Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Q&A with Northern Illinois University’s Jocelyn Santana and Jane Pappas

In the current cultural climate, the focus on universities to continue to push diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives has never been more relevant. Northern Illinois University has been at the forefront of instituting diversity initiatives through its Conversations on Diversity + Equity (CODE) program. To learn more about how Northern Illinois is addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-police protests, and other public action, The Bulletin spoke with Jocelyn Santana (she/her/hers), director for social justice education, and Jane Pappas (they/them/theirs), assistant director for social justice education.

Last year the two of you co-wrote an article for The Bulletin about implementation of the Conversations on Diversity + Equity program. How has the CODE program grown since then, especially in the past month? Have other universities adopted their own version of CODE?


CODE was a revamp of a NIU program called Dialogue on Diversity. When I came into the program as a training diversity specialist, the program had served 600 participants, including students, staff, faculty, and student organizations. Within my first year, we saw roughly 1,200 participants engaged. Then the following year we had about a 38% increase with around 1,800 participants. And then the next year we saw about 2,400 participants. This year, we are nearly at 4,000 participants. NIU’s community participation speaks to our commitment to this work.

We have university and strategic enrollment management goals to have 100% of our first-year students complete cultural competence education. In addition, the university established a goal to have 30% of our faculty and staff complete cultural competence education. That also attributed to the spike in our growth.

To accomplish our institutional goals, we partnered with our First Year English Composition Program and our First Year University Program to coordinate and facilitate dialogue with the students using the common read experience book. Due to our strong partnerships, we were able to engage with nearly 1,500 first-year students to help them hone in on their skills and learn how to communicate across differences. The workshop allows them to practice skills, discuss uncomfortable topics and communicate when different perspectives exist. We recognize that uncomfortable conversations can be difficult, and we encouraged our students to engage in that inclusive dialogue for their development.

Aside from the student work component, we also have a CODE Institute. This is a two-day program to coach and support faculty, staff, and graduate students who are interested in doing diversity work. The institute prepares participants who may need to spend time understanding and unpacking oppression and privilege along with other foundational competencies, and discuss that with larger campus communities. In addition, participants gain skills to support DEI initiatives. We have also had outside campus partners join us, and they have taken this model and have applied some of these concepts at their institutions in addition to participating in the Institute.

How can higher education institutions prepare for student-led protesting? How can they also prepare for DEI initiatives in the Fall, both in-person and virtually?


Communication and evaluation of policies are really important. In previous years, NIU did a lot of work with freedom of expression and free speech. The institution worked on understanding the free speech policy, as well as adjusting and communicating the policy to our campus community. We also worked with the city to make sure that our students are protected during demonstrations. Our campus police are aware of any protests and are present to support our protesters and keep them safe. Dialogue needs to take place to ensure protest spaces are supported.

Institutions also need to proactively address programming efforts. It is important that everybody is engaged in examining themselves, raising awareness, learning how to identify and dismantle systemic oppression, and learning to be actors, allies, and/or accomplices. Therefore, programming should be leading conversations around these topics.

Examining spaces, especially as we move online, is important to foster and create inclusive learning environments for students. Students should feel seen, recognized, and respected. Therefore, programming efforts should actively work to eliminate biases, microaggressions, privilege, and power, to ensure that campus communities are accessible, equitable, and actively removing barriers. Examples of this can include raising consciousness of pronoun usage, providing guidelines to building community, and having healthy conversations about differences.


Whenever you have a broader national context around social justice, colleges become a hot spot for that discussion, and student protests have historically been the way those ideas are expressed. In terms of programming at Northern Illinois, we’re thinking about ways that the institution and we can prepare. We’ve created a podcast considering the national Black Lives Matter movement in conjunction with COVID-19 modifications. The podcast will run for 12 weeks in the fall, and is tied to the book When They Call You a Terrorist, which is a memoir about Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. The podcast will discuss the origins of this movement as we’re seeing it today, and it will hopefully provide a framework for faculty, staff, and students to gain insight from the founder’s experiences. We’re also going to feature some experts from the campus community to get their perspectives on the overarching themes found in the book.

We’re also going to incorporate self-reflection opportunities. A large part of a productive and long-lasting social justice movement is being able to reflect on where an individual may be contributing to these systems of power and oppression. We’re going to provide opportunities for folks to listen to the podcast, have conversations, and then answer questions that will prompt them to do some deeper self-reflection and action on these topics.

What changes have you seen in higher education administration on diversity policies and actions since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests? And what do you ultimately hope to see change?


First, I want to recognize that initiatives truly need to be supported at the senior level of administration. I also want to give space for the importance of faculty involvement and partnership in fostering classroom spaces that actively examine equity and inclusion. Finally, staff across the institution are vital to cultivating change. Coordinating these efforts is critical in order to identify what’s being done already and what gaps need to be filled. We should be asking questions such as, how are we onboarding our staff? How do we communicate our values as an institution in terms of DEI? How do we hold ourselves accountable?

