Social Justice Activist Deepa Iyer Urges GW to Tackle Racism

At the Diversity Summit, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement honors Dr. Knapp for his commitment to diversity and inclusion.

March 31, 2017


Social justice activist Deepa Iyer told GW's Diversity Summit that finding solutions to diversity issues requires acknowledging racial realities and embracing discomfort. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

George Washington University convened its second annual Diversity Summit at a time when the country is undergoing heightened tensions around race and immigration.

As it got underway Wednesday morning in Jack Morton Auditorium, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, explained GW is not immune to some of the anger and disquiet that was unleashed during the 2016 elections.

“At this moment in history,” she said, “having conversations about diversity and inclusion, engaging the people around us, trying to understand their perspectives, and doing so with compassion for our fellow students, faculty and staff is an important place to start.”

Before introducing the morning’s plenary speaker, George Washington President Steven Knapp said the Diversity Summit is part of a process that was started years ago to enhance the inclusivity and diversity of the university.

“We were focused on the realization that we can’t really succeed as an institution unless we are open to the talents and passions, the interests, the enthusiasms, the contributions of people from all communities across this nation and really globally,” he said.

This year the Diversity Summit was open to students, offering sessions on gender, sex and trans identities, non-traditional students and diversity in science, among others, and scheduled from early morning to late evening to provide greater opportunity for students to attend.

Ms. Laguerre-Brown said her office received dozens of proposals for subjects and more than 350 people registered for the summit.

The plenary speaker, Deepa Iyer, a social justice activist and senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, said her personal experience as an immigrant who grew up in the American South shaped her understanding of diversity and inclusion. Her parents immigrated to Kentucky from India when she was 11 years old.

“It was a confusing experience,” Ms. Iyer said. “I wasn’t really sure what my place was in terms of my racial and immigration identity.”

It led her to pursue a career in civil rights law. But the watershed moment for her and other South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and Arabs, she said, came after the 9/11 attacks contributed to increased Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States.

She laid out in her presentation the numerous attacks and incidents targeting the South Asian community that subsequently occurred, the massacre by a white supremacist of six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the killing of three graduate students by a neighbor in North Carolina in 2015, and the shooting last month of an Indian engineer in Kansas.

These incidents occurred, she said, as the country was becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

“The question we need to simultaneously ask ourselves is this one, ‘Are we keeping pace as a nation to address the tremendous racial disparities that continue to exist in our nation even as the population numbers shift rapidly?’” Ms. Iyer said. “I think that we’re not yet doing so in a way that we should.”


Dr. Knapp's commitment to diversity and inclusion was recognized with the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal at GW's Diversity Summit. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Finding solutions to these issues may involve a degree of discomfort that she said would involve a personal and collective inquiry. “It goes something like this, how do I, how do we create equitable, an inclusive and safe campus and learning environment that also acknowledges and addresses racial realities,” she said. 

She laid out a framework for students, faculty and staff that looks at these issues through the lens of race while understanding that “we are not just talking about race” but also gender, sexual orientation and disability.

She said there are people on campuses like GW who come from communities that have been targeted by violence and discrimination. They may be fearful, feel a sense of shame, isolated and not ask for help.

Ms. Iyer offered the audience a mnemonic to follow: BUILD, as in build bridges, understand history, be informed, lead by example and disrupt the status quo where it does not serve us.

Following an exchange with students, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement awarded Dr. Knapp with the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal to honor his longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.