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Championing DEI in Education: Insights from Dr. Mary McConner

By Tammy Reese | Monday, May 14, 2024 | 12:58 PM ET

In an enlightening conversation with Dr. Mary McConner, a well-respected voice in the sphere of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in education, we explore the multifaceted approach required to foster truly inclusive learning environments. She brings a wealth of experience and a unique perspective shaped by her own challenges and triumphs. Through her leadership in various capacities within higher education and her current role as Founder and CEO of Inclusive Excellence Consulting, she underscores the significant, yet often overlooked, intersectionality of DEI with issues like accessibility and socioeconomic status.

Through her work, Dr. McConner not only champions the cause of DEI in education but also provides a powerful example of how overcoming obstacles and leveraging personal experiences can inspire positive change. With her guidance and insights, educational institutions and their communities are empowered to work towards a future where every student, regardless of their background or abilities, has the opportunity to thrive.

Give our readers a little background on who you are (i.e., born, raised, what you do, what led you to where you are now, etc).

I am the Founder and CEO of Inclusive Excellence Consulting–a full-service DEI consulting firm headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. I hold a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and possess extensive leadership experience. Some of my past professional leadership roles in higher education include serving as vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion (chief diversity officer), executive director of inclusive excellence, multicultural student services director, social justice committee chair, international education advisor, and university instructor.​

However, despite my qualifications, I sometimes faced significant challenges during the job application process throughout my career as someone who is dyslexic and a member of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community. Like many professionals who are neurodiverse and have non-apparent disabilities, it seemed that organizations struggled to fully embrace and include all aspects of my intersectional identities. Despite this, I discovered my true calling as an entrepreneur, consultant, and speaker, where I educate organizations about the significance of disability and neurodiversity inclusion, as well as other crucial aspects like gender inclusion and racial equity. In this role, I can be my authentic self, drawing on my entire human experience. Most importantly, I can still do what I love – educate on how to center equity and inclusive diversity so all students and educators can thrive. 

What role do you believe policymakers should play in advancing DEI in education?

Advancing DEI in education requires a multifaceted approach, and policymakers have a unique opportunity to use their platforms to drive positive change. Their power to shape policy can be a powerful lever for change. Funding formulas that prioritize underserved schools can directly address resource disparities while curriculum reform that reflects diverse perspectives can create a more inclusive learning experience.

The challenge, however, lies in balancing ideals with practicalities. While promoting inclusion is paramount, overreach in policy can lead to unintended consequences. Policymakers must navigate concerns about local control and ensure flexibility for diverse educational needs across communities.

Focusing solely on metrics like test scores can be a pitfall because true equity goes beyond these measures. We need to consider metrics that capture student engagement, representation in advanced coursework, and long-term success rates for students from different backgrounds. The most impactful policies will likely emerge from collaboration between policymakers, educators, parents, and community members. Open dialogue and diverse voices are essential for crafting solutions that address the specific needs and challenges of each community.

Policymakers can also shape public will around DEI in education. By championing these issues, they send a strong message that all students deserve an equitable learning environment. This can inspire increased public support for funding, resource allocation, and innovative educational practices that empower all students to thrive.

How can students play an active role in promoting and maintaining an inclusive educational environment?

Students have a powerful role to play in fostering inclusive learning environments. They can embrace empathy and understanding. By seeking out diverse perspectives in class discussions and challenging their own biases, they can create a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their unique voice.

Secondly, students can become allies to their peers. This means intervening when they witness microaggressions or instances of exclusion.  It also means celebrating differences and actively including classmates who might feel marginalized.

Lastly, students can use their creativity and initiative. Organizing cultural events, advocating for inclusive curriculum materials, or proposing changes to school policies are all ways students can directly contribute to a more inclusive learning environment.

Can you illustrate how DEI initiatives intersect with other issues, such as accessibility and socioeconomic status?

Absolutely, DEI initiatives intersect with other issues in profound ways, particularly accessibility and socioeconomic status.

Consider a student with a learning disability. An inclusive environment goes beyond simply having them in the classroom. It requires providing them with the necessary resources and support, such as assistive technology or modified assignments, to ensure they can fully participate and learn alongside their peers. This intersection between DEI and accessibility highlights the importance of acknowledging and addressing individual needs to create an equitable learning environment.

Students from low-income backgrounds often face challenges that impact their academic success. DEI initiatives must consider these factors. For example, offering after-school tutoring programs or providing access to free or subsidized lunches can help level the playing field and ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. In this way, addressing socioeconomic disparities becomes crucial for achieving equity in education.

These are just a few examples, but they demonstrate how DEI initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. When we recognize the interconnectedness of these issues, we can create a more holistic approach to education that ensures all students have the opportunity to thrive.

Do you feel alumni should get involved in furthering their institution's DEI goals post-graduation? Why do you think it would be beneficial or not?

Alumni involvement in their alma mater's DEI goals can help institutions advance the work, for sure. For institutions, alumni donations can directly fund scholarships for underrepresented students, faculty DEI training, or inclusive learning environment programs. Alumni can also become mentors and network connectors, providing invaluable guidance and support to current students, especially those from underrepresented groups. Their lived experiences and expertise offer crucial insights on how to improve the campus climate while their public support enhances the school's reputation and attracts a more diverse student body. 

Alumni themselves benefit too. Staying connected with their alma mater fosters a sense of belonging, and participating in DEI initiatives allows them to develop leadership and communication skills. It's an opportunity to give back, contribute to a more equitable learning environment for future generations, and potentially build new professional connections through shared passions for DEI. 

How can people connect with you?

Those keen on learning more about groundbreaking work taking place at Inclusive Excellence Consulting or seeking inspiration on how to embed equitable practices within their organizations can explore further through our website or connect via social media platforms such as Instagram (@mjmcconner), Facebook, or LinkedIn (@inclusiveexcellenceconsulting).


About Tammy Reese

Owner of Visionary Minds Public Relations and Media, Tammy Reese is an award-winning writer and journalist best known for landing major interviews with Angela Bassett, Sharon Stone, Sigourney Weaver, Laurence Fishburne, Geena Davis, Billy Porter, Morris Chestnut, Nelly, Mona Scott Young, Giancarlo Esposito, Luke Evans, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Jennifer Connelly, Joseph Sikora, Meagan Good, Leon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Phylicia Rashad, Omar Epps, Courtney Kemp, Vivica A Fox, Ryan Coogler, and so many more.

She is a proud member of ForbesBLK as well as New York Women in Film and Television.

Other articles by Tammy Reese in Vision & Purpose LifeStyle Magazine.



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