Expanding Understanding and Equity


Northern is committed to being a part of the national movement for improved social justice here on campus, in our local community and globally,” NMU President Fritz Erickson wrote in August, launching a restructuring of the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, to take Northern to a new level of social justice engagement.

Members of our university community have felt deeply and are hurting from the death of George Floyd and many other people of color, which has led to nationwide and global calls for an end to institutionalized racism. Embedded in our nation’s history, institutionalized racism and anti-Blackness have shaped the structures of our institutions, and higher education is no exception. The demonstrations taking place across the nation, including here in Marquette, clearly indicate that now is the time for Northern and all institutions of higher education to listen, learn and serve as engines of social change. Northern stands committed to prioritizing decisions and actions that help us achieve systemic equity.

These words are from NMU’s new, evolving, online resource site at nmu.edu/diversity/blm. Here viewers can access recommended resources on education and criminalization, health equity, social justice mathematics and science curriculum for K-12 teachers, podcasts, TED Talks, articles and a book list generated by the NMU English Department. Videos from upcoming Uniting Neighbors in the Experience of Diversity (UNITED) sessions will also be available.

Under the leadership of NMU’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Dr. Jessica Cruz, Northern’s campus cultural center is being restructured using a five-point framework that includes:

  • Cultural education
  • Social engagement
  • Student development
  • Community building
  • Environment enrichment

Northern will also continue to expand the Diversity Student Alliance as a way to make sure student voices are heard, and seek strategic perspectives and ideas from groups and departments across campus.

Read on for interviews with campus leaders, insights on metaracism and recollections and inspiration from our alumni.

Edited by Rebecca Tavernini ‘11 MA

Q&A with campus leaders:
Together up the stairs

“I encourage everyone at Northern, as well as our alumni, to think about what role you can take on to advance our efforts toward a more socially just world and then take action to bring about positive change.”

Fritz Erickson

NMU President

Lee XiongQ & A with Lee Xiong

Director of McNair Scholars and Freshman Fellowship Program


“My early childhood was spent living in a Thai refugee camp set up by the Thai government and the United States after the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos.”

Can you provide a little background about yourself and about your professional life?

My life started in a place very different from the Great Lakes region of the United States of America. The home I was born in has earth floors and walls with no windows made of plaited bamboo. My early childhood was spent living in a Thai refugee camp set up by the Thai government and the United States after the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos. My father was a child soldier fighting alongside American soldiers. His sacrifice and the sacrifice of my people gave me the life I have today. Never in my ancestor’s wildest dreams would a Hmong daughter like me be educated in a foreign land and now leading my life giving back to students who I share many things in common with. Being a first-generation, low-income student, TRIO Upward Bound gave me the resources I needed to apply for college. I started my education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before continuing my graduate studies at Michigan State University. I finished graduate school the year of the last presidential election, hence, I knew what I needed to do with the knowledge and skills I’ve gained. I wanted my labor to benefit low-income communities and communities of color who would be most affected by the changing landscape of educational policies. Out of graduate school, I rejoined with TRIO Upward Bound as an adviser and have now left Upward Bound for the TRIO McNair Scholars Program at NMU.

We are not very diverse at NMU, with about 12% students of color. Why is that and what are we doing to change it?

Since I’m new to the university, my words might not offer an answer but instead an observation. When deciding to make the move here, the first thing I looked at was the diversity of the staff and faculty. As a woman of color who has been a student myself, I can tell you that the lack of diversity in the faculty and staff at NMU left my stomach a little sour. This feeling reminds me of when I was searching for graduate school. I chose MSU because I could see myself reflected in the diverse faculty of the program. I would like to believe that if given the privilege, students of color would choose schools with staff and faculty members that reflect their diverse identities and lived experiences. If you want to grow your students of color population, invest in diversifying the faculty and staff so students can see themselves reflected back.

