70.3 August 2023

Centering the Marginalized: Creating a Coalition to Enhance Retention Initiatives in the Workplace


By Jamal-Jared Alexander


Purpose: This practitioner reflection provides a narrative of how I intervened to make Utah State University (USU) a more socially-just workplace for graduate students, by creating a coalition to establish the Graduate Students of Color Association (GSCA). I argue that graduate students are not only professionalizing scholars but are also often university employees. I extend conversations in the field by centering multiply marginalized or underrepresented (MMU) students’ perceptions of inclusive spaces while offering a solution to Popham’s (2016) argument that recruitment efforts may not be enough when trying to diversify knowledge in the workplace.

Method: By taking a descriptive narrative approach to this reflection, I offer insights into the different methods to establish GSCA and the stakeholders involved. I provide readers with ways to enact transformative diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their workplaces while promoting reciprocity for all involved.

Results: The continuous commitment to enhance workplace environments through social, academic, emotional, and culture-affirming support has proven to be a major impact to USU thanks to GSCA. The association has become an integral retention initiative that USU’s graduate programs can promote and use alongside their recruitment efforts.

Conclusion: I provide readers with insights on how to create cultural spaces for professionalizing scholars while centering their lived experiences and their need for belonging. This reflection provides readers with divergent ways to creating an infrastructure that helps MMU scholars persist in the workplace.

Keywords: Cultural Spaces; Employee Retention; Graduate Students of Color Association; Equity and Inclusion; Social Justice

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Practitioners are provided with theoretical and practical approaches that help MMU employees overcome structural barriers in the workplace.
  • As the principal founder of GSCA, I embody the tenets of Black Feminist Thought, by reflecting on how my lived experiences—and the experiences of other MMU graduate employees at predominately white institutions—helped create a cultural space where employees can thrive and be supported by those with similar intersections in workplace settings.

Many predominately white institutions (PWIs) are starting to recruit multiply marginalized or underrepresented (MMU) scholars into higher education in hopes of diversifying knowledge and meeting organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals (Alexander & Walton, 2022; Blackmon, 2004; Jones et al., 2014; to name a few). A person that identifies as MMU belongs to a group or multiple groups that are frequently marginalized in their workplace environments (Walton et al., 2019). These groups consist of race and ethnicity, (dis)ability, sexuality, age, etc. The exigency of these recruitment initiatives allows Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) scholars an opportunity to help PWIs create safe workplace environments where employees can flourish and develop the professional skills needed in their respective fields. However, more research is needed that focuses on ways to enhance the climate of recruiting PWIs to ensure that MMU employees have the necessary infrastructures and a safe environment to succeed.

Knowing that the uniqueness of higher education may often have limited implications in non-academic workplaces, my goal with this reflection is to address these challenges to help organizations be more inclusive. I describe the rationale and the process of how I, an African American male, practitioner of both DEI and TPC, and former graduate student at a PWI, became an institutional agent to intervene positively in campus retention initiatives. In the context of this reflection, institutional agents refer to individuals who cultivate the idea of paying it forward by supporting the next generation of MMU employees. These agents provide access to resources, networks, privileges, and individualized support that center the marginalized—extending Stanton-Salazar’s (1997) concepts of social capital and institutional support.

First, I describe graduate students as working professionals in need of a positive campus climate and sense of belonging, especially those that identify as MMU. I describe the theoretical background of the actions I took to help Utah State University (USU) become a more socially-just workplace and learning space for MMU graduate employees. I provide readers with the origin of the Graduate Students of Color Association (GSCA)—a high-impact campus organization serving the needs of MMU employees that arose from a grassroots coalitional effort rather than an empirical research study. The model provided demonstrates how one Carnegie Research 1 and PWI successfully moved past performative DEI by centering the needs, lived experiences, and professional expertise of MMU graduate employees to enhance the university’s climate. I intentionally use the term performative DEI to highlight the need for more accountability in the workplace that moves past meaningless performative actions and surface-level statements that aren’t followed by practical action—e.g., diversity statements. Workplaces that are committed to DEI principles reinforce this commitment by offering continuous equitable resources that contribute to employees’ achievements—making DEI transformative and not just a stand-alone topic.

In the context of this special issue that explores successful DEI in the workplace, I argue that the training grounds for professionalizing scholars in graduate programs is, within itself, a workplace where they work as university employees for their respective institutions. Therefore, sharing my intersections as a professionalizing scholar and practitioner on how to enhance workplace settings for other MMU employees is what I contribute to the field. I invite readers to consider my experiences and DEI initiatives in hopes of providing them with ways to reimagine a more socially-just workplace environment for employees.

