Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D.
Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D.

By Su Byron

Colleges and universities across the nation strive to foster the values of diversity, inclusion and equity on their campuses. But what does that mean in practical terms?

For Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New College, it’s more than an academic question. It’s a question of applied ethics.

“You can’t be a detached observer when it comes to these issues,” Hernandez said. “There are times you have to stand up and take sides. If you refuse to take sides, you’re already on the wrong side.”

Hernandez learned that lesson early. She recalls a childhood memory that burned it on her brain.

She was sitting in a bus in Mexico City. Outside her window, she saw a man viciously beating another man. The crowd surrounding them stood by and watched. Nobody stepped in to help. Why not? Her young mind found it difficult to grasp.

“That incident stuck with me over the years,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t intervene, you end up being a conduit to harm. I vowed that I would never do that. I can’t stand and do nothing while somebody else is being victimized. I don’t want to be a conduit, so I try to do what I can.”

Hernandez joined the New College faculty in 1996. She brought her sense of ethical engagement with her. It’s at the heart of what she teaches. It also informs her work for two game-changing faculty groups.

Hernandez facilitated the creation and is a member of the Faculty of Color and Underrepresented Groups (FOCUG) at New College. She is also a co-director (along with New College Associate Professor of Sociology Queen Meccasia Zabriskie, Ph.D.) of the Initiative on Diversity and Equity in Academics (IDEA).

As Hernandez describes it, the FOCUG formed in 2017 as a common-cause collective for New College faculty members. IDEA grew out it.

What’s the big idea? Creating clarity on diversity and equity. And doing so across New College’s academic curriculum.

“We address those issues in a number of courses,” Hernandez explained. “But that knowledge is fragmented—in bits and pieces. We offer courses on gender studies, African-American studies and so on. What we lack is a unified, theoretical understanding across the curriculum. To make that happen, you need a formal structure in place to look at the big picture.”

Hernandez and Zabriskie were already doing some of that work on an unofficial basis. In October, the College made it an official position. As IDEA’s official co-directors, Zabriskie and Hernandez have been working hard ever since.

The parameters of the initiative?

“We’re developing an interdisciplinary course on race and ethnicity,” Hernandez said. “We’re mapping out which academic programs currently deal with these subjects. What do we offer and what are the gaps? We’ll study that, and then fill in the gaps.”

How do you teach students to think about diversity? Slogans won’t cut it, Hernandez said.

“You can’t take a simplistic approach,” Hernandez said. “The diversity of human identity embraces race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, economic class, immigration status and religion, among others. They all play a part. They’re all constantly changing and they all intersect.”

Hernandez adds that prejudice impacts the lives of people in all of those groups. The impact isn’t always evident.

“It’s a question of perception,” she said. “I have a lighter skin color, so racism didn’t negatively affect me as much. My sister has darker skin and, for her, the impact has been much more painful.”

Changing attitudes is only part of the equation. You have to change institutions as well.

“I am a sociologist,” Hernandez said. “The economic side of life is my area of focus. I’m extremely aware of institutional racism and institutional privilege. Structural inequality is very hard to fight, but it’s the source of so many problems.”

Hernandez points out that low minimum wages lock families in a cycle of poverty. Insider networks in private and public institutions have the same effect.

“It’s a nuanced discussion,” she said. “To create solutions, we have to look at both sides of the picture—both attitudes and institutions need to be addressed. We need to start that conversation now.”

According to Hernandez, that’s the goal behind New College’s new intergroup dialogue programs. Following a model created at the University of Michigan, these programs not only create dialogue; they teach students how to have a dialogue. Intergroup dialogues encourage direct encounters and exchanges about contentious issues—and can foster a deeper awareness of perspectives outside of one’s own social identity groups.

“There’s a difference between discussion and debate,” Hernandez said. “We are taught to discuss and debate rather than pursue mutual understanding. We need a deeper comprehension of the social systems that govern the world, critical thinking skills, and a willingness to get to know each other in order to be able to have a dialogue.”

Creating a never-ending dialogue is a key element of New College’s mission—even when diversity, inclusion and equity are hard to discuss.

“We still have a long way to go,” Hernandez said. “But we’re off to a very good start—and that really takes courage.”

Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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