Also, can we talk about food? As a person with a southeast Asian palate, I feel like my access to food is very limited here. What do students with more diverse palates eat in this town? I always joke that when the ethnic or world food cuisine aisle is smaller than the dog and cat food aisle, I will for sure go hungry. If I were a student with no car and little money, I would not choose a school located in a town where I cannot find food that is part of my everyday diet. Food is identity, without it, you’ll start losing a part of yourself.

What fears and struggles do you hear from NMU students in these populations?

I haven’t been at NMU long enough to build community with diverse student populations and since we are currently living in a pandemic, I am especially not showing up in spaces students of color occupy. However, of the students of color I have met, I can say that they desire community and want to be in a community with diverse students. College is an important time for students of color to make sense of and practice how their different identities intersect and show up in various spaces. In order to practice, students of color need to be in a community with people who are going through and have gone through a similar growth process. Of course, another dilemma is, how does one facilitate a space that can imitate community during a pandemic. Aside from that, students are worried about stability. The chaos of 2020 and the elections make it hard for students to anticipate what next step is the safest step to take. But I must also say that the students of color I have met are extremely resilient and grounded in radical hope. I am thankful that they continue to remind me that we must work hard for our shared future.

What are we doing well to support them and what ways can we improve, as a university and community?

One thing that jumps out at me is the computer rental program at NMU. Access to a computer or wifi is a large barrier for students of color and low income students and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that every student gets their own computer. I would like to offer a piece of wisdom I learned during my graduate studies that really grounded the way I approach care and support. Eve Tuck, an amazing Indigenous scholar and educator, in her open letter, Sustaining Damage: A Letter to Communities, talks about how sustainable change that supports Indigenous and people of color communities should come from a place that is love or desire-centered.

Personally, why are you dedicated to working to create greater inclusion in higher education and deeper understanding of diverse cultures?

The truth is, I don’t have the privilege of not doing this work. My everyday life and life decisions are impacted by being something other than White. Doing this work affects my livelihood. I think those who are not invested in doing this work are either too privileged, not affected, or they fail to understand that despite being privileged, the fight for justice and equity in higher education affects all of us. I also do this work because I know what it feels like, I’ve lived what it means to be invisible, forgotten, pushed to the margins, and I especially know how to continue surviving in a system not created for me. I don’t want students of color or any student with marginalized identities to go through the experiences I’ve gone through in higher education, so I have to make sure that I am in the spaces I need to be to advocate for them.

What plans and goals do you have for the McNair Program and Freshman Fellows in the near future? What are some successes you are building on?

I have inherited two very successful programs that have been well cared for. I can already tell that some of the unsung heroes and heroines of the Freshman Fellowship and McNair Scholars programs are the amazing faculty who give our students the mentorship and research experience they need to be successful and competitive in their fields of study.

There are currently 19 students in the McNair Scholars Program. [The program aims to increase graduation rates and post-baccalaureate success among high-academically achieving, first-generation or minority students with financial need.] One of my most important goals is to get re-funded by the U.S. Department of Education. There is a huge need for a program like this at NMU. We are one of only five McNair Scholars Programs in Michigan.

We currently have 16 Freshman Fellows [academically talented students who work closely with faculty members and receive a $1,000 monetary award]. When Dr. Karen Reese, the former VP of Student Affairs, and her team launched this program in 1995, I believe they knew its potential and importance. I believe the program has even more potential and could serve as a blueprint for a first-year research enrichment program that is made accessible to all students.

How are you feeling about the many impactful events of 2020 and how our country can positively move forward?

I’m not sure I can answer this question because the messiness of 2020 has me feeling different emotions every other hour. The emotion I often feel is grief. I suppose I am grieving the losses of 2020, whether that be actual loss or anticipated loss. So many things that should have or could have, have not come to pass, and so many things we did not want to happen have come to pass. However, I would like to remind everyone to take care of their mental and physical well-being, because we still need you. In order to positively move forward, we need each other to be our best so we can continue to fight the good fight.

Talking about these issues is difficult and sensitive. What can we do in our daily lives to gain a better understanding of each other?