Early Professionalization of MMU Graduate Employees

As a first-generation college student from the projects of Atlanta, I traveled to the Midwest to pursue a doctoral degree in the state of Utah. Not knowing that I would be the first African American to be admitted into the Technical Communication & Rhetoric (TCR) Ph.D. Program, I arrived at USU where the available campus resources for MMU employees (such as student-centered programming and academic and professional support) were geared toward undergraduates. Although I participated in professionalization programs and developmental workshops as a mentor to MMU undergraduates, I had no one with similar intersections and experiences to mentor me and offer insights or survival tactics for navigating a majority white workplace as a graduate employee of color. Recognizing the need for resources to support my success as an employee and my development as an academic professional, I set out to learn how other MMU graduate employees across the university’s nine colleges navigate their respective work spaces. The graduate employees I encountered had different intersections—i.e., distinct research interests, sexualities, origin countries, religions, ethnicities, departmental resources, etc.—which was useful in understanding the type of access that was being provided (or missing) in graduate programs across campus, and how that access was a vital part in their sense of belonging.

Although the term sense of belonging has been defined by numerous scholars, I extend Hurtado and Carter’s (1997) definition to the field of TPC by centering both the cognitive (belief and knowledge) and affective (feelings) elements of social interactions. In other words, a sense of belonging is both a feeling one has and an achievable institutional goal based on action. An employee’s ability to succeed in workplace settings has everything to do with their intersections of identity—i.e., personal, social, spiritual, professional, etc.

In the context of this reflection, a sense of belonging is connected to how USU initiated new retention efforts to support and enhance MMU graduate employees’ perceptions of (and interactions with) their workplace environment (Strayhorn, 2012). An employee’s ability to succeed academically has everything to do with their personal and social lives, and TPC researchers have an opportunity to help PWIs enhance their workplace climate by describing concrete ways to embody known best practices, such as the tenets of Black Feminist Thought (BFT), when eradicating discriminatory practices, policies, and procedures that hinder the recruitment and retention of MMU employees.

Collins (1989) gives us four tenets of alternative epistemologies (i.e., ways of knowing and validating knowledge) that challenge the status quo:

  • The Lived Experience—Valuable knowledge is gained from and based upon lived experience.
  • Dialogue > Debate—In crafting and assessing knowledge, dialogue is more useful than debate.
  • Ethics of Caring—All knowledge is value laden and should therefore be informed by ethics of caring, which draws upon expressiveness, emotion, and empathy.
  • Personal Accountability—Knowledge is based on beliefs; therefore, knowers are personally accountable for what they claim to know.

An employee’s ability to overcome structural barriers in the workplace must center around their sense of belonging. In other words, retention and sense of belonging have an interconnected relationship that centers around the lived experiences of MMU employees (Palmer et al., 2014; Rankin & Reason, 2008). Retention initiatives have often been effective for organizations that use outdated retention practices and metrics that center only on the majority. For example, many retention strategies center around white, cis-gender, heteronormative males who have, historically, been the dominant group to access workplaces in higher education. Now that PWIs are looking to become more diverse and inclusive with their student body, new strategies are needed to support the dominant group and MMU groups. By adding new retention strategies that center the intersections of MMU graduate employees, PWIs can actively move toward more inclusive practices that foster a sense of belonging.

Since I classify graduate employes as working professionals, the targeted efforts of cultural spaces like GSCA have the potential to enhance student enrollment rates of a university, as well as their staffing retention rates. In other words, an increase in retention numbers creates opportunities for increase in recruitment numbers, and the positive experiences of working professionals creates a reputable workplace environment. This claim is supported by Dayley (2020) who argues how “[c]reating a supportive and inclusive environment is not only beneficial for current students, but it also attracts future students who have heard about the program’s favorable reputation” (p. 151)—highlighting the level of reciprocity for all stakeholders.

Employees often share if they feel they are (or aren’t) an integral part of the system or workplace environment with familial kinship. For example, in an interview conducted by Dayley (2020), one interviewee mentioned how MMU graduate employees are already small in number at PWIs and tend to talk to each other about their experiences: “[I]f I know that my friend has gone to a program who is a person of color and has not been supported I’m not gonna want to go to that program” (as cited in Dayley, 2020, p. 178). For me, I wouldn’t have considered my MA program if it weren’t for my mentor, so the power of word-of-mouth goes a long way when exploring the experiences of MMU employees in graduate workplaces.

