A Community in Progress

When it came time to get a photo for Reed’s website, Crystal Williams, Reed’s dean for institutional diversity, invited students, faculty, and staff members engaged in diversity efforts across campus to join her in representing this community endeavor. Photo by Leah Nash

Diversity and Inclusion at Reed

By Crystal Ann Williams
“Our learning is impoverished when we are in a homogeneous group of like-minded individuals who share the same kinds of experiences, beliefs, and aspirations.” 
—Tori Harding-Smith, president of Washington & Jefferson College
“Throughout its history, Reed College has been dedicated to the notion that liberal education must free us from the constraints of ignorance and intolerance and lack of mutual understanding. This is possible only if we learn from each other, and we learn best when we encounter and embrace differences: differences of culture, background, life experience, capacity, affinity group, and viewpoint. Diversity and inclusion have never been merely slogans or add-ons at Reed.” —Colin Diver, president emeritus, Reed College

Two weeks into classes in the fall of 2007, Anna Coleman [not her real name] found her way to my office.

Her multicolored hair was crashing into her face, and her hands moved anxiously from her lap to the desk and back as she sobbed over making “the biggest mistake” of her life. Reed was not for her. She felt acutely different, isolated, as if everyone was speaking another language—and everyone was wealthy! These were people unlike the people she loved and understood in her small, rural hometown in southern Oregon. She was here on significant financial aid; no one in her family had attended college, so she had no family member from whom to gain insight into how to integrate herself, much less thrive. She was not and would never be a Reedie, she declared, waving her arms and jamming a strand of hair behind her ear. She wanted to transfer out. But her financial aid package required that she remain at Reed for the rest of the semester. If she could just have one thing that made sense to her, something creative, until she could transfer to a different school, she’d be forever grateful. Please, please, would I admit her into my creative writing class? Please?!

So I admitted her—two weeks into the semester, something I almost never do—because I understood her despair. Differences between us abound. Most immediately, she is white and I am black. I am not the first in my family to graduate from college, or even the first in my family with a graduate degree. I was raised in urban environments, traveled extensively, and was a bilingual child. I am, for lack of a better phrase, the child of privilege. But during my academic career, I, too, have felt alienated, isolated, and as if I am “the only one,” which informs my deep respect for and appreciation of how valuable are the experiences, ideas, perceptions, and values of nondominant group members to any conversation, particularly the kind of conversations we engage in Reed’s venerable conference method.

In fact, Anna’s poetry continues to stand among the most powerful I have seen. Her ability and willingness to use the lenses of class, educational attainment, and geographic identity to create and investigate poetry deepened our conference discussions. She opened the door for all students to bring to the conference table their many lenses, experiences, and perceptions as valued and—importantly—openly identified components of the classroom endeavor.

I begin with a single student’s story for two reasons: (1) because like many students, staff, and faculty, Anna’s Reed experience was shaped by multiple conjoined identities that informed her sense of belonging, possibility, and her own capacity to thrive; and (2) I believe an individual’s success is inextricably linked to her or his community’s support. And at Reed, the Honor Principle overtly charges us with the care and welfare of our fellow community members. Indeed, as a professor, I have found time and again that our students have an exquisite penchant for looking after their peers that extends into the classroom, where I have watched them be generous beyond words with each other’s poetry, ways of thinking, modes of expression, and passions. Perhaps I have seen this development of community more acutely because of the nature of the courses I teach. But I don’t think so. The mother of a former student once told me that what she most admired about Reed is the profound “presence” or attentiveness everyone exhibited towards her child. This attentiveness is a rarity in higher education and something most Reed community members value. 

But that profound attentiveness is not just fashioned upon individuals. We also interrogate intensely, sometimes tenaciously, the very philosophies, rules, and traditions by which we coexist. The emphasis on creating a community as something with which each of us is charged is so strong that it should come as no surprise that the goals of inclusion and diversity have largely been driven by students, staff, and faculty.

In 2008, students drafted a preliminary version of the Reed College Diversity Statement because they believed that the college needed to articulate a formal position on the importance of diversity in relation to Reed’s institutional values. As with most endeavors of such import at Reed, the development of the statement was a robust community affair—at varying sta-ges it was edited and/or reviewed by the student senate, the student body (via the Quest and public forums), the community affairs committee, the committee on diversity, the faculty, and finally, the board of trustees—and was adopted in November 2009.  In part it reads:

“Reed College is a community dedicated to serious and open intellectual inquiry, one in which students, faculty, and staff can fully participate, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, socio-economic status, or disabilities. Reed embraces the inherent value of diversity. It is committed to attracting the best and brightest from every group, including those who have historically experienced discrimination and prejudice, for it recognizes that dialogue between people with different perspectives, values, and backgrounds enhances the possibilities for serious intellectual inquiry. The College is also committed to creating an environment that respects the dignity and civil rights of all persons, particularly those from groups that have experienced discrimination and persecution, for it recognizes that intolerance and prejudice diminish those possibilities.”

In 2011, Reed created an Office for Institutional Diversity with two central missions: to oversee the college’s commitment to being a diverse and inclusive environment for learning, teaching, and working; and to ensure that all aspects of college life reflect the fundamental principles of openness and equality espoused in the college’s founding documents, which over the years have been broadened to include people of many protected classes.