‘Diversity is one of our greatest strengths’

Ask Percival Matthews about his vision for what equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work across the UW–Madison School of Education should look like, and he pauses for a moment.

He has his own ideas. Plenty of them. But he also acknowledges that EDI work can be hard — and stresses how one person can’t do it all alone.  

“The School of Education is a learning organization, and I’d like to challenge all of us to think about how we can work together — learning with and from each other — to generate positive and lasting change within the EDI realm,” says Matthews, who was named the School’s associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion this past spring, a position he had held on an interim basis since Aug. 1, 2021.

Matthews is no stranger to the School of Education, having served as a faculty member with the No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology since 2012. Over the past decade he has established a highly successful research portfolio through his Mathematics Education Learning and Development Lab and is the co-designer of the newly enhanced Education Graduate Research Scholars (Ed-GRS) program.

Today, Matthews is focusing the bulk of his energy on leading the School’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI) — and making sure faculty, staff, and students have the resources and tools they need to participate in OEDI’s important work.

“Diversity is one of our greatest strengths — and this office holds a great deal of potential,” says Matthews. “That excites me.”

This important work is taking on an elevated place among the strategic priorities of the School of Education. In the coming year, departments and units across the School will be soliciting input from their members and developing and submitting annual EDI action plans to the Dean’s Office. In addition, faculty and staff across the School will be required to take part in at least four hours of EDI-related professional development. 

“We, as a School, will be collectively starting a journey to more intentionally engage with learning and professional development related to EDI,” says Matthews. “Our office will play an important role in guiding and supporting many of these efforts.”

The School’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is housed in a recently updated space on the main floor of the Education Building (room 145, just inside the iconic red doors). The OEDI team now includes four full-time staff members: Sam Becker, director of teaching and innovation; Maame Adomako, undergraduate program manager; Tricia Dusick, graduate program manager; and Jason Roth, administrative specialist.

Matthews sat down with Todd Finkelmeyer from the Communications & Advancement Office to talk about his work and OEDI:
How are you feeling today about the direction of OEDI? 

One of the things I’m most excited about is how we’ve staffed this office. We now have a very talented crew, and we’ve started building some momentum. As just one example, over the summer we relaunched the Summer Education Research Program (SERP) that provides valuable opportunities for underrepresented undergraduate students to engage in independent research guided by a faculty mentor from our School. Many SERP scholars go on to graduate school in their chosen fields.

One key focus now is on the question: How can we best develop various learning and professional development programs that can have a significant impact on our School community?

What can you tell us about efforts to ensure that all departments/units across the School develop EDI action plans? The idea is to make developing an EDI action plan a group activity, where people within departments and units will be learning from and with each other on a continuous journey. The goal is to foster important conversations. To make this possible, people within each department or unit will come together and decide what makes sense in terms of EDI goals that they want to achieve and professional development opportunities that they want to pursue. We really want people within departments and units to set their goals collectively.

Action plans should include a brief description of the unit’s EDI-professional development focus for the year as well as any group-level PD for the year.

The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI) team includes (left to right) Sam Becker, Jason Roth, Percival Matthews, Maame Adomako, and Tricia Dusick.

In addition to the department and units developing action plans, faculty and staff will be tasked with taking part in EDI professional development. What do you want people to know about these efforts? 

The plan is for every person across the School to participate in at least four hours of professional development centered on EDI. What this will look like from person to person can be quite different — it’ll depend on the employee’s personal goals and on the department or unit’s overarching plan. Each department or unit will help provide employees with a menu of professional development options to choose from. These efforts are going to be tied to each person’s annual performance review. 

This is a big deal. We acknowledge that we don’t have it all completely ironed out and that this will be a work in progress. But we need to start somewhere and get the process started. This will help us develop a stronger EDI foundation across our School.

What role will your office play in these efforts? 

OEDI will provide support and resources. We’ll have examples of EDI-PD action plans and templates. We’ll provide a repository of School of Education and campus level EDI-PD opportunities. Additionally, Sam Becker, OEDI’s director of teaching and innovation, will help develop and lead professional development and help interested departments and units develop their own peer learning communities. Those are some of the supports we’ll be offering.

I think most agree that these efforts are important. But as you noted, EDI work can be very difficult. 

Absolutely. When it comes to EDI efforts, we know some people get really nervous. Some get very emotional and have a tough time having productive conversations. This work is difficult. One key will be in cultivating a space where people can have real conversations and where people approach difference with curiosity and grace. I’m hoping that some people become more willing to engage in important conversations and consider challenging input without defensiveness. I’m hoping others are willing to approach topics with a little less certainty and are willing to listen. Getting people to feel comfortable and getting conversations going is the key.

So, yes, this work is challenging. But it creates numerous possibilities and I’m excited about what might be possible.