Ruth Litovsky

The role of climate -- how people feel about where they are -- in diversity and inclusion effort is "ginormous," professor Ruth Litovsky told community members gathered at the Urban League.

Pat Schneider - The Capital Times

How does UW-Madison make you feel?

UW officials asked that question of some 25 community members, faculty and staff — many of them African-American — who gathered Wednesday evening for the second of four scheduled community listening sessions on diversity and inclusion at the university.

Sometimes UW makes them feel good, participants said. And sometimes UW makes them feel like they are not part of the university community.

UW’s developing plan, “Forward Together: UW-Madison’s Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence,” seeks to look beyond the counts of people in under-represented groups that shaped past diversity efforts, said professor Ruth Litovsky, who is co-chair of a committee working on the initiative.

“This is not just about the numbers, but about how people feel about their experience on campus. Do they feel at home or not?” Litovsky told participants in the session at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 Park St. Since her committee began soliciting comments on campus and in the community, it has become apparent that the issue of “climate” on campus is “ginormous,” she said.

Some participants Wednesday praised UW-Madison’s existing programs to foster diversity for making them feel welcome.

They mentioned programs like PEOPLE (Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence), that starts early to prepare low-income and first-generation-college students to attend UW; an annual picnic hosted for leaders of community organizations; and an employment program for minorities in Information Technology.

One African-American man recounted an instance of kindness — person to person — in the UW office where he worked that helped him connect with the local African-American community when he was new in town. A woman he worked with gave him a flyer about 100 Black Men of Madison, a nonprofit service organization.

“God bless her,” he said. “I walked into that event and said ‘this is where they are at.’”

People spoke, too, of not feeling like part of the university community.

One young woman told the crowd that although she was born and raised in Madison, she never set foot on campus until she enrolled at UW-Madison as an adult student this fall. If not for a summer camp for foster kids she attended at UW-Whitewater as a child, she probably never would have felt enough of a connection to the university to begin the coursework that led her to transfer to UW-Madison, she said.

One UW staff member said she worked on campus for four years before she was specifically welcomed. It happened while taking a social justice course that focuses on student experiences.

“It was the first time someone said ‘we’re happy you are here,’” she said.

Several African-American staff members asked why there are so few black supervisors and managers for the blue-collar jobs on campus.

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What would make people feel more welcomed by UW-Madison?

“Seeing faculty, staff and students who look like me,” said Wayne Strong, a retired lieutenant in the Madison Police Department who ran for the Madison school board last spring.

Better access by black and women business owners to UW contracts, suggested another participant; an easy, continuing way to register feedback on issues related to diversity and inclusivity, said one woman; more diverse make-up of committees that do UW hiring, said another.

Other participants suggested more community service requirements for students, and creating some for faculty.

One man said the university already has the secret to engaging the community: the UW Odyssey Project, a humanities class that gives low-income adults a jump start on college.

”If you are looking for a model of success in diversity and inclusion, look to Odyssey,” he said.