One of the biggest retention research questions asked by TPC scholars has been, “How do we recruit and retain minorities in our departments when there are no other minorities around?” (Blackmon, 2004, p. 2). Organizations and TPC graduate programs are currently struggling to support marginalized employees and help them overcome structural barriers to graduation (Dayley, 2020; McClain & Perry, 2017). Literature shows that having existing minoritized student representation on campus is a huge factor that affects the retention of MMU graduate employees’ decisions to stay at their workplace (Blackmon, 2004; Dayley, 2020; Griffin & Muñiz, 2011). By extending conversations in the field and centering MMU graduate employees’ perceptions of inclusive spaces (Dayley, 2020), this reflection offers readers a solution to Popham’s (2016) argument that recruitment efforts are not enough, highlighting the importance of (and calling for more) retention scholarship. After exploring scholarship in different disciplines to get a sense of current and previous retention initiatives (e.g., Blackmon, 2004; Griffin & Muñiz, 2011; Henderson, 1991; Quarterman, 2008), I noticed that scholars such as McClain and Perry (2017) and Milem et al. (2005) all touched on one common theme: the need for cultural spaces at PWIs to enhance MMU employees’ sense of belonging.

As many readers can attest, the average graduate employee rarely leaves their department and often works in labs, so not many people would take an interest in the type of resources available across the campus in other colleges for MMU employees. In my self-advocacy at USU, I began researching cultural spaces and met with a program coordinator at the Inclusion Center to get his thoughts on how to get their center to create research-based programming and resources that cater to MMU graduate employees. We shared concerns about MMU graduate employees not getting the training and resources they needed to be successful professionals, and the coordinator suggested that I formulate a new organization that specifically centered the lived experiences of MMU graduate employees.

I designed a blueprint for GSCA in response to this call to action to unify a sense of belonging among MMU graduate employees at USU. I took a bottom-up approach to establish an association that would enhance the workplace environment for current and incoming graduate employees of color. A similar approach can be taken with non-academic organizations. For example, employees that lack belonging often find solace in numbers before expressing their concerns to management or Human Resources (HR). MMU employees have been known to band together on the basis of their intersections and lived experiences, so my approach within an academic workplace to create a cultural space is comparable to non-academic workplaces that have employees who create affinity groups (Biscoe & Safford, 2010). GSCA was created to be a safe space for MMU employees seeking community, connection, academic and professional assistance, and support.

The goal of the association was to address the notion of intersectionality with two components: first, employees that have been systematically identified as having more than one marginalized identification marker and, second, a model that “effectively addresses complex relational, structural, individual, and ideological aspects of domination and privilege” (Ramsay, 2014, p. 453). GSCA (2020) promotes and focuses on inter- and intrapersonal resilience by taking a BFT approach through three pillars:

  • Community-Based Healing—mitigating mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, suicide, disruptive behavior, and dissocial disorders) through healing circles, body-focused work, connective meditations, workshops, and trainings.
  • Launching Aggies—offering mentorship programs, professional development opportunities, and workshops (e.g., preparing for comprehensive exams, writing for publication, teaching, etc.).
  • Social Action—educating members on ways to handle oppressive issues affecting them or their families while working closely with the administrative teams to increase visibility and a sense of self-worth.

Each pillar explicitly centers the lived experiences of MMU employees and allows for national networking opportunities while simultaneously helping the university reinforce its commitment to DEI by providing new and equitable resources based on the professional development needs of its employees.

Current TPC literature provides insight into how to cultivate an inclusive climate to create and enhance retention strategies (Blackmon, 2004; Dayley, 2020; Savage & Mattson, 2011). When I say institutional climate, I extend Mulder’s (1991) explanation where workplaces such as USU provide a foundation for the comfort level of all employees who work to fulfill the institution’s mission. In other words, the lack of comfort and effort to fulfill the institution’s mission can be the determining factor in MMU employees’ decision to (not) attend or pursue higher education or quit/transfer to a more welcoming institution with infrastructures that foster a sense of belonging in the workplace. The institutions that foster a sense of belonging tend to:

  • Identify active engagement with other minoritized employees.
  • Provide divergent ways for MMU graduate employees to participate in workplace environments for social and academic growth.
  • Hire mental health counselors with specializations that explore different intersections (e.g., feminist therapists such as Brown, 2018; Root & Brown, 2014) and multicultural therapists (Asnaani & Hofmann, 2012; Wolf et al., 2018; to name a few) along with other forms of counseling resources that promote healing for the marginalized.
  • Having a curriculum that is relevant to their experience and the experiences of other marginalized communities.

