Visual environments that erase us

Dear President Trump,

Since I wasn’t officially on the work clock Friday, having taken a sick day, I was relatively free to do more or less what I wanted, even if it did have to do with work. One of the work-y things I did that was repeatedly hard to get to during regular workdays was completing my University’s climate survey. Here is how it’s being introduced online:

“At the University of Washington, we value and honor diverse experiences and perspectives; strive to create welcoming and respectful learning, working and living environments; and promote access, opportunity and justice.

To guide actions that improve the experiences and well-being of our students, faculty and staff, the UW is conducting a University-wide climate survey.”

Overall I think they did a good job – it was thorough and thoughtful and there were plenty of optional text boxes to explain things. There were just two things that seemed to me to be missing: 1) recognition that a lot of us affiliated with the University are not employed by the University or located there, and 2) that workplace hostility can sometimes be driven by across the board jerk-ness rather than the target’s gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, etc. In a survey pertaining to climate, this latter issue seems like a big one to have overlooked.

At the very end of the whole 100+ set of items there were a bunch of personal questions that went pretty far beyond the usual demographics, including asking us about party affiliation and where we see ourselves on the political spectrum. Some folks have raised objections to this level of detail, wondering about confidentiality and potential for retaliation. I did answer those questions, but in hindsight I am not so sure about having done so since I did add to the fodder than can easily be used to divide us. For example, the survey number crunchers could easily say things like “65% of Democrats said that….” and “55% of those identifying as moderately conservative said…..”, which could end up feeling divisive and alienating. Hopefully the plan, instead, is to use the information to identify issues where there needs to be bridge-building of various sorts.

There were a couple of final open text boxes where we could give the survey makers feedback on the survey (I thought to cover the affiliate issue but have to email them tomorrow about the general hostility issue), and where we could make general suggestions for improving the cultural climate at the University. There are so incredibly many things one could say in response to that final question, but I decided to keep it simple and heretical – I suggested that all the departments and all the various schools (e.g., of business, medicine, nursing, dentistry, etc.) mothball all the fancy portraits of all the chairs and deans until such time that at least a third of each are women and at least a third are people of color. Even though I knew I was spitting into heavy headwinds, I explained that having all those portraits of predominantly white men up in all those hallowed halls is demoralizing for many of us, while at the same time it gives others the message that they’ve got decent odds of making it to such lofty heights in their careers and that they don’t need to take the rest of us seriously.

There is a wrinkle in my argument in that the current president of the University of Washington is a Latinx lesbian, but I contend that she is enough of a unicorn that we would still all be better off if we let go of the hundreds of portraits of the hundreds of brilliant, hard-working, top-of-their-game white men until such time as the hundreds of brilliant, hard-working, top-of-their-game women and people of color get to finally join them.

May we be safe from hostile workplaces of all sorts.
May we be willing to see leadership potential in people who don’t necessarily fit the old guard mold.
May we heed all the research that says that diverse leadership is healthy and vital for creativity and growth.
May we not make peace with visual environments that erase us.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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