Spotlight: Nicole Martin and Rachael Deel, DEI Project Leads By George Wright
Dr. Nicole Martin and Dr. Rachael Deel are valued members of the University of Kentucky. They work hard to educate our community on topics surrounding unconscious bias and equity. I recently had the opportunity to learn from them.
What were you doing prior to coming to the University of Kentucky and what do you do now?
I earned my Master of Communication degree at the University of North Texas in 2007. I then took a brief hiatus from being a student and accepted an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Kentucky University because I thought Kentucky was a beautiful place, and I have family in the horse business. I quickly realized that I belong in higher education and just couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.
For me to achieve some of the career goals I had in mind I knew that I needed a PhD.
I found someone, Dr. Karen Tice, who engages with work related to diversity and equity, and I started developing a deep passion for this work. It was one of the first times that I began exploring the intersections of gender, race, and class.
This prompted me to apply for a PhD program in the college of education. Eventually I obtained a full-time staff position in Transformative Learning where I was the Assistant Director of PresentationU, a communication peer tutoring center. Through that position I had the opportunity to get to know and work with Dr. Nicole Martin.
I then accepted a position as Director of Academic Preparation and Placement (APP). This was a direction that my research aligned with the most, and I was excited for the opportunity to make an impact on students that often do not have their voices heard .
It also allowed me to be at some tables making policy decisions that I’m most interested in.
In my role, I work supporting students on their path to success. I help students overcome obstacles, which helps them better connect with their cohorts, and I work closely with colleges to advocate for these students and dismantle narratives, redefining some of those obstacles. About a year ago, I was asked to take on coordination of UK101, which I was very excited to do. Right now, I’ve had the opportunity to work with APP students at the University of Kentucky as well as build curriculum — two endeavors that are my professional passion.
My academic background includes performance studies, critical race studies and Black feminist studies. I had completed my dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin in December of 2015 and was on the job market. I never intended to go into a tenure track position, so I was looking for positions where I could apply.
I started at the University of Kentucky in the center for the enhancement of learning and teaching (CELT) under the direction of Kathy Kern. I was a faculty instructional consultant as well as one of the co-leaders on an initiative focusing on critical conversations about race and teaching with a colleague at the time, Dr. Ashley Sorell.
Most of my work centered around helping to create inclusive classroom spaces. In February 2018, I undertook the position of director of academic affairs for the Lewis Honors College.
As I worked in this environment, I engaged in many conversations that focused on how to make the College more inclusive and representative in curriculum building, in advising practices, and in the course offerings for honor students. In November of 2019, I stepped into my current position as director of inclusive excellence and diversity education (IEDE). IEDE is responsible for the unconscious bias initiative, which has been on campus since 2016. During my first year in this role, I was working to understand where unconscious bias was on campus.
What does the term unconscious bias mean?
Nicole Martin: Unconscious bias is the automatic association of stereotypes that work in favor of those most like us and against those most different from us. The key to that definition is automatic association of stereotypes. Feeding into the reductive and fixed ideas of who someone is detrimental to the mission of diversity and equity.
For example, I have an affinity for Texas. I love the state, and I love the people from the state. Hypothetically, if a job applicant says they are also from the University of Texas at Austin, my alma mater, I would look even more closely at their application. I have all of these favorable stereotypes about people who are from UT Austin, and I may automatically apply all of those favorable stereotypes to that job applicant. That is a playful example of unconscious bias. In the work out of my office, we unpack that idea as it applies to negative stereotypes that reflect and replicate structural and systemic bias.
In your opinion, what is the most important thing that you do for students, faculty or staff? What do you hope people learn from conversations with you?
Nicole Martin: I want to help people have a better understanding of how they show up in the world and how that impacts others, either positively or negatively, on this pursuit of social justice and equity. I want people to show up at one of our sessions and learn something that helps them think differently, helps them know themselves better and helps them understand how they are doing the work in the world or not doing the work in the world. That’s for them to understand, but I believe that better insight into self is one way to help people get there.
I also want people to understand that social justice and equity is work. It’s continuous and is a lifelong commitment.
Rachael Deel: When I’m working with students, it’s really important to me that students know I care about them and that their voices are valuable. One of my top strengths is individualism, and I think that has a significant impact on my approach to teaching and supervision. I put a lot of time and energy into reinforcing how important each individual is and understanding their story.
There's a larger, more significant story than what data or a single anecdote tells us. There’s a lot of context to individual students, and that matters in terms of how we think about shaping policy and decisions regarding these students’ pathways and experiences.
What is DEI, and why is it important?
Nicole Martin: I appreciate this question because my office talks frequently about the meaning and power of words. Sometimes diversity, equity and inclusion are used as “buzz words,” so it’s essential to understand the criticality of this work. Diversity, equity and inclusion are about making the necessary structural changes. Those among us who are most vulnerable to oppression and discrimination deserve to have the resources and the right support to live their full lives. Every individual, every human, should be valued, but there are structures in place that work to make people feel that they are not as valued.
Rachael Deel: I agree with Nicole. You hear diversity, equity and inclusion so much now that its meaning and intentions can sometimes be overshadowed. At UK, we are trying to understand the macro and the micro effects related to DEI. We are working to dismantle systematic and structural oppression to enact change, and we are starting by recognizing that our system – the rules and the policies in which our system operates – benefits some individuals at the harm of others. Why is that important? We have a moral obligation to recognize that it’s harmful to allow a small group of individuals to make decisions that benefit themselves and continue to exclude and marginalize the majority of individuals who contribute, participate and uphold the institution.