Diversity Within and Between People: A Perspective on Diversity Efforts, Campus Climate and Inclusion by Karla A. Bell

Karla A. Bell, Associate Director of Clinical Education, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy, University of Delaware

Karla A. Bell,
Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy,
Associate Director of Clinical Education,
University of Delaware

Welcome back to the Center for the Study of Diversity Blog.  We have been on hiatus but are excited to renew our postings on diversity matters. The guiding premise for the CSD blog is promoting better understanding of diversity as a compelling interest and a complex dynamic in higher education and in U.S. society.  Now more than ever, diversity is both compelling and contentious. We welcome guest bloggers who provide scholarly analyses of diversity issues, from any responsible perspective.  Postings undoubtedly express opinions but this site is not meant solely as an opinion site, but as a research-based examination of diversity. Today our guest blogger is Karla A. Bell, Associate Director of Clinical Education and Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Delaware. She serves as Co-Chair of United Way of DE’s state LGBTQ Health Equity Task force and of University of Delaware’s LGBTQ Caucus. She lectures and presents/facilitates discussions around LGBTQ culturally competent health care and health disparity/equity at the local, state, and national levels.  Her post argues for the significant and salient benefits of taking an intersectionality approach to social identities—namely, the need for universities to examine their structures and (non)inclusive approaches to inclusivity.


2016 has already broken boundaries and history regarding “exclusion” and “inequality” of some marginalized populations within the United States including race, sexual orientation, and gender minority groups to name a few. We’re all intersectional human beings, that is to say, we are all complex and multi-identified beings existing within the realm of how society has chosen to define most parts of identify. Each one of our identities brings something to the table, as does the relationship between them, thus the intersection emphasis. This piece provides a voice to what campus climate inclusivity looks like from an intersectional perspective. Our campuses help build productive and, hopefully, better citizens that interconnect in immeasurable ways across this globe. Our campuses offer an opportunity to their communities that is unlike most other places in this country: an opportunity to model, teach, and engage in the richness and promise of why a diverse citizenship is the strongest foundation for society. However, I ask whether our higher education institutions are living up to this unparalleled opportunity they have. Gallup’s recent survey of over 30,000 students revealed that the majority of them attached more value to their degrees if they felt their campuses were truly more diverse .1 Diversity = value-added!

In a 2013 blog post, CSD Director James Jones articulated the “diversity = value-added” proposition by showing that the research strongly supports “the value of diversity in higher education through promoting better citizenship, improved intergroup understanding, expanded cognitive and perspective diversity, and enhanced institutional relevance and visions of the future.” 2 I’d like to expand that conversation to include why taking an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion (D & I) efforts best match the current and future landscape of our nation and the world. To briefly explain, taking an intersectional approach would help us ensure that we don’t continue to overlook the challenges that exist for people belonging to multiple marginalized groups because it allows contextualization of each group membership and the relationships between them. Intersectionality is a tool for analyzing and understanding the ways in which various identities relate to each other and how these relationships contribute to unique experiences of oppression and privilege; this leads to a more informed responses in seeking solutions.

A snapshot of 2016 thus far provides a running list to explain the rising tide of societal upset. For purposes of this blog post, a limited and selective list still highlights some of the most impactful areas that affect campus climate:

  • The first female Presidential nominee ever in U.S. history,
  • The 2016 President-elect who has been categorized by some as one of the most racist, xenophobic, misogynist President-elects in history.
  • The record number of hate crimes logged
  • ~437 reported hateful discrimination and harassment incidents in 7 days post 2016 Presidential election (Southern Poverty Law Center)
  • The Orlando Pulse nightclub LGBT hate crime – labeled the worst mass attack on U.S. soil since 9/11,
  • The heightened racial climate with law enforcement and the treatment of the black community,
  • The Black Lives Matter movement,
  • A record number of anti-LGBT legislation introduced in our country,
  • The political revolution of Bernie Sanders,
  • The continued murders in the transgender community,
  • The greatest socioeconomic divide in our country’s history
  • Heightened xenophobia, especially toward Muslims

Higher education is scrambling to process and help build an overall sense of solidarity, safety, and respect within campus walls. As we do so, I advocate strongly for a foundation of intersectional understanding and acknowledgement toward the complexity of diversity. Traditional approaches to D & I efforts have taken either a Unitary or Multiple approach to difference. The former focuses on one factor of difference as sufficient to characterize or explain a situation whereas the latter takes into account multiple differences and factors, but doesn’t explore the relationships that exist between them. Traditional D & I efforts force one to choose between/among identities and, thus, privilege one identity over another. Building effective D & I efforts needs to include re-evaluating and addressing where past frameworks have fallen short, as well as offering up better contextualized interpretations: intersectionality.

Legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in her 1989 essay, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.3 While Crenshaw coined the term for addressing the challenges of immigrant women of color, it has now been embraced to help frame multiple social identities and the very relationships that often get overlooked in traditional D & I efforts, education, and research. Intersectionality is the diversity within and between people, it is the richness that gets lost when we try to grasp and rationalize reasons for why something happens in discrimination and oppression. For example, taking an intersectional lens to looking at some of today’s societal occurrences would be eye-opening:

  • the closing of women’s health clinics and the fight for reproductive justice disproportionately affects lower income women of color (two intersections),
  • health disparity research identifying more population health findings specific to multiple intersections (older adult, lesbian, African American women) could be significant in the hunt for health equity
  • looking at student retention and success strategies specific to the individualized needs and environment of gay African American men at HBCU or of male Latinos with physical disabilities would help contextualize the unique cultural challenges faced for these student populations

These examples highlight the focus of looking at the interplay and effects of each identity on the others, whereas, traditional D & I efforts may highlight the gender discrimination, but not the socioeconomic influence; or the aging health disparities and not the multiple concurrent influences of race, gender, and sexual orientation; or the student retention and success of African American men or Latino men but lose the confounding cultural influence of the sexual orientation and/or disability intersections. The Intersectional theoretical framework brings D & I efforts one step closer to appreciation of humanity through understanding the relationships that occur among all of ones’ identities’ concurrently (e.g. race/ethnicity, gender, class, Indigeneity, sexuality, geography, age, disability/ability, migration status, religion). In other words, as a Caucasian, lesbian, married, female 45-year-old, I exist as a Caucasian AND lesbian AND married AND female AND 45-year-old all at once. The paradigm of intersectional diversity is both/and, not either/or!  As diversity scholars, we can see the beauty in this framework, because acknowledging the relationships between identities allows us to engage in deeper and more meaningful efforts for inclusion. These relationships occur within all connected systems and structures of power. Here is where we allow discovery and collaborative solutions around privilege and oppression, because we have respectfully acknowledged not only all of the social constructs that exist, but have also started to allow full appreciation of coexistence and interactional effects.

2016 is a year of metaphorical explosion in our nation in regard to social justice and divide in the media, both in words and in actions. Just since the Presidential election in Nov. 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education has started a tracker for daily campus climate incidents regarding discrimination and harassment. As of Nov. 18th 2016, over 30 campuses across the country have been discussed on this tracker. The recent Pew Research Center demographic trend data shows the highest divide in Americans’ identity-based thinking and partisanship that results in far more than just political discourse; it has resulted in outward disapproval of others’ beliefs, patriotism, motives, and much more. 10 Our campuses bring together aspiring intellectuals looking for answers, thirsting for knowledge, and also seeking safety and a sense of belonging. Should we be taking a deeper dive into the connectedness that each person brings with them to help identify solutions? Should we be encouraging more campus spaces and activities that help celebrate humankind in all of its complexities without isolating and prioritizing identities? We should be modeling ways to engage in respectful discourse and conversation around differences in beliefs / values and expression of those beliefs / values.  With the thousands of events that occur on our campuses, we’re certainly not going to like or agree with some of them, so how do we capture that learning moment? I believe we start by looking at the intersections and the bigger picture the issue illuminates.

Our campus makeup: we have the ever increasing Millennial workforce and student body. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, with nearly 40 percent of Millennials belonging to a non-white race or ethnicity.5 Millennials will also make up nearly 75% of our workforce by 2025, which expands the complexity of D & I efforts to every facet of the American landscape. In essence, this has actually benefitted the advocacy argument for moving toward an intersectional approach to D & I efforts because Millennials are generally more focused on being valued for their “whole” self – for all of their identities, and have really devalued the compartmentalization and separation of identity distinctions and categories.6

That brings me to a couple of the specific social identities that have traditionally been some of the most marginalized in population health research and data efforts, as well as in campus efforts for inclusion: our sexual and gender minorities. There is no national data regarding sexual orientation and gender identity diversity numbers because this information is not standardly collected. In their report for Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, Kelly and Smith eloquently title the piece with a question: “What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?”6 That is the approach I want to add to this blog: the intersections of sexual and gender minority with the other concurrent intersections that have gathered more traction in data collection and D & I efforts like race, ethnicity, age.

The beauty of bringing the intersectional lens to our campus D & I efforts lies in one of its core principles: its focus on historically marginalized groups (such as LGBT, lower socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, disability status) as intersecting identities. Because this is the lens in which everything starts, then our efforts and research can examine these populations from their perspectives and contexts and not the other way around. As my field is healthcare, and I’m versed in the LGBT health disparity realm, I know this concept has been populated in medical and public health research over the last decade. This lens opens up the door for a greater appreciation for some of the intersectional invisibilities that exist on our campuses.