Employees in (non)academic workplaces benefit from and excel the most in these types of spaces when they’re given the opportunity to celebrate and emerge in their cultural heritages (Dayley, 2020; Museus & Quaye, 2009). With this in mind, I argue that DEI retention research is now leaning toward encouraging graduate employees to “find connections at their colleges and universities” (Dayley, 2020, p. 22) through cultural spaces where they can build a community. Those wanting to do this work must first grasp a solid understanding of their workplace environment.

Campus Climate

Campus climate is vital to incoming and current MMU employees since an inclusive campus climate can alleviate psychological, physical, and mental health concerns. Although existing TPC literature defining campus climate is limited, the term is used in different contexts to understand inclusion and quality of life issues (Hart & Fellabaum, 2008). For example, Woodard and Sims (2000) argue that campus climate involves a student’s perception of their experiences (in and out of the classroom). Simply put, these experiences include a push against imposter syndrome, or the desire to fit in, and students’ feelings about the quality of their overall graduate experience, or the experience of needing to create lasting cultural changes that foster a positive climate on campus. I categorized these experiences and perceptions by extending Hurtado et al.’s (1998) four dimensions of cultural climate when evaluating the campus climate of USU: Institutional History, Structural Diversity, Psychological Climate, and Behavioral Climate. In other words, I challenged and disrupted oppressive workplace policies that served a homogeneous population and invested in increasing structural diversity by eliminating skewed distributions of graduate employees and involving employees’ views on how the university could engage in transformative DEI.

Although these dimensions of campus climate are drastically different depending on who is at the center of these experiences, Hart and Fellabaum (2008) believe that “[t]he vast majority of studies of campus climate focus on race, ethnicity, and or gender. To date, little attention has been paid to how perceptions of and experiences with sexual orientation, religion, veteran status, social class, gender identity, and other identity characteristics also contribute to campus climate” (p. 224). In my pursuit to create a socially-just workplace environment at USU, I examined the current attitudes surrounding respect from MMU graduate employees—extending the work of Pascarella and Terenzini (2005). Although my approach didn’t explicitly include race, ethnicity, gender, or other intersections employees may have, it did leave room for interpretation by making a rhetorical move, allowing each employee to identify their intersections, and how those intersections were often disrespected or made them feel.

Connecting Retention Initiatives to Sense of Belonging

With this understanding of campus climate in mind, Mulder’s (1991) four themes that enhance sense of belonging were vital in my effort to help the workplace at USU retain MMU graduate employees. PWIs must move past the focus on students’ intellectual development and recognize the “conceptual and practical linkages within a student’s personal and social development” (Applegate, 1989, p. 39) speaks to the entire human experience (Mulder, 1991). In other words, having MMU graduate employee representation on campus is a vital factor that affects diversity retention and students’ sense of belonging. For non-academic workplaces, the same representation affects the company’s retention of MMU employees, especially when examining administrative roles.

Understanding that BFT takes the “core themes of [B]lack gendered oppression—such as racism, misogyny, and poverty—and infuses them with the lived experience of [B]lack women’s taken-for-granted, everyday knowledge” (Collins, 2005, p. 6), I used these same core themes to help me understand the needs of other MMU employees when thinking of their sense of belonging in the workplace. By adopting and enacting the tenets presented in Collins’ alternative epistemologies, I had the tools to start making socially-just change.

Many TPC scholars are actively trying to enact socially-just change to make room for MMU communities and new perspectives in professional settings (Colton & Holmes, 2018; Cook, 2002; Dayley, 2020; Friess & Lam, 2018; Gonzales & Baca, 2017; Lay, 1991; Meyer & Bernhardt, 1997; Popham, 2016; Savage & Mattson, 2011; Staples & Ornatowski, 1997). When thinking about BFT’s tenet two, dialogue over debate, dialogue is needed between PWIs and MMU employees to discuss ways to retain ethnic and racial minoritized students—requiring that they be invited and welcomed into the spaces where these conversations often take place. Dialogue involves listening and exploring opposing views, whereas debate often reinforces the status quo—resulting in those in power being more concerned with advancing their own agenda.

