A new position is quickly becoming an important part of the organizational landscape: that of Director of Diversity.
Businesses, nonprofits, and educational institutions are increasingly aware of the need to address and support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) related to race, gender, and gender. ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, religion and socio-economic status comprehensively. The outcry over the murder of George Floyd, the #MeToo movement, and the spotlight on systemic racism and gender identity have helped bring these issues to the fore. Although DEI work is not new, organizational leaders are prioritizing it by adding dedicated leadership positions that have the power, reach, and resources to make broad and meaningful change.
“Many courageous organizations, including Cal Lutheran, are looking at each other critically and asking, ‘Are we truly an inclusive workplace? said Cristallea K. Buchanan, MS, Cal Lutheran’s senior vice president for talent, culture and diversity. “These organizations understand that commitment to DEI leads to a more engaged workforce, creativity and innovation. And that’s the right thing to do.
In higher education
President Lori E. Varlotta, PhD, created Cal Lutheran’s new DEI position and shaped it specifically for the university after she assumed leadership in September 2020. The position description ties DEI to the Lutheran traditions of the university, identity as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), and employee recruitment and retention.
“I wanted DEI to be woven into the fabric of the university, not nailed to the fringe,” Varlotta said.
Buchanan said it was both the setup of that particular position — the one that married DEI to the university’s mission — and the access and support of the institution’s CEO that called her to Cal. Lutheran. “This work needs to be structured with access to the highest levels of the organization and … the resources and authority to make changes,” Buchanan said.
She brought two decades of corporate and nonprofit DEI experience when she assumed the role in August 2021. She oversees a newly configured division that includes human resources, mission and identity, and multiple programs funded by grants associated with the university’s federal status as an HSI.
As a member of the President’s Cabinet, she integrates DEI efforts across the university and advocates for DEI principles to shape decision-making.
In her position, Buchanan helps recruit and retain various faculty and staff; advises the President and Cabinet on ways to strengthen a culture of belonging and social justice; and bolsters Cal Lutheran’s efforts to enroll and graduate traditionally underserved students. A triple focus on accountability, programming, and structural and political change guides her work.
She leads a seven-member DEI core team formed this year. This cross-departmental team includes members from the Athletics, Student Life, Faculty Development, and Inclusive Excellence programs, the Center for Global Engagement, and HSI. Members have created a charter and website, CalLutheran.edu/diversity, with policies, events, and other information.
Last fall, Buchanan helped the university finalize and launch an Incident Reporting System, which serves as a central place to report instances of bias, harassment and discrimination so they can be investigated and escalated to appropriate services for investigation and/or resolution. Statistical data on reports will be shared in an annual report.
Working with the Human Resources Department and the Cabinet, Buchanan introduced other policy changes. These include a floating vacation day allowing employees to take a day off to honor any occasion – cultural, religious or personal – that is close to their hearts and a “dress for your Friday”, which allows employees to wear more casual clothes.
“Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and work clothes and dry cleaning are expensive,” Buchanan said.
Going forward, Buchanan plans to work with others to establish fair hiring guidelines for staff, launch a mentorship program for students of color, and develop a workplace climate survey for employees.
In K-12 Education
Another leader in the field is Cal Lutheran alumnus Angelica K. Chavez, EdD ’14, who joined the Simi Valley Unified School District in July as the inaugural Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Humanities Coordinator. A former vice principal at a high school in Simi Valley and a high school history teacher, Chavez has always been an advocate for DEI in education.
“DEI is not a passing phase,” Chavez said. “Americans have always believed in freedom and justice for all, but these things haven’t happened as quickly as we thought.”
Chavez is focused on student welfare. “If children are afraid to come to school or don’t feel welcome at school, they won’t thrive,” she said.
Chavez said his work “is like a flashlight,” shining a light on groups that may be left out or whose voices go unheard. These can be ethnic or racial groups, low-income students, girls, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. She defends them in conversations, whether with a teacher, a library clerk, or a principal.
One of Chavez’s first tasks was to create a DEI and Humanities Resource Center in Google Classroom so staff could access up-to-date information and quick answers to a host of questions. She also visits schools and club meetings to listen to students and helps teachers and other employees remember to look through a DEI lens.
“One of the biggest things we’ve done so far is equipping our teachers with knowledge, especially around our LGBTQ+ students,” Chavez said. This includes providing information on preferred pronouns and names, as well as regulations for transgender or gender fluid students. She also helps district staff understand federal and state education code requirements.
In health care
Cal Lutheran alumnus and board-certified urologist Dr. Tracy M. Downs ’88 is in his second DEI-related job. In July, he was named the first Chief Diversity and Community Engagement Officer at the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System in Charlottesville, Va., after serving as Associate Dean for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and Public Health.
His eight-person team leads DEI’s efforts throughout the medical system and in the local community.
In her new role, Downs hopes to further diversify the UVA health system workforce to include more underrepresented groups. He also expects to improve DEI training for employees to ensure that patients will be culturally respected and have equity in health care outcomes. For example, Downs said data shows that “patients with heart failure are treated differently based on their race/ethnicity. If they are [Hispanic] or Black [versus white patients], they are less likely to be admitted to a cardiology ward compared to a general medicine floor, leading to suboptimal clinical outcomes in Hispanic and Black patients. Downs and his team also plan to launch a comprehensive, system-wide equity dashboard for patient care.
To educate employees on the differences between health care for white and black patients in the South, he collaborated with the Health Sciences Library to create an online presentation as well as an in-person guided tour for employees. titled “The Breed History at the UVA Medical Center: 1901-2000.”
“When employees are told that not too long ago black patients received segregated health care to the point of even receiving their health care in the basement of the hospital, I think that reminds us our story and inspires us to do better as we work towards inclusivity,” said Downs.
In the community, Downs wants to address the social determinants of health, such as education and food insecurity, lack of access to health care and affordable housing, which lead to health disparities in underserved groups.
In rural areas, poor health can be linked to economic problems. Residents may live too far from a store or pharmacy to get their prescriptions filled, or low-income patients must make difficult decisions about the cost of driving more than 20 to 30 miles to get their medications. Previously, these patients would have been listed on a medical record as “non-compliant,” which needs to change, Downs said.
As these DEI officers move forward with their initiatives, Buchanan hopes people will remember that DEI is about culture change.
“Culture change takes time,” she said. “And we need courage and grace as we go through change management.”
Amy Bentley, a professional journalist for 35 years, has written for media, businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and publications, including the Ventura County Star and magazine on the beach. She covers topics ranging from education, water and the environment to parenting, travel and healthcare.