I come from a culture where we practice oral tradition/knowledge. Listening is a form of learning and teaching. My mom tells me that my years in school has one big limitation—I have forgotten the gift of listening. Listening requires one to not only open their ears but they must also open their eyes, heart, and spirits to truly listen. I believe that if we were better at listening, our comprehension of history and each other would be better, then we wouldn’t have to operate from a place of anxiety and fear of things we do not know.

What one book or film on these topics would you recommend to our alumni?

I recommend the letter I mentioned, Sustaining Damage: A Letter to Communities written by Eve Tuck.

Do you have anything else to add?

Yes, people often ask, what can I do to join the social justice efforts in higher education. First of all, you do you. Figure out how you can be a gift to this world by finding your own social justice language. Second, when is the last time you read a book by a black queer woman or quoted a non-binary South Asian American researcher in your work? Seek out, share, celebrate, teach people how to love the knowledge that comes from folks who are not always White. Third, when is the last time you felt the need to tell someone or make known that you’re really not racist or that you’re the good kind? Stop, sit with the uncomfortable, learn from it, and let it go. Next time, take a different approach. People of color are not responsible for making you feel like a good White person.

Amber MorseauQ & A with Amber Morseau

Incoming Director of the Center for Native American Studies


"Universities that have centers and academic programs focused on Native studies have the highest success rate for American Indian students.”

Can you provide a little background about yourself and about your professional life?

I am a Pokagon Band Citizen, Potawatomi, originally from the Ann Arbor area. I have a bachelor’s in psychology and anthropology and a master’s in educational leadership, higher education student affairs, both from Eastern Michigan University. Since then I have been the Native American Recruitment Coordinator at South Dakota State University, and later the American Indian Programs Coordinator. This time brought a lot of growth and inspiration to go beyond programming and recruitment, with a grant to conduct research to promote cultural connectedness to science in Storytelling through Science: Using Oral History and Chemistry to Revitalize Quill Working Societies, a project focusing on decolonizing curriculum in tribal schools and the rematriation of traditional knowledge in contemporary education. My family and I, Dominic and Dakota, and two dogs, Jax and Ellie, are excited to return to our traditional homelands.

What fears and struggles do you hear from students and youth in Native American communities?

One of the struggles I see is the lack of resources to succeed in higher education. These resources are not just in the classroom, they’re also counseling resources. American Indian students have the highest dropout rate out of any demographic in the United States. This number doubles if a student makes it to the college level. From my personal experience, I would have to say the hardest struggle is being seen in the classroom. There were not very many Native students in my school because in states with checker board reservations and larger urban populations, we resort to public schools for education. As Columbus Amber Morseau Incoming Director of the Center for Native American Studies day, thanksgiving, and pejorative mascots are still in our schools, our education system is inherently biased toward Native student success. As a result, our students are not seen as equals, or worse, assimilate to avoid being seen in order to succeed. When we break down stereotypes in our environment, students feel safe and supported, and this can be directly correlated to student success.

What are we doing well to support them and what ways can we improve, as a university and community?

Having a Center for Native American Studies and sacred sites on campus is a strong message. Many universities that have centers and academic programs focused on Native studies have the highest success rate for American Indian students. Indigenous faculty and staff are also critical in Native student success. In many conversations with students, part of the reason some individuals lack the confidence to apply or continue their education is because they don’t see others like them in positions of higher education. Finding a faculty mentor or a staff advisor who can identify with a student’s struggles or empathize with their experience can be a turning point for a student navigating higher education. In our communities we rely on the support of our relatives. We must create that same space in the university setting. Organic relationships are the center of my philosophy, I have an open door policy with students. I could be found in common spaces answering email just to be able to say “Hi!” to students, faculty and staff passing by.

Personally, why are you dedicated to working to create greater inclusion in higher education and deeper understanding of diverse cultures?