Tenet two is vital in helping employees educate employers on why certain retention strategies are needed and how those strategies benefit and affect the organization’s inclusive initiatives. For example, USU is in a nonurban area that lacks a diverse population and is often perceived to be unappealing to MMU applicants when contemplating a 2–5-year commitment for a graduate program due to a lack of representation—i.e., the campus, the surrounding community, and even the curriculum (Savage & Mattson, 2011). In a similar fashion, applicants interested in industry corporations often take interest in the company’s ability to show support with diverse community organizations, public-facing DEI policies, diversified leadership and hiring practices, benefits packages that center wellness and inclusivity (e.g., gender transition, paternity leave), and take accountability for when the company falls short of DEI initiatives (Monster Worldwide, 2023).

It’s important to note that many MMU employees in academic workplaces are housed in graduate programs situated in geographical locations with little to no diversity (Blackmon, 2004). This lack of representation is one of the key factors why MMU employees transfer or leave their workplace environments. Blackmon (2004) argues that “[i]t is this sense of community that is not only important in recruiting graduate students but is also important in the … retention … of African Americans” and other minoritized communities (p. 2). By connecting Blackmon’s claim to Hurtado & Carter’s (1997) concept of sense of belonging, I was able to focus on social interactions that further enhance (or hinder) graduate employees’ affiliation and identity with USU.

When thinking about social interactions that enhance or hinder employees’ affiliations, it’s important to create an environment where employees can discuss their challenges. For example, Dayley (2020) argues how developing such an environment where people will listen, believe, and take socially-just action is the start of enhancing an employee’s sense of belonging. With this knowledge, a program coordinator introduced me to four other MMU graduate employees and, together, we became the founding members of GSCA. We were invited to a townhall listening session with other MMU student-leaders—along with the university’s 16th President and members of her administration team—where our voices took center stage. Later, the founding members drafted an open letter to the President outlining the theoretical developmental plan of GSCA—which piqued her interest and launched the birth of the association.

Defining Cultural Spaces

By extending McClain and Perry’s (2017) concept of cultural spaces, the founding members highlighted the need for explicit and intentional programming to enhance student retention and attrition in their letter to the President. We brought attention to MMU graduate employees being negatively affected by the workplace’s racial climate, leaving them to feel culturally isolated and unsupported in exploring their ethnic heritage and identity (Milem et al., 2005). We provided insight to a study conducted by Morrow and Ackermann (2012) to highlight why MMU employees depart PWIs voluntarily for non-academic reasons, honing in on how GSCA had the potential to create an inclusive environment to help MMU employees overcome structural barriers.

We supported our claim with scholarship from McClain and Perry (2017), arguing how “[c]ultural spaces on college campuses often serve as safe havens for students of color” (p. 8), allowing students to congregate with like-minded individuals and discover ways to safely navigate complex situations—e.g., racist and dismissive colleagues, inequitable access to funding, and advancement. Our vision was to have GSCA act as a form of “familial kinships” (McClain & Perry, 2017, p. 8) among MMU employees in smaller subpopulations while exposing them to institutional agents who can help them navigate professional environments.

To get a better understanding of how you can situate cultural spaces in non-academic settings, I turn your attention to affinity groups (also known as caucuses or network groups).

[A]ffinity groups can be defined as groups of employees within an organization who share a common identity, defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or shared extra-organizational values or interests. Such groups may be more or less formally organized, and their relationship with management may vary from being adversarial to being cooperative or even fully co-opted by management. They operate outside the jurisdiction of collective bargaining laws. (Biscoe & Safford, 2010, p. 1)

Affinity groups first emerged in large companies in the early 1970s—the most notable being the pioneering Black Caucus at Xerox Corporation—where “members of these groups were generally white collar” and weren’t “formally recognized (in law or in practice) as legal representatives of workers’ interests” (Biscoe & Safford, 2010, p. 1). Since the role of affinity groups within companies is unclear due to scarce research, I argue that the main common thread between cultural spaces and affinity groups is horizontal and vertical mentoring.

Horizontal mentoring takes place between employees across departments and between people with similar titles and ranks. Mentoring is mutually beneficial to all parties, and the four tenets of BFT interweave with job duties and the workplace environment. On the contrary, vertical mentoring often depicts advanced or higher ranked professionals working with lower ranked professionals. Corporate innovator and finance entrepreneur Garrett Mintz (2020) argues that vertical mentoring is known to exaggerate “workplace hierarchies and dehumanizes the mentoring relationship” (para. 11). However, both have similar and overlapping characteristics since they (in)formally help employees navigate workplace environments and politics. In other words, both have the potential to be relational—where the tenets of BFT account for personal relationships to evolve over time—and transactional/performative—where initiatives are “company-run (and financed) and are used primarily to demonstrate an organization’s commitment to [DEI] to current and future employees,” investors, and customers (Biscoe & Safford, 2010, p. 2). The motive behind mentoring is what drives the action of affinity groups.

