accessible, and anti-racist — the precise goal, as I mentioned above, of NCORE. I attended a number of sessions that challenged me to think more deeply about how I benefit from the color of my skin (aka white privilege), the ongoing role of the ideology of white supremacy on our campuses and in our daily lives, and how I can continue to work toward being an anti-racist educator and professional. I walked away with a number of resources to check out, including works by Robin DiAngelo, Chris Crass, and many more. I invite my fellow white colleagues to join me in diving deep on these issues and exploring these resources.
Remedial Education as a Function of Institutional Racism
One of the most eye-opening sessions I attended was presented by Katie Hern, an instructor at Skyline College and co-founder and executive director of the California Acceleration Project (CAP). CAP’s work aims to reform remedial education across California’s community colleges in order to improve student outcomes. Hern shared a range of glaring statistics showing the ways in which remedial education disproportionately disadvantages African American and Latinx students, who are most likely to be misplaced in remedial courses. CAP encourages institutions to use a student’s high school grades—rather than standardized test scores—for placement. Hern shared stories of students like Andrés, who, based upon standardized test scores, would have been required to take four remedial math courses. But when placed directly into a credit-bearing math course due to strong grades as a high school student, Andrés earned an A. CAP experienced a celebration-worthy advocacy “win” in 2017 when a bill was passed requiring California community colleges to, among other provisions, use high school coursework, high school grades, and/or high school grade point average for English and math placement. Thousands of black and brown students in California will benefit from this legislation.
Honoring Native Traditions and Amplifying Native Voices
This year’s conference was held in Portland, Oregon — home to the nation’s ninth largest urban Native American and indigenous American population. NCORE honored this presence by hosting an official conference opening from the local Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, Cowlitz, and Chinook Indian Nation tribes on the conference’s opening day; beginning each conference session with a land acknowledgement; featuring a performance by Awakening Thunder; and hosting critically acclaimed author Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as one of the conference keynotes. Orange’s debut novel, There There, portrays the lives and experiences of Native Americans living in urban Oakland, CA — if this novel isn’t already on your summer reading list, I highly recommend adding it! Last year at #NACAC18, we hosted our first-ever land acknowledgement. The membership also passed a motion offered by the leader of our Native Indigenous Peoples Special Interest Group to include a land acknowledgement statement at the opening of every future NACAC conference.
NACAC has SIGs, NCORE has Caucuses
I attended a meet-up for the Enrollment Management Professionals Caucus, a group intended to provide admissions, financial aid, registrar, college counseling, and other enrollment management professionals at NCORE the opportunity to think critically about how race shapes our work. NACAC member Anthony Grant led the discussion, which served as a valuable opportunity for attendees to share wisdom and resources, think critically about ways to make our work more student-centered, and connect with colleagues. As Anthony points out, the EMPC voice is critical to NCORE and to the larger higher education community. “They need to hear about the work we do (e.g., shaping students’ college lists), the challenges we face (e.g., losing students to other institutions due to financial aid), the spaces we occupy and navigate (e.g., being the only person of color in an office), and our hopes for the future as the higher education landscape changes (e.g. creating pathways and access for underrepresented students).”
As you can see, NCORE has left me with plenty to think about and act on moving forward. If you ever have the opportunity to attend this conference, I highly recommend doing so!
Julie Kirk is NACAC’s government relations manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.