For me, I didn’t have the greatest experience in higher ed. I didn’t want other students to experience that same feeling. I remember when I was the president of our Native student organization at EMU, five of us were active in creating institutional change. We had a great time being activists, we created a lot of change, however it was a lot of work, a lot of hours and a lot of time taken away from studying. I’d like to think how much better my grades would have been had I spent more time in the books rather than in the streets. The point is, we needed advocates, and now I’m the advocate so I’m here to model the way as an administrator.

What plans and goals do you have for the Center for Native American Studies in the near future? What are some successes you are building on?

This can be a challenging question for me. I’m a dreamer, so when I get asked this question it can be easy for me to ramble on about all my hopes, dreams and realities for the center. In the near future, I would like to host a Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA) conference to showcase the great work our faculty and students are doing. We have a TEDNA-accredited program, so this would have the potential to increase enrollment at a national level, providing a more diverse demographic and an increase in pan-tribal knowledge.

The Earth is facing inevitable change. The more Indigenous knowledge we have to try and save our mother and our people is not only a benefit, at the very least it will provide us a different view of stewardship. Native studies is becoming increasingly more popular because of this. This can be a connecting door for other disciplines by creating a space of collaboration. Using our traditional knowledge base collaboratively, we are able to rewrite the narrative of education for Native students, so that we may see higher success rates, increased interest in STEM fields and more higher degrees of learning.

How are you feeling about the many impactful events of 2020 and how our country can positively move forward?

I know “hopeful” is not the word many individuals are using to describe 2020, however considering that I have been hired in the middle of a pandemic, especially when academia is cutting down on the number of personnel due to Covid-19 and budget cuts, I feel hopeful. This is the time to renegotiate our professions. How do we collaborate? What resources do we have available and how can we expand our circle to be more inclusive to those who complement our strengths and fill the gaps where needed? We can no longer afford to think about ourselves. I think 2020 is the year of clarity, the year we all realize we need to do more.

Talking about these issues is difficult and sensitive. What can we do in our daily lives to gain a better understanding of each other?

It is difficult, it is sensitive, but growing pains are uncomfortable. Addressing privilege is the forefront of this. I know that’s a bold statement but it’s true. For too long society has considered ownership and capital as the only means to survival and prosperity—a very colonial mindset. However, if we collectively move toward decolonizing our education and learn to be a more holistic community base, we can thrive further into the future, and honestly be happier individuals. Since moving back home, I have found that I am happier here. Granted I haven’t seen my first winter as a resident of the U.P., but waking up every morning and working on my garden that I plan to share with everyone makes me feel whole. Not only am I sharing my love for education, but my love for the earth and all she shares with us.

What one book or film on these topics would you recommend to our alumni?

The novel There, There by Tommy Orange, and the film More than a Word by John Little. Both of these works focus on the contemporary issues being faced by Native folks. It’s a good place to start, however, this is a journey, not a sprint. It will take time and investment, and honestly, people’s feelings are going to get hurt. But these are just some of the current issues we face as a people, not to mention 500+ years of oppression and loss that had been forced into us.

Jessica CruzQ & A with Jessica Cruz

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer


“I believe our work around equity must be collaborative, an intentional and sustainable team effort... to build university-wide initiatives focused on systemic change.”

We’ve seen too many cases in which racism and excessive force among law enforcement officers have resulted in unjustifiable death. What’s your perspective on why George Floyd’s murder has sparked noticeably more outrage, protests and conversation nationwide?

We are at an important and historic moment in our nation’s history. We are facing a global pandemic due to COVID-19, which we haven’t seen in our nation since the 1918 flu. As a result of the pandemic, we’re also facing the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression in 1929, and the greatest nationwide civil unrest since the 1960s. In each of these crises, communities of color experience disproportionate impact.

Data show that communities of color are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to many factors. These factors include increased exposure (a greater percentage of people of color are essential workers), less access to quality healthcare including COVID-19 testing and a greater chance of underlying health conditions (such as heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes are all more prevalent in the Black community in large part due to the effects of racism on health). Data also show that people of color also experience higher rates of under/unemployment. Coupled with these crises, communities of color, and Black men in particular, confront an inequitable system of law enforcement. In this area, data show that people of color are incarcerated at higher rates and with more severe sentencing while also experiencing the violence demonstrators are protesting across the nation at this time.

Given these three intersecting crises, communities of color are experiencing deep pain and exhaustion. Perhaps we have reached a turning point compelling people across the nation, and the world, to advocate for true systemic change to create a system that treats all persons fairly.

As you’ve watched the events unfold, why do you feel it’s important that the NMU Office of Diversity and Inclusion play a leading role in continuing the dialogue with the campus community about the systemic problems responsible for such incidents?

I believe our work around equity must be collaborative, an intentional and sustainable team effort. I have been leading groups, such as the President’s Committee on Diversity and the Diversity Student Alliance, to build university-wide initiatives focused on systemic change. In Fall 2019, the President’s Committee on Diversity, the President’s Committee on Gender and Sexuality, the President’s Strategic Planning and Budgeting Advisory Committee, and the Diversity Student Alliance hosted a joint session to identify opportunities to take our work further. That work is now even more important given the national events we are seeing unfold. I will continue to work with President Erickson and leaders across campus to centralize our efforts in this area as we work to create a more equitable campus community.

What type of programming or initiatives do you think would be most effective for addressing these issues on a college campus?

Both short-term and long-term initiatives are a part of this equation. All must tie back to a goal articulated in NMU’s Strategic Plan, to “identify and address the infrastructure necessary to support diverse campus populations.” To that end, I have been an active member of the National Association of Diversity Office of Higher Education (NADOHE), considered the pre-eminent voice for diversity officers in higher education. NADOHE short-term recommendations include creating consistent and ongoing spaces for dialogue and healing that clearly acknowledge the pain people of color are experiencing and offer connections to key services, such as counseling, and provide a space to process what is happening.

An example: During the Winter 2020 semester, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion partnered to launch a series called IDEAS, which stands for Inclusive Discussions for Educational Awareness. CTL’s Teaching and Learning Scholar, Lisa Flood ’83 BSN, ’88 MSN, organized highly structured sessions designed to shift the power structure towards highlighting student voices. The audience is faculty. Students select a moderator they trust who then asks questions of a student panel designed to explore topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion, such as race and accessibility in the classroom. Faculty listen and write questions on notecards submitted to the moderator who then consolidates questions for the panel. The goal is to provide a protected space in which students can tell faculty what they feel they need to succeed in their classrooms.

Long-term recommendations include professional development for leaders across all sectors of the university. The UNITED conference can serve as one mechanism for professional development. Resources available for UNITED and other programming initiatives for the academic year can focus on this goal. Additionally, I would then plan to collaborate with trained leaders interested in developing equity action plans for their units. This work involves creating and maintaining key groups, such as a potential climate or bias incidents management team and a systemic equity advisory council to identify and disaggregate institutional data to track progress and build on the work of the President’s Committee on Diversity. 

Another goal is to implement the transformation of NMU’s campus cultural center, as was outlined in the SRA process, to create a Student Equity and Engagement Center this semester. Again, all aligned with a goal articulated in NMU’s Strategic Plan, to “identify and address the infrastructure necessary to support diverse campus populations” to sustain an inclusive and equitable campus community for all.

In the meantime, what advice would you give to those who feel compelled to take action and/or make their voices heard that this can’t continue?

It’s important to focus on the core issue, systemic inequities, such as in our law enforcement system or health care system, that disproportionately and negatively impact people of color. This includes violence and loss of life. As we have seen, some peaceful demonstrations have been hijacked by groups with different agendas and sparking riots. It is important to both remind people of the true reason for these protests and to emphasize the need for peaceful demonstrations. Since we are also in the middle of a pandemic, it is crucial for anyone interested in participating in a demonstration to practice social distancing and wear masks. Lastly, it’s important to continue learning, to practice civic engagement, and to engage civil and respectful dialogue; all to help sustain an inclusive and equitable campus climate for us all at NMU.