To provide more context surrounding the development of these types of spaces in higher education, I turn your attention to McClain and Perry (2017) who identify specific centers and associations to show how other academic institutions have created cultural spaces to meet the divergent needs of MMU employees. For example, The Bridge was an initiative that served as a mentoring program and a medium for first-year students of color to get acclimated to Georgia State University (McClain & Perry, 2017). Moreover, “those that created the program believed that the bonds created during the program helped students feel accepted, supported, and greatly increased students’ chance of graduation” (McClain & Perry, 2017, p. 8), which speaks to the program providing students with a sense of belonging and the relational connections developed through the program.

While the complex interplay of academic, economic, institutional, and social processes that influence college persistence varies by groups with different intersections of identity, the cultural space in this example speaks specifically to African Americans. However, the overall purpose for this organization was to create a sense of belonging where MMU students could feel welcomed and respected, and were provided with specific resources based on their individual needs.

Continuing with the same topic, the founding members of GSCA engaged in multiple follow-up meetings with the university’s President and the School of Graduate Studies’ Vice Provost to explore research by Rendón et al. (2000) to gain a deeper understanding of why cultural spaces such as GSCA were needed. We showed how MMU graduate employees must be able to find (in)animate objects in their college culture that evoke their sense of belonging that often originates in their cultural upbringing (Rendón et al., 2000). We provided a list of institutional agents who could (a) provide information and guidance that would aid MMU employees in deciphering unfamiliar customs, (b) mediate problems that often arise from disjunctions between MMU employees’ cultural traits and the prevailing workplace culture, and (c) model behaviors that were amenable with the norms, values, and beliefs of the majority and minoritized cultures (Rendón et al., 2000; refer also to Jalomo, 1995; Rendón, 1996; de Anda, 1984). By examining and closing potential gaps with solutions from this research, we successfully helped the administration team understand the importance of creating cultural spaces for MMU graduate employees as a critical retention initiative.

Helping You, Do Your Work

Many of you may think that implementing cultural spaces at a PWI emerges from an institutional review board (IRB)-approved empirical research study. For some universities, that is the case. However, I have shown that my approach relied on the tenets of BFT since my positionality—i.e., role as Diversity Recruitment Officer (DRO) and former MMU graduate employee—provided USU with insights to address ongoing retention issues. When I say positionality, I refer to the intersections of social status and power that shape identities and the access people have.

My role as DRO emerged from a DEI assistantship—a paid academic position for graduate employees, often resulting in tuition remission and specialized training—that was created by the School of Graduate Studies specifically for graduate employees with DEI research agendas. Little did I know that my research interest in DEI recruitment and retention would inspire the DRO position, and my position granted me access to the other eight colleges to learn from other MMU employees.

Sadly, many graduate workplaces continue to view graduate employees as affordable labor where the needs of the Department are the only priority, and the idea of having a graduate student work an assistantship outside of the Department is seen as an act of betrayal and not allowed, resulting in professionalizing scholars signing up for assistantships that don’t always align with their research interests or professional aspirations. I appeal to those program administrators by advising them to “incorporate DEI assistantships for students” who want to: “conduct DEI research … [seek] non-teaching related funding,” invest “in social justice initiatives, [or] have an interest in university administration” (Alexander & Walton, 2022, p. 176). Making this type of move decenters the Department and centers the marginalized.

The founding members of GSCA are currently designing an empirical study to measure the sense of belonging of (non)GSCA members via the university-wide analysis, assessment, and accreditation survey after the end of December 2023. The data will be accompanied by an auto-ethnographic case study where we will explore how other members have experienced similar epiphanies of belonging. By using the antecedents to a sense of belonging (SOBI-A) and the psychological sense of belonging (SOBI-P) scales (Hagerty & Patusky‚ 1995), we aim to evaluate (and demonstrate) why associations such as GSCA are needed in workplace settings by showing how these types of spaces enhance the mental health and lives of MMU employees—which directly connects to retention and attrition. Alexander et al. (2022) encourage those in the workplace, “especially allies with more privileged positionalities, to be active in improving the inclusivity” (p. 8), which can look different from one organization to the next.

With this in mind, not every organization will need a GSCA. Some corporations may need a Latinx affinity group that offers advocacy and engagement for their Latinx employees, while those at universities may need to craft a First-Gen organization for undergraduates that advance the success of first-generation students. Assess your workplace environment and be mindful that the needs of your employees will eventually evolve and change as diversity enrollment continues to shift, so it’s important to actively enact the four tenets of BFT.

