By Cristy Lytal
As the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the USC Price School of Public Policy, Professor LaVonna B. Lewis describes herself as “a peacemaker in a time of war.”
“I do feel that we’re at war,” said Lewis, who is also a Teaching Professor of Public Policy at the school. “And the war is between those who want to hold on to the past and white supremacy, and those who are looking to the future—who recognize that there are different voices, different narratives that need to be heard, different habits of being.
“I want people to understand that how we all got to USC is very, very different. What we all experience at USC is very, very different. And for some people, those differences can be debilitating, so they’re not able to be fully present. And it’s not just at USC, but in the broader society.”
Lewis knows that of which she speaks. She learned about unequal treatment based on race at a young age while growing up in Oklahoma City.
“The first time that I realized that I was Black, and that this had consequences for me, was when I was in the fifth grade. I went to a white napkin and white tabletop restaurant with an older couple and their granddaughter,” she said. “We sat for basically two hours, eating crackers and butter, because they didn’t want to serve us. And they finally came and took our order. So, at that moment, I realized that people could treat you differently based on how they saw you.”
Lewis went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oklahoma State University, and a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma School of Public Health.
“When I was in my master’s program, I was introduced to health disparities for the first time,” she said. “I realized that because of your racial identity, you could die sooner than other people.”
This had a profound influence on Lewis, who continued her academic journey by obtaining a PhD in political science from Rice University.
In 1996, Lewis joined the faculty of USC, and quickly realized that she might be the only black female faculty member that some students would have during their entire time at the university. She sees this as a privilege and an opportunity.
In her classes, she does exercises to encourage students to understand the perspectives of people of different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and cultural identities.
Lewis said: “What happens every time that we do the exercise is that some of the white students say, ‘This was hard for me, because I never have to think about these issues.’ It becomes a teachable moment, because then you can say, ‘Well, I want you to understand that that’s all the rest of us have to think about every day, because people are making judgments about us in those areas every day.’”
In 2015, Lewis was appointed as chair of a USC Price task force dedicated to increasing diversity. Shortly thereafter, in 2016, USC Price won a Diversity Award from NASPAA, the organization that accredits master’s programs in public policy, affairs, and administration.
In the same year, the school welcomed an incoming class in which 46% of domestic students came from underrepresented backgrounds, and 15% were international. In addition, the school had recently recruited 11 faculty members who were female or from underrepresented groups.
But there was still plenty of progress to be made, and Lewis and the task force were hard at work on a strategic plan to further enhance equity, diversity, opportunity and access from 2017–2022.
Titled “Inclusive Excellence at Price,” the nearly 50-page strategic plan outlines specific action items to promote three broad goals: cultural competency; recruitment, inclusion and career resources; and research and outreach in justice and public policy. Importantly, the plan also calls for targeted fundraising to support these efforts, and specific benchmarks to measure success.
“You can’t just tell people to do some different things,” said Lewis. “You’ve got to give them some support in terms of doing that. And so we really put together a broad agenda, because we recognize that for it to really make a difference, we have to do a deep dive in.”
Among other efforts, USC Price is developing a core curriculum to educate students about privilege, implicit bias and cultural competency. There is also a mandate for all required courses to cover at least two topics related to race, gender, and other protected characteristics.
The school will continue hosting key events, such as seminars focusing on racial justice and public policy, faculty and staff trainings, and listening sessions to give students and others a forum to voice their experiences and ideas. At the same time, there’s a concerted effort to eliminate “man-els” and “wh-anels”—expert panels composed exclusively of white males.
There is an area of inclusive equity that is often overlooked: our physical spaces. Cultural competency also means improving the school’s physical landscape with ADA-compliant door openers, a gender-neutral “family bathroom,” and a lactation room for nursing mothers.
“Something as simple as having classroom doors that are so heavy that people with a disability can’t get in the classroom or have to wait for somebody to let them in, not having a gender-neutral bathroom in Lewis Hall—all those things send an unintended message that you don’t belong here, or you don’t fit,” said Lewis. “We have place-based programs, we have design as part of what we do, and we have designed spaces that keep some people out.”
The school also is turning to its internal structures to make improvements, with several working strategies for enhancing recruitment, inclusion and career resources. These include outreach programs for local high school students from underserved communities, and efforts to recruit undergraduate, master’s and PhD students, as well as faculty and staff, from diverse backgrounds. To combat economic iniquities, especially those exacerbated by the pandemic, the school is also providing emergency funds for students without adequate home internet, as well as stipends to ensure that students have the means to accept unpaid internships and eventually participate in international labs once the pandemic is under control.
“We want to have the resources that allow people to diversify their experiences with some support from the school,” said Lewis.
On the research front, USC Price has always had done exceptional work related to social justice, with strengths in topics ranging from health care disparities to environmental equity to homelessness. To further enhance these areas of study, the school is introducing a postdoctoral fellowship for trainees interested in social justice-related topics, as well as an annual award for relevant faculty research. The school will also fundraise for a new Faculty Chair in Social Justice and Inclusion.
Through these and other efforts, Lewis believes that the school has made important strides during the first three years of its strategic plan, and she looks forward to more progress in the coming years.
“We are certainly not done but I think we’re in a better place than we were a few years ago,” she said. “We have an activated corps of faculty, staff, students and alumni who support the work. And we recognize that we can’t accomplish our mission as a school without an appreciation for the diversity of the communities that we’re trying to connect with.”
Teaching Professor of Public Policy
Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion