Serve Before You Celebrate

Is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (September 15–October 15) in your fall content calendar? How was Pride Month? Do you already have plans for Black History Month? 

These are the wrong questions.

This year, a brave marketer asked me how she should respond to an executive who asked her to spend a majority of her time researching “diversity days” and ensuring social media content was created to recognize them.

I quickly responded, “How are you serving historically marginalized populations on your campus? When you post about Jewish holidays, are you also ensuring exams aren’t scheduled on them? Do Black students see themselves reflected in your faculty and curriculum? Do your policies favor families formed through heterosexual relationships? Have you built your curriculum and facilities around White, often male, norms?” 

If you’re not addressing those things, the programming and communication you’re creating for heritage months or cultural celebrations is performative. When you effectively serve all people, recognizing them on a particular day or month of the year will become less of a focus.

The people we celebrate with the cultural calendar are your audience, and you must get to know them.

13 million people in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, including 9.5% of youth ages 13–17. 1.4 million adults and 150,000 kids ages 13–17 identify as trans. They need to be seen, heard, served, and respected all twelve months of the year, not just in June.

40% of the U.S. population is non-White—that increases to 49% for Gen Z, which is 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, and 5% Asian. They need to be represented, understood, invested in, and respected beyond their designated month.

The student who pursues higher education in 2030 won’t have a lot in common with the student who stepped onto campus in 2000, which is when I entered college. My lived experience (and perhaps yours) isn’t the best reference to inform education offerings for students today—and in years to come.

The typical student most institutions were built to serve (recent high school graduates from a middle to upper-middle class family) are declining in numbers, but that “demographic cliff” should scare you less if you’re prepared to serve the students who reflect our country’s younger demographics. They’re more likely to be female, less likely to be white, and more likely to fit the profile of a “non-traditional” student—over the age of 24, working full-time, possessing some credit but no degree, and/or a parent. These students have been underserved for decades, yet the health and longevity of many institutions will now depend on their ability to attract and retain them.

Serve them first, then celebrate them. If not, they’ll see right through your performative inclusivity. To serve well, use listening as a proactive, ongoing strategy to deepen your understanding of your community.

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