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Salena Brody




Change cuts deep (in the heart of Texas)

Salena Brody, Professor of Instruction, Psychology and Associate Director, Center for Teaching and Learning, The University of Texas at Dallas
2023 Outstanding Teaching & Mentoring Award Recipient

“My words here reflect my thoughts as a private citizen.” That’s a phrase I’ve sprinkled in talks over the past few years and one that applies to this essay. I’m not alone – several of my colleagues whose work centers on social issues pepper this phrase into their expert analysis. We do this because diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) legislation in our home states has put our work in the hot seat.

Effective December 31st, 2023, Texas public higher education institutions shuttered all Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offices and related activities. Center names will change, jobs will change. DEI programs – built and improved upon over the years - have been combed through to ensure compliance with the new law. My colleagues will continue to work within the parameters of the new laws to support student success as best they can, but identity-focused programming helped them reach the populations they served effectively. For now, classrooms and research are marked safe from interference in Texas, but it doesn’t feel so safe, to be honest. Look only to cases where discussing scholarly expertise with students was met with professional censure. With the work of our campus partners compromised, it’s hard to know where vulnerable students will look for and find the support services they need. So much of the legislative language about what is allowable is vague and it’s easy to over-comply out of fear.

When I spoke at the June 2023 SPSSI conference as a recipient of the Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring award, the legislation had just freshly been signed into law. The lead-up to this had weighed heavily on DEI champions, uncertain about what the future would hold. Students looked to us for guidance and hope. In the months leading to SB17 passing, I spent class time with my Psychology of Prejudice class discussing how the laws connected to intergroup relations research. Students expressed concerns about what would happen to the gender center, whether multicultural offices would be affected, and what motivated politicians to eliminate DEI offices. They made connections to work by SPSSI members – on framing, critical histories, intergroup contact, tokenism, intersectionality, and more. The students wondered and worried how this would affect generations of students to come.

At SPSSI, my talk focused on how to broker hope when your heart is broken. The legislation in Texas and in other states demoralizes so many of our campus communities. Students have often been at the forefront of social change and my sense is that faculty can equip them with skills that support their goals. Our students will be faced with solving big and seemingly intractable challenges – including the attack on DEI and higher education, countering disinformation, acting on climate change, and more. Relationships built in classrooms and fostered in mentoring relationships can prepare students for the hard work ahead. To this end, I believe teachers and mentors can identify particular skills that can be practiced in and out of the classroom. I’ve created a curriculum that helps students develop three skills: learning to identify gaps in your knowledge base, building social networks and capital, and practicing how to consume and analyze current events. Applied to course content, these skills empower students to transform their passion for social issues into meaningful action, mirroring the spirit of SPSSI. The 2024 SPSSI conference theme is about using psychological science to reinvigorate DEI efforts. In these challenging times when some of us feel alone and worried about the future, SPSSI reminds me that I may be speaking as one private citizen, but I am part of a collective working for the public good.

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