The Evolution of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work at Brown University: An Institution Changed by the Slavery and Justice Report

Shontay Delalue

The Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice opens with a simple declaration: “Let us begin with a clock.”1 In the Report, the clock represents Brown’s historical entanglement with the institution of slavery, existing in plain sight yet somehow remaining invisible, long uninterrogated and unnoticed. In considering the lasting impact of the Slavery and Justice Report, I often reflect on that opening, because today, the Slavery and Justice Report itself represents a truth that stands in plain sight — a reckoning with a past involvement with slavery that, once revealed, should never again go unremarked. The Report represents a University forced to examine itself. It made Brown an institution that will continue its self-examination — and demand accountability for what it sees. That is the legacy of the Slavery and Justice Report at Brown University today.

The fifteen years since the release of the Slavery and Justice Report have encompassed many moments of Brown examining the legacies of slavery, inequity, and injustice that must be confronted and addressed — Brown is a changed university because of the many moments of reckoning engendered by the Report. The Report stands sentry as if to ask, how can we be a university that has committed to “accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges,” and yet not achieved greater diversity?2 How can we not be a fully inclusive campus? How can we not do everything possible to ensure members of historically underrepresented groups can succeed and thrive? How can we not advance knowledge and understanding of the history of racial slavery and its local and global legacies today?

The legacy of the Report is reflected in Brown’s ongoing efforts to address these questions; the answer to these questions is the legacy of the Report reflected in Brown University in the year 2021. The answer has been the work of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice to examine the history of racial slavery and its local and global legacies today. The answer is the diversity action plans developed through inclusive processes involving students, faculty, staff, and alumni to achieve equity and inclusion in recognition that these values are essential to meet Brown’s ideals of a university committed to excellence in academics and research. It’s the investments in education to support learning for children in local schools; the efforts to combat anti-Black racism on campus and in society; the new curricula that impart knowledge to the next generation of leaders; the work of campus centers of support like the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Undocumented First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, and the Swearer Center for Public Service. And it’s the ongoing advocacy, activism, and hard work that we know will continue well into the future.

But how did Brown arrive at its reckoning with slavery and justice? The work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice built upon a legacy of impactful activism that took various forms, one of the most prominent examples being the 1968 Black Student Walkout, when African American students from Brown and Pembroke College marched to the Congdon Street Baptist Church, calling for the University to increase enrollment of African American students and offer them more support, namely financial support. This was followed by the 1975 takeover of University Hall, during which students protested against budget cuts they felt would disproportionately affect minority students and echoed the demands from 1968; and the 1985 occupation of the John Carter Brown Library, when students sought to address instances of racism on campus as a coalition of “Black and Third World Students.” There was also the 1992 takeover of University Hall, where protests by members of Students for Admissions and Minority Aid advanced discussions for need-blind admission policies. Clearly, these calls for equity, inclusion, and justice have reverberated across College Hill for decades. Given this history, Brown was already a place where the work of the Committee could take root.

Still, the appointment of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was a bold step in publicly documenting the institution’s historical entanglement with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Brown was among the first institutions of higher education in the U.S. to publicly catalogue these ties and reflect on the complex political, legal, and moral questions posed by confronting injustices tied to the legacies of slavery. At the time, few institutions had endeavored to openly confront their complicated histories and their aftermath. Since the Slavery and Justice Report was published in 2006, this work has influenced how institutions of higher education across the country have reckoned with their own historical connections to slavery. Other colleges and universities have looked to Brown’s Report as a model for how a university can use its resources to conduct in-depth, high-impact research; inspire ongoing learning; and develop plans for transformational change in campus culture by examining their past.

Even as other institutions have looked toward Brown, the Slavery and Justice Report has established an expectation for introspection within the University. The Report represents a moment of concretizing Brown’s commitment to create a more diverse and inclusive academic community — to learn from the past and ensure underrepresented members of the present community can fulfill their full potential as scholars and leaders. It elucidated and acknowledged Brown’s connections to slavery and its profound consequences, including structural racism and economic inequality. Notably, it set expectations for accountability and transformation within our campus community in recognition of this history. This marked a cultural shift, signaling that ongoing dialogue is essential to creating the type of inclusive campus community Brown strives to be. The Report, which begins with a sobering moral analysis and concludes with recommendations, established for Brown that examination must be followed by action. Institutions of higher education necessarily value the pursuit of knowledge and truth. As such, the Report suggested that it was through these areas that Brown — and other universities — could most effectively address retrospective justice and hold itself accountable for its history.

Following the release of the Report, the University in 2007 identified twelve specific actions for adoption based on the 2006 recommendations, many of which have been fulfilled. These include the establishment of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice; a fuller public accounting of Brown’s history; the creation of the Urban Education Fellowship, which offers free tuition to graduate students in education who pledge to serve in public schools in Providence and surrounding areas after graduation; the $10 million permanent endowment of the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence; the commissioning of a memorial as a permanent monument to Brown’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade and the work of enslaved Black people who helped build the University, the state of Rhode Island, and the United States; and the dissemination of the Report in a free and accessible format to the public, among other actions.3 Brown also committed to ongoing investment in existing initiatives, such as support for Providence public schools through mentoring, staffing, curricula, equipment, diversity training, and professional development for teachers. Brown’s work toward realizing other recommendations, including the strengthening of Brown’s relationship with Tougaloo College, remains ongoing.

Brown’s work toward fulfilling the recommendations of the Slavery and Justice Report was a new beginning, rather than the conclusion of a long investigation of issues of justice. For Brown, facing its history and creating a space for examining the implications of slavery and the slave trade set a new standard for truth-telling and a permanent lens through which the University could address the enduring and painful legacies of the past.

This shift is most clearly evidenced in the work of Brown’s ambitious plans to create a more fully diverse and inclusive campus. The 2016 Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University, commonly known as the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP), set the University on an ambitious path of concrete, achievable actions to address obstacles that have long stood in the way of the success of historically underrepresented groups in higher education. While conversations to create a new diversity plan for Brown arose from goals outlined in Brown’s 2014 ten-year strategic plan, Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown, the DIAP was also shaped significantly by fervent nationwide calls for racial justice following the police killings of unarmed Black people, including the student protests that swept the nation in the fall of 2015. These nationwide calls for racial justice were coupled with renewed scrutiny of the experiences of Black students on predominantly white university campuses.

The DIAP recognizes that achieving a truly diverse and inclusive community is only possible when the entire institution shares in the commitment to achieving structural change. In addition to Brown’s overarching plan, it required the creation of diversity and inclusion action plans for the individual academic and administrative units across Brown — with all community members as active stakeholders, not passive onlookers, in effecting meaningful transformation. And it continues to require constant reassessment, with each department carrying out an annual self-reflection on progress. These levels of community engagement and self-examination have directly echoed the process of developing the Slavery and Justice Report.

Christina H. Paxson and a man are engaged in conversation while three children work at school desks in front of them.

The Slavery and Justice Report calls on Brown to support the success of Providence students. The Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring program, or BEAM, is among the community engagement efforts that now number in the dozens — led by Brown faculty, staff, and students — to support efforts to educate K–12 students in the Providence Public School District. On April 11, 2018, President Christina H. Paxson visited the enrichment program that has operated at William D’Abate Elementary School since 2000.

Photograph by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University.

The DIAP certainly was not Brown’s first diversity plan, and it is worth considering whether Brown would have produced such a living document of accountability if the University had not first produced the Slavery and Justice Report a decade earlier. In many ways, the University’s recognition of the importance of this work was a consequence of the expectation that Brown would continue to confront its uncomfortable truths. Engaging the entire Brown community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni in the process of developing the DIAP in 2015 and 2016 allowed the University to create a monumental document that has helped to continually transform the institution. In the DIAP, Brown recognized that only if the entire community focused on equity and inclusion could the entire community live up to its ideals — a campus that embraces that “a diverse and inclusive community…is the best possible environment for fostering the advancement of knowledge and discovery through free inquiry, and it is also critical to knowledge production in a globalized world.”4 The DIAP now serves as Brown’s strategic plan to fulfill its aspirations for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In April 2021, Brown reaffirmed its commitment to this work through the launch of DIAP Phase II, which serves as a companion document to the 2016 plan and outlines new actions to increase diversity, address barriers to inclusion, and create a more equitable academic community. Both phases of Brown’s DIAP drew on the precedent set by the Report in much the same way that almost every conversation about race and justice builds upon a legacy of the contributions of past and present generations of students, faculty, staff, and alumni dedicated to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion at Brown. Today, the two DIAPs serve as new vehicles for Brown University to reflect on what it has and has not yet accomplished. The DIAP and DIAP Phase II together have now taken the mantle of the Brown community’s constant guide for keeping these priorities at the forefront of the institution’s work and achieving transformational, sustained change.

The six priority areas identified in the DIAP — People, Academic Excellence, Curriculum, Community, Knowledge, and Accountability — have allowed a rich tapestry of ideas to flow from various parts of campus. The focus on historically underrepresented groups ensures Brown is able to “focus on a relatively small number of areas that we believe will have the biggest immediate impact on our community, with the expectation that, as time goes by and we learn from experience, more actions will be needed.”5 Now, with these plans in place, where does Brown go from here? What will be the legacy of our work?

The strength of any community is in its people. The work of achieving diversity, full inclusion, and racial justice, therefore, takes place not only at a university or department level, but among individuals. The DIAP’s focus on investing in the agency and transformative impact of the individual in making change — by establishing “people” as its first priority area — may be the lens through which we evaluate ourselves in fifteen more years.

For me, as an administrator who also teaches, the Slavery and Justice Report and the DIAP presented an opportunity to design and implement a course focused on all six of the priority areas of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. My co-facilitator, Maiyah Gamble-Rivers of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and I offered an Ethnic Studies course entitled “The African Atlantic Diaspora: Race, Memory, Identity, and Belonging.” The course explored notions of “Blackness” across the African Atlantic diaspora and examined the ways in which Blackness is viewed individually and collectively by groups. We discussed concepts related to the European origins of racial hierarchy, the introduction and maintenance of racial categorization in the U.S., and the necessity of racism as a core element of the economic enterprise of enslaving Africans in the Americas. Through engagement with seminal readings and documentaries, and deep discussions, we grappled with topics such as anti-Blackness and how it impacts the African diaspora today.

One of the most transformative parts of the course was a trip to Ghana. There, we were able to visit places such as the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture and engage with Ghanaian college students and young professionals to better understand their views on race. We took sobering visits to two slave castles, Cape Coast and Elmina, where we were guided to the places where millions of Africans were ushered through the “door of no return.” This course brought to life the history of Brown University and its entanglement with the slave trade as well as the ways in which the systemic racial hierarchy impacts Black people today. There are still so many aspects of race and slavery that we have yet to explore, and the Slavery and Justice Report paved the way for continued scholarship on this topic.

One critical way to ensure that essential teaching and research on issues of power, privilege, and oppression continue is to increase the number of scholars who are trained in these areas. In the 2016 DIAP, Brown made a commitment to double the percentage of faculty from historically underrepresented groups. The national attention Brown has garnered from the critical work of uncovering its past — first through the Slavery and Justice Report and now with the establishment of an aggressive path for the future through the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans — has attracted a number of top scholars to the institution, ensuring that, as a campus community, Brown can continue to grapple with its past to ensure a better future.

In addition to Brown’s commitment to faculty recruitment, the University committed to increasing the number of graduate students from historically underrepresented groups. Ensuring that significantly more graduate students are well-positioned to join the faculty ranks is a critical step toward closing the gap created by the centuries-old legacy of racism. However, the University must also work to build a community in which they can thrive, meaning that Brown must be intentional about building necessary systems of support. This work cannot be limited to faculty and students; a core part of the community that ensures the ongoing operations of any university campus is its staff.  The institution as a body cannot function without all of its organs, and so support to ensure that faculty, students, and staff have opportunities to engage in knowledge-building is essential.

Fifteen years after the Slavery and Justice Report, our country is currently facing yet another reckoning with systemic racism. Across the United States, we are witnessing disturbing attempts to enact voter suppression laws that disproportionately affect Black communities. Inequities in healthcare and health outcomes have become more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Simultaneously, we have seen the impacts of climate change disproportionately impact communities of color. These are significant and complex issues that continue to be intertwined with the legacies of slavery.

As we look to the years and decades ahead, we must hope that the current and future generations of Brown scholars and students whom we exhort to confront these important and complex issues will become deeply invested in this work and play a role in dismantling systems and structures of bias and discrimination — and that the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice will serve as a guide. This is far from the first time issues of racism and inequity have reached a boiling point in this country, and it certainly will not be the last. Brown is a university seeking to demonstrate that the country’s institutions must be willing to confront these issues to build a better future. This work requires steady and persisting dedication to progress and accountability. Through the Slavery and Justice Report and the subsequent work of its action plans to achieve diversity and inclusion, the University has established an obligation to continue to examine itself and its progress with a critical gaze.

Shontay Delalue, Ph.D., is Senior Vice President and Senior Diversity Officer at Dartmouth College. When composing this essay, she held the position of Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity at Brown University.