Point Park taking the steps towards a diverse and inclusive campus

Written By Anna Skeels, For The Globe

“Feet, what do I need them for, if I have wings to fly?” 

Point Park University students see these words from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo on digital bulletin boards around campus. Her image is surrounded by an illustration inspired by Frida Kahlo’s vibrant self-portraits. The words are a reference to permanent spinal and leg injuries. 

Seeing her words and quotes from Toni Morrison and Harvey Milk on these screens is meaningful to me. That’s because, like these individuals, I am part of a marginalized community. As I am, I don’t always fit into my classrooms. For example, in the course of a 15-week semester, a professor failed to use my correct pronouns despite my regular reminders. Spending every class getting misgendered makes it harder to find the motivation to participate. 

Kahlo’s work was heralded for its revolutionary depictions of the female experience. These images of Kahlo and other minority leaders appear on our screens because of the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Committee. And in many ways, Kahlo was marginalized. She was Latinx. She was a bisexual woman. And she was disabled for most of her life after having Polio and being impaled in a bus accident. 

Those of us who face extra challenges in our lives because of our race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, sex, religion or any other part of our identity face extra challenges in our academics. Because of this, I am one of two student representatives appointed to the Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Committee, which is dedicated to making the university a more inclusive and safe place for minority students. 

It’s one of two diversity, equity and inclusion-related projects I’m working on this year. I was also hired to work on the All-Abilities Media Project, which trains and works with people with disabilities in media. The project was created to open up the job market for people with disabilities as well as educate the public on disability experience, and has produced podcasts, video series and events. All-Abilities Media is providing opportunities for people with disabilities to explore new pathways and get experience in a field they’re interested in. 

I’m passionate about these opportunities to create greater inclusion. Because in the classroom, I’ve found most of our required texts are written by the same kind of people: white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical men. We read and are taught from the same perspectives over and over again and never get to see the perspectives of the rest of the world. A diverse and inclusive classroom teaches material from diverse sources and incorporates these experiences into the curriculum. 

But equally or more importantly, the university must be a safe environment for everyone—a place where certain students don’t have to overcome obstacles that others don’t. Transgender students shouldn’t have to sit through class after class of being called the wrong name and hearing the wrong pronouns used for them. Black students’ input and sharing of their experiences shouldn’t be continually ignored. Students with disabilities shouldn’t have to be in a situation where they aren’t receiving the accommodations they need.

To create a truly safe and inclusive classroom, our professors have to be welcoming to all experiences, not just in their curriculum but also in the students sitting in front of them. No matter what is being taught, if I know when I raise my hand to contribute to the discussion that it’s only a matter of seconds until my gender identity is disrespected, I don’t fit into that classroom. 

The Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Committee’s goal is to make every class at Point Park an inclusive one. This year, they have urged faculty to add a diversity and inclusion section to their mandatory annual self-reflection, a document used by department heads to see how all of their professors are doing in their work and courses. By next year, the self-reflection will include a mandatory diversity and inclusion section. Once the committee puts together language for the form, it will need to be approved by the faculty assembly. 

This work is coming to fruition as Point Park has formed a new Equity and Inclusion Office. This office now handles Disability Services, Title IX and LGBTQ+ SafeZone training and is expanding upon these programs. 

Our education suffers when we lack inclusive classrooms. Now, we are building the foundation for a truly accepting, inclusive campus where we can all feel we belong and are valued.