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An Open Letter to My Colleagues
And Other Supporters Of Affirmative Action

" ... making affirmative action a core value ..."

by Jose J. Soto
Lincoln, Nebraska

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr. Seuss

Dear Colleagues:

Yearly, at our regional and national AAAA (American Association for Affirmative Action) conferences, we individually and collectively celebrate and recognize our personal, professional and institutional commitments and achievements in the areas of affirmative action, diversity, and unity. Indeed, these are important milestones that should cause us to pause and reflect about our progress and contributions to the field of affirmative action. As I complete my 11th year of full time endeavor in the field, I want to share with you my observations, concerns and visions regarding affirmative action in the past, the present and the future.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to share impressions with you about affirmative action, our roles as affirmative action officers, and our progress -- or lack thereof -- at our respective institutions. Through those dialogues, discussions, and debates I have come to better understand and appreciate our collective efforts, challenges, and successes in the areas of affirmative action and diversity. In a nutshell… “There’s been good times, and there’s been bad times.” And those of you who keep an eye on developments in these arenas know that the “bad” times seem to have been a more frequent reality than the “good” times. Too often, the reprisals have outweighed the rewards, the criticisms have eclipsed the kudos, and the retrenchments continue to overshadow the modest progress we have made.

Regardless, I take this opportunity to commend you for staying true to your individual and collective commitments that make our organizations and institutions more accessible, more welcoming, and more representative for our customers and constituents. Of late, this has not been, and in the future will certainly not be, an easy commitment to live up to. Let me summarize the context that makes our achievements that much more significant, and that should make our celebration of them that much sweeter.

First, the attacks on affirmative action, particularly in higher education settings, have increased significantly. Those efforts are well orchestrated, well funded, and designed to dismantle a system that has just started to have an impact, albeit modest. California, Texas, Michigan, Washington, and Florida are a few of the states that have served as the battlegrounds in this “war” against affirmative action. The list will grow, the battles will be more frequent, and the casualties will increase. And while the results of these battles have been, and will continue to be, mixed and open to interpretation, the over-arching message should be clear to us all… the assault on affirmative action has just begun, and these aggressive efforts to eliminate it as a tool of equal opportunity will not cease.

Secondly, the socio-politico-economic mood of the country is such that it seems to support and justify the attacks on affirmative action. Too often, we hear that sufficient progress has been made; that affirmative action is no longer needed; that the social “debt” incurred through years of constitutionally protected discrimination and exclusion against certain groups in our society has been paid. In the minds, words and actions of the increasingly emboldened many, affirmative action as a tool