Capacity Building for Shared Equity Leadership

By Elizabeth Holcombe, Jordan Harper and Natsumi Ueda

January 9, 2023

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Over the past three years, the American Council on Education (ACE) and the University of Southern California (USC) have been working together to study new ways that campuses are thinking about leadership for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Our research team identified an approach called shared equity leadership (SEL), which spreads responsibility for DEI work broadly across campus and creates culture change by connecting individual and organizational transformation.

SEL represents a departure from traditional approaches to leadership, which tend to focus on individual leaders’ traits and behaviors, rather than leadership as a collective process, and to ignore or downplay DEI concerns. As a result, campuses interested in engaging in SEL must think carefully about the ways they might need to build capacity to do this work effectively. Capacity building for SEL is an ongoing investment at multiple levels meant to support and develop a repertoire of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to collectively lead equity-minded change efforts.

Our forthcoming report outlines strategies at each level that can help institutions build capacity for SEL. These strategies fall into three main categories—personal, collective, and organizational.

Personal capacity building builds individual leaders’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Strategies for building personal capacity include professional development, trainings, workshops, coaching, mentoring, and peer feedback. Collective capacity building helps groups of leaders learn how to work together and includes strategies such as professional learning communities and communities of practices, affinity groups, and healing circles. Organizational capacity building challenges existing structures and processes and erects new ones. These strategies include creating cross-cutting groups and structures; hiring, onboarding, and promoting diverse leaders; and incentivizing and rewarding the work.

Our findings suggest that each type of capacity building carries the same importance and demands the same attention; however, institutions tend to focus most on building capacity at the personal level and to neglect the important collective and institutional work required for transformative change. 

The following are some areas for further consideration as higher education leaders seek to build or strengthen SEL capacity building on their campuses.

Offer various content depending on leaders’ different knowledge bases

As SEL engages multiple individuals across campus in DEI leadership, campuses will find that leaders are at varying levels of understanding of DEI issues—what we call the personal journey towards critical consciousness.

Some leaders may be well-versed in equity issues from their professional or personal experiences while others may be newer to the concepts and the work, so it’s important that campuses consider creating opportunities for leaders who are at different points along their journey. For example, a book club introducing new topics might be valuable for those who are just entering equity work, while those with experience who are looking to deepen their understanding would benefit from a more advanced training. Carefully considering which content is appropriate for people at different places in their journeys ensures that everyone can learn in a way that is meaningful to them.

Build off of existing opportunities before creating new ones

Most campuses already have many existing capacity-building opportunities that could be helpful in building capacity for SEL. Many of these existing opportunities are likely small in scale or focused on faculty and staff in a particular department or college.

It is much easier (and more cost effective) to build on what already exists rather than create something from scratch. Leaders of SEL capacity-building efforts should create an inventory of existing DEI-related trainings, as well as any established workshops, programs, or efforts that promote collaboration and shared leadership skills. For example, a student affairs division might offer professional development sessions for their staff on implicit bias or creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students; human resources might offer workshops on equitable hiring strategies; or a business school might be a good resource for workshops on collaboration and shared leadership.

While there will certainly be a need for SEL-specific training, collaborating with the faculty or staff responsible for these existing workshops or programs can help campuses build capacity much more quickly than trying to create everything anew.

Take care not to perpetuate inequitable systems and structures

When creating capacity for SEL, it is important to be careful not to produce and perpetuate systems and structures predicated on inequality and oppression. In the process, it is surprisingly easy to reinforce the very status quo we are attempting to upend.

For example, if campuses call on their leaders of color to take charge of capacity-building efforts (or if leaders of color spearhead such efforts), it is critical to ensure that these leaders are rewarded appropriately for their labor and that the work is distributed equitably. Otherwise, campuses could perpetuate patterns of DEI work falling disproportionately on leaders of color.

As campuses work to build capacity, systems of oppression and inequity could inadvertently be perpetuated in other ways, such as co-opting informal grassroots movements or hosting DEI-focused book clubs on books that reify whiteness and leave whiteness uninterrogated, or that are by White male authors instead of Black women, women, or other authors of color. Campuses interested in building capacity for SEL should ensure that they are uplifting and centering marginalized voices and experiences in a non-exploitative manner. Leaders should also ensure that shared approaches remain at the forefront of capacity-building efforts.

Further reflections on capacity building

Our latest report offers a toolkit of resources to help leaders create a comprehensive capacity-building plan that explicitly targets capacity building at all three levels–personal, collective, and organizational. Campus leaders should consider a few additional questions as they reflect on how to build capacity for SEL on their own campuses:

  • In what areas do you most need to build capacity for SEL on your campus? (For example, do you need to build individuals’ knowledge and understanding of DEI issues? Is collaborative working a particular challenge? Are your rewards systems structured in ways that disincentivize equity work or shared leadership?)
  • What capacity-building activities already exist on your campus (personal, collective, or organizational)? How might you collaborate with the leaders of these activities to build capacity more broadly for your SEL efforts?
  • What other experts (either on campus or off) might provide assistance as you create your capacity-building plans?
  • How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the different capacity-building strategies you implement to ensure that time and resources are being used effectively?

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Holcombe

Jordan Harper

Natsumi Ueda

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