Arguably, student retention is multi-faceted, and we know campus climate plays a role. This is even more important for our marginalized student groups. Unfortunately, as I write this blog, the data collection efforts for our LGBT students, faculty, staff is still substandard at best, which perpetuates the invisibility of how these intersections relate with others. Windmeyer, Humphrey, and Barker detailed out the criticality of including sexual orientation and gender identity in demographic data of our students, linking it directly to academic success, retention, and campus climate research.7 The Campus Pride Index is the only nationally recognized LGBTQ campus climate survey that provides comparative data. Using the 2015 Campus Pride Index data that University of Delaware completed, we show that UD scores a 57% overall for campus climate considered inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. Some of the lowest scores came in the areas of recruitment/retention, academic support, and institutional commitment.11 These students, faculty, and staff deserve the consideration of how their intersections play a role in campus life, in academic success, and in retention. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force revealed that 20% of LGBTQ faculty/staff members and students reported they feared for their physical safety on campus and 43% categorize their campus as homophobic.8  These intersections matter.

Utilization of Intersectionality will most definitely require our campuses to critically re-examine the existing structures and diversity networks with the core question of whether they are “paradoxically non-inclusive”. Why have our diversity efforts stalled; have they stalled because they’re one-dimensional? Are we truly looking deep enough into the strength of the intersections of diversity identities for the answers? Are we trying to fully appreciate that, just because individuals share common social identities (e.g. gay, black, lower socioeconomic status, veterans), doesn’t mean they have the same interests because their lived experiences and other identities define their personal values? Our research, educational, and support frameworks for D & I efforts should aim to complete the picture of economic, social, political, cultural experiences better than our past efforts.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer some thoughts on “doing intersectionality” Based on the literature, some useful suggestions follow: 12,13

  • For an intersectional analysis to be useful, it has to be informed by the experiences and views of multiple identities (i.e.: if looking at race studies, include people of color with full diversity of identities: black, gay male; black heterosexual transgender female, etc.)
  • Utilize a different framework of questions when approaching research or program set-up:
    • In the community/region that you’re looking at, which forms of identity are critical organizing principles beyond the prime identity you’re looking to address (i.e.: beyond gender, look at race, class, sexual orientation, etc.)?
    • Within the prime focus of your research or efforts, which are the most marginalized and why (i.e.: who are the most marginalized in a group of men and women?)
    • Reframe your questions: instead of looking at what initiatives would address one group of people, ask which initiatives would address the needs of the most marginalized or discriminated groups within that prime group.
    • When looking at resources available on campus, which initiatives would benefit the most marginalized groups, and are they really included in your D & I action plans beyond including the group in your inclusion definitions?
    • Which groups have the best public representation, and which groups have the least public representation on campus and how can that improve?

Our students and our colleagues on our campuses deserve our best efforts to challenge the status quo and do “intersectionality well”9Diversity = value-added!


  1. Vollman A. Exposure to Diversity Adds Value to College Degree, Poll Shows. Accessed 8/24/16 at http://www.insightintodiversity.com/exposure-to-diversity-adds-value-to-college-degree-poll-shows/
  2. Jones JM. Diversity adds Value in Selective Universities. 2013. Accessed 8/1/16 at https://sites.udel.edu/csd/
  3. Crenshaw, K. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review: 43(6) July 1991, pp 1241-1299.
  4. Adewunmi B. Kimberle Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use”. 4/2/2014. Accessed 8/1/16 at http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
  5. Pew Research Center, Millennials: A portrait of generation next: Confident. Connected. Open to change, February 2010, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/millennialsconfident-connected-open-to-change.pdf.
  6. Kelly SK, Smith C. “What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?” December 11, 2014. Accessed on 8/23/16 at http://dupress.com/articles/multidimensional-diversity/?icid=hp:ft:01
  7. Windmeyer, S. L., Humphrey, K., & Baker, D. (2013). An institutional responsibility: Tracking retention and academic success of out LGBT students. American College Personnel Association. Retrieved from http://www.myacpa.org/article/institutional-responsibilitytracking-retention-academic-success-out-lgbt-students
  8. Rankin, Susan R. (2003). Campus Climate for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People: A National Perspective. New York: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. ngltf.org
  9. Mitchell, D., Jr. (2016, May 31). How to start a revolution: Use intersectionality as a framework to promote student success [Web log post]. Available at http://videos.myacpa.org/how-to-start-a-revolution-by-donald-mitchell
  10. Taylor P. (2016, Jan 27). The demographic trends shaping American politics in 2016 and beyond. Pew Research Center. Accessed on 9.30.16 at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/27/the-demographic-trends-shaping-american-politics-in-2016-and-beyond/
  11. Campus Pride: University of Delaware 2015 Campus Pride Index Report.
  12. A. Aylward, “Intersectionality: Crossing the Theoretical and Praxis Divide” (Paper Distributed at Transforming Women’s Future: Equality Rights in the New Century: A National Forum on Equality Rights presented by West Coast Leaf, 4 November 1999) [unpublished].
  13. Symington A. Intersectionality: A Tool for Gender and Economic Justice. Women’s Rights and Economic Change: No. 9. Accessed on November 20, 2016 at https://lgbtq.unc.edu/sites/lgbtq.unc.edu/files/documents/intersectionality_en.pdf.
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