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Welcome letter from the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion

Welcome to the Division for Equity and Inclusion at the University of New Mexico!

In the era of protests against the excessive use of force by law enforcement and the murder of countless unarmed Black, Indigenous, and trans people like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Toni McDade, Corey Kanosh, and Kayden Clarke, students have been vocal about their desire to create a more inclusive and equitable culture within their academic programs.

Movements such as White Coats for Black (and Indigenous) Lives, #ScholarStrike for Racial Justice, #StrikeForBlackLives, and #ShutDownSTEM have brought attention to the fact that western scholarship and teaching have often disempowered marginalized populations. For example, these movements have coalesced like-minded graduate students who are interested in challenging traditional curricula, epistemologies, and research methodologies. Such students seek to promote greater institutional reflexivity. As emerging scholars they embrace the challenge to reconceptualize their roles in all aspects of the academic enterprise, and reorient toward person-centered and culturally sensitive research and teaching.

The desire to rethink curricula from a social justice lens accompanies students’ demands for a change in culture and greater institutional accountability for racial justice. Many students seek sciences in service of humanity and that honors BIPOC communities. These concerns are especially relevant here at the University of New Mexico, and the like with federal designations as Minority Serving Institutions. At UNM designated as a Latinx/Hispanic-Serving Institution, and with a Native American-Serving Campus, recognized as both an LGBTQIA and Military Associated-student friendly university, where large numbers of students are first-generation college and where 20% of students were both housing and food insecure in 2021, students are keenly aware that they do not learn in an ivory tower. Scholarship for the sake of science itself, and to create a greater knowledge base in a vacuum, defies many students’ sense of urgency to give back to their communities. It is important for many UNM students, as articulated by Canadian feminist sociologist, Dorothy Smith, to create a science for the people, and in service of the many communities from which our students emanate.

It is these concerns that orient my work as UNM’s Vice President for Equity and Inclusion. Creating an environment that honors the cultural wealth of our students’ communities, centers them and their traditions, embraces diversity of thought and learning styles, encourages students’ pursuit of nontraditional topics of inquiry, and supports all theoretical perspectives, including those that utilize critical race, gender, and other decolonial approaches, is a way of enacting the culturally responsive pedagogy many students desire today.

We clamor to move beyond what should be the bygone era, in which measures of academic preparedness and various academic milestones mainly serve gatekeeping functions, making it difficult, especially for BIPOC, persons with disabilities, first-generation college graduates, women, LGBTQIA, and other minoritized students to be successful.

Finally, in order to assemble the right teams of young and early career intellectuals, scholars, and artists, it is finally time to imagine something new together. This is our only route to the type of inclusive excellence that will help us to collectively answer the essential and existential questions of humanity. I look forward to joining you in this journey.

So how do we create antiracist education and build institutions that intentionally center the success and wellbeing of those groups who comprise our growing American majority? How do we move beyond performative allyship to really become champions for racial justice at UNM? In this website, we share our plan for justice, equity, accessibility, diversity and inclusion (JEADI) at UNM. We offer practical steps that we are pursuing at UNM, led by our President, Garnett S. Stokes, and supported by the Division for Equity and Inclusion and our many collaborators and partners in liberation at UNM. We hope to see you in one of our shared virtual spaces and on the quad soon!

Assata Zerai, Ph.D.
Vice President for Equity and Inclusion
Professor of Sociology
University of New Mexico
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