The establishment of GSCA at USU is unique to the graduate employees’ experiences of current MMU scholars and alumni. Those same scholars will become employees for your organizations, so imagine having the infrastructures already in place to help them develop and maintain a sense of belonging. To achieve this goal, conduct a similar survey using the same SOBI-A/P measurement scales, and provide a space where the voices of your MMU employees can be heard—similar to the townhall listening session mentioned earlier.

Impact Factor

Having formulated at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020 with only five founding members, GSCA has officially entered the second semester of its first-active year with a roster of over 100+ MMU graduate employees across the nine colleges at USU. The association has even received one of the university’s highest awards for Student Organization of the Year, thanks to its commitment to social justice and inclusion. These commitments are continuously enacted through the association’s programming that enhances the workplace environment through social, academic, emotional, and culture-affirming support—reiterating the scholarly foundation used to create the association. Knowing that GSCA promotes equity in workplace settings while fostering academic excellence, the association has become an integral retention initiative that USU graduate programs can reference and use alongside their recruitment efforts.

The increase in membership speaks volumes to the impact factor this association continues to have on MMU graduate employees and the workplace environment. GSCA has become the safe haven McClain and Perry (2017) referenced for many MMU employees looking for a place where they can belong and thrive in their respective programs. For example, during the first writing retreat, members were surveyed to learn if similar (or different) programming was needed. The following responses provide a snippet of how members benefit from cultural spaces like GSCA:

When asked What did you like most about the GSCA Writing Retreat?, respondents advised:

  • “Having time to write. Cooking together (having really delicious food). Hearing each other’s experiences. Enjoyed sharing room with friend.”
  • “Just meeting other people of color in graduate programs. Really helped normalized minorities (including me) being involved [in] higher level academia/education.”
  • “I really enjoyed interacting and spending time with other people of colour. It gave me a sense of belonging in the community. I also appreciated having an opportunity to rest and have a designated time to work.”
  • “Bonding with other People of Color and getting chunks of time to get work done.”
  • “Being able to get to know other BIPOC [(Black Indigenous People of Color)] students and doing work in a safe space.”
  • “Being able to comfortably connect with other graduate students and spend time relieving stress.”
  • “Connecting [with] other grad students of color. Beautiful space to stay [and] write together.”

When asked How likely are you to recommend the GSCA Writing Retreat to another colleague?, the results show 94% responded with yes, they will recommend the association.

The impact of having GSCA at USU has allowed me to learn from award-winning scholars from around the world who have been instrumental in my personal and professional development. This impact has enabled me to become what I sought to be: an institutional agent offering insider knowledge. By creating programming for GSCA members that gave them a behind-the-scenes look into the lived experiences of different professionals, members now have access to multiple MMU employees who understand what they are currently going through. For example, I was invited by members to speak about job market preparation—having just successfully navigated what many call a stressful experience. I shared my recent experience and provided interviewing tips, mock interview recordings conducted by my Department, and a variety of documents they may be asked to submit. I then created a Canvas shell—a learning management system for the creation, management, and delivery of documents, educational materials, and training (Turnbull et al., 2020; refer also to Sabharwal et al., 2018)—to house this information by categorizing content for each of the nine colleges, their departments, and programs. Doing so will allow members to explore resources created by MMU alumni in their field or college while offering them the chance to share their materials and help the next generation of MMU scholars.

More importantly, when the program coordinator of the Inclusion Center first introduced me to another African American male Ph.D. employee, it was as if I had been introduced to a best homie I hadn’t seen since grade school. Until that moment, I spent my first two years believing I was the only African American male pursuing a Ph.D. on campus, so seeing someone who looked like me—and shared my intersections—instantly changed my entire mindset since I had someone who understood racial battle fatigue—a term coined by education scholars Smith et.al (2011) to help organizations assess how Black men experience stress in the workplace (Engram & Mayer, 2023, p. 62). Granted, not all African Americans pursuing graduate degrees will have kindred spirits. However, my colleague and I continue to be two men that can put aside our egos to support, uplift, and advocate for one another as we step into our purpose.

Although there are many other examples, the goal here is to provide you with a snippet of my experiences with GSCA to help you imagine the impact factor for the other 100+ members. Furthermore, imagine having this type of cultural space within your organization and the potential impact it can have on your employees.