In wanting to gain competency and understanding, we have seen an increase in institutional engagement in social justice work. For example, I have seen institutions break silos across the country by pulling together and having open thinking sessions to share ideas, programming efforts, and encouraging one another. The primary focus of these sessions is to ensure that every institution is doing its best for their students. In addition, we have seen a surge of free, accessible webinars being provided to increase education and knowledge. Recently, there were more than 1,000 participants nationally for a webinar on the Allyship Identity Model hosted by Keith E. Edwards. Also, institutions such as the University of Illinois have offered free courses on relevant topics with options for obtaining a certificate in DEI. I was recently invited by a group of black cultural center directors to engage in dialogue about creating training and education programs. We’re seeing a lot more national discussion happening and we need to impact change. This happens through programming, and by examining our policies and our practices to identify any institutional inequities, oppression, and barriers for our students.

In what ways can a university address requests, changes or removals for campus statues, building and street names, and other property?


First is constructing a policy and understanding what potential markers or artifacts are oppressive at the institution. Universities need to be proactive. It shouldn’t take the students coming back on campus for these actions to be taken. It’s up to the institution to ensure that they are being culturally responsive and sensitive about those artifacts. The worst thing that an institution can do is be silent. You want to do what’s right.


I think an institutional response needs to be specific enough to their community so that people feel heard and seen. There’s a trend in higher education to put out a response like, “We condemn racism,” and then not have any significant follow-through. Whatever you put out needs to be specific enough to say, “We recognize this is a problem. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.”

I think that there is a fear of coming on too strong. But with students coming back, there needs to be accountability for institutions. They need to step up and meet the needs of their students. You have to be able to adapt and recognize that there is a larger movement happening, and institutions will need to be a part in a meaningful way.

Additionally, in what ways can a university address requests to limit or sever ties with local police departments?


It’s important for universities to educate themselves on the narrative across the country. What does defund the police mean? How does a university respond to that request? Defunding or removing the police is not a new concept, and there is a lot of research that exists for universities to learn more about this demand. Enhancing community services and counseling is key to successful reallocation of resources. Students will look for actionable items that will improve the experiences of individuals coming from marginalized communities or who have marginalized identities.

A few strategies that universities can do include holding town halls to determine and understand your students’ needs, concerns, and experiences with policing. Consider restorative justice practices in policing and in student conduct. If severing ties isn’t possible, taking actionable steps like ensuring police departments are trained on de-escalation. There should also be a bias incident reporting website to file complaints. This makes it so that you can document information and send it to the appropriate entity and set up layers of accountability. Ultimately, encourage dialogue with your local police on racial sensitivity and collaboration. The goal here is to ensure that instances of harm, discrimination, and profiling are eradicated.


Even if an institution did come out and say, “We’re going to get rid of our police force,” or work to sever ties with the local police force, that’s not something that happens immediately. These conversations are going to be happening over a span of time. In the meantime, it’s important for campus police, both as individuals and as departments to take the time to increase their own cultural competency. Make sure they’re not going to harm people and make it clear and very transparent to the community. They need to be willing to put in the work, and then show that to the community in an authentic and honest way.

For police, spend your time and energy on educating yourself on social justice and be willing to have those conversations as officers and as a police force. If it comes from anybody else, it might seem inauthentic and not like a real effort. 


When a relationship is harmed, it is important that the person that caused the harm rebuilds the trust. In this case, it may not be a person, but a system. This means that the responsibility of rebuilding trust with a campus community lies with the campus police and security officers. 

How do you think student unions and centers can promote DEI? 


ACUI is currently hosting a book club where many student union professionals are engaging in meaningful dialogue about ourselves as potential oppressors. It is my recommendation that student unions and centers conduct staff meetings and discuss the three dimensional oppression matrix by Rita Hardiman and Bailey M. Jackson (2015) to unpack what it means to contend with oppression at the individual, institutional, and societal levels, both unconsciously and consciously by assessing held values, beliefs, and attitudes. In doing this, student unions and centers can take the next step forward to critically examine policies and practices that may be oppressive in nature and inequitable. An inclusive and equitable experience is important and finding ways to adjust and address those oppressive barriers is just as critical as investing time in the programming. If we don’t check ourselves, then all we’re doing is responding to programming without actually having systemic change.

Listen to your students; town halls are an effective tool. Students are engaging and they want to hear from their institutions, and the response needs to be authentic and actionable.


Change can come from looking around your student union and places where your students congregate to see what and who are being represented in your spaces. For example, if you have a racially diverse campus, but you’re only seeing pictures of one dominant group in your student center, that’s not going to make a student have a sense of belonging there. For big policy changes, it is important to look at where we are either consciously or unconsciously acting as the oppressor. What message are you sending to your students?

Note: Due to COVID-19, the CODE Institute has moved to an online platform that will run for six weeks. If you would like to register, please contact Santana directly at jsantana@niu.edu.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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