Call to Action

I encourage readers to investigate the needs of their MMU employees and create appropriate programming suitable for their workplace environment. The theoretical approach and academic validity used to establish GSCA is scalable and adaptable and can help TPC practitioners move away from performative DEI in the workplace. Even if your workplace doesn’t have a strong diverse population, you must learn to center the marginalized and accommodate their needs. Doing so will enhance your retention numbers while also allowing you to recruit more diverse employees into a space where they can thrive.

Newkirk (2019) argues that DEI “will not be ushered in by pledges, slogans, or well-compensated czars …. Without Truth, there cannot be Justice, and the insidious vapor of bigotry will continue to pervade our monochromatic workplaces” (p. 217; emphases added). In other words, organizations must move past catchy acronyms and phrases as performative points of reference without actually defining what these words mean and whom they uplift or exclude (Engram & Mayer, 2023). Transformative DEI pushes past checklists and requires organizations to actively address Engram and Mayer’s (2023) question: What are you willing to give up?

In my attempt to challenge performative thinkers of DEI, the question above allows for them to be understanding of what performance equity is and what real-world transformative equity can be (Engram & Mayer, 2023). For example, stakeholders at USU who took this question seriously found themselves “giving up their proximity to whiteness, relationship to patriarchy, harmful religious stances, and most importantly relationships with people who refuse to grow” (Engram & Mayer, 2023, p. 63). This reflection acts as a transformative example of how I (and USU) am actively addressing this question, and how the tenets of BFT can help drive diversity in a variety of workplaces.

Industry Organizations

Affinity groups can take many forms depending on the needs of the employees, workplace environment, or the organization. For example, some affinity groups reflect “grassroots efforts to press demands,” whereas other groups are “company-run (and financed) and are used primarily to demonstrate an organization’s commitment to [DEI] to current and future employees,” investors, and customers (Biscoe & Safford, 2010, p. 2). Use your positionality to evoke the change you desire to have in your workplace. Although this reflection focused on the experiences of graduate student employees at a university, the same concepts can be applied in other workplace settings with affinity groups. Knowing that “affinity groups can be classified as a diversity intervention that creates spaces for intragroup support and bridges together different groups” (Bohonos & Sisco, 2021, pp. 93–94), creating these types of groups allows employees to be validated by those with similar intersections while expressing their trepidations, challenges, and professional pursuits. In other words, affinity groups support and reinforce the tenets of BFT.

Higher Ed. Organizations

Actively seek out and build relationships with non-white employees and ensure that you are maximizing reciprocity. After you’ve addressed the question of What are you willing to give up?, move forward by asking MMU employees the following questions:

  • How can I assist you at this moment?
  • Review a section of their first attempt at an article publication; assist or provide tips for preparing and taking their comprehensive examinations.
  • Share your experiences with employees (good, bad, and indifferent) and give them access to your network of colleagues with similar research interests. In other words, become an institutional agent.
  • What has been (or continues to be) challenging for you?
  • How do you create balance in your life? What areas of work might be preventing you from achieving balance?
  • Do you have a community where you can discuss life/work issues where encouragement and support are provided? Can I offer any assistance in helping you find such a community?

These questions are mere conversation starters and will vary from employee to employee. Take the knowledge you have gained throughout your professional career and share it with your team. Have each team member conduct a self-analytical evaluation of their workplace to help you understand where your department needs to improve and put a plan of action together to create a more inclusive environment before you direct your attention to recruiting. Creating an inclusive environment requires active evolving, but once the sense of belonging of your employees starts to shift in a way that increases their self-worth and ability to pursue their professional goals, you can then direct your attention to recruiting by taking a similar approach, understanding that not every MMU applicant is the same. Highlight the changes and ways your workplace has adjusted to being a more socially-just environment and be transparent about the areas that you are working to enhance.

Now that I am an Assistant Professor, my next goal is to take what I’ve created at USU and center MMU faculty at PWIs in hopes of learning why MMU faculty employees stay, relocate, or leave their current workplace. Until then, I charge you, my readers, to actively commit to creating a more socially-just working environment for MMU employees. I understand that you may not have the capacity to create an entire association or an affinity group as I did, but consider working with your employees to create something on a smaller scale. Ultimately, the focus should be on your MMU employees to ensure they have what they need to be successful human beings and phenomenal assets to your organization.


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About the Author

Jamal-Jared Alexander, Ph.D. is a social justice researcher and scholar-activist trained in qualitative methodology. His research examines recruitment and retention practices as well as the rhetoric of health and medicine. Using Black Feminist Theory as his theoretical lens, he uses his research to create dedicated spaces and equitable opportunities for marginalized communities in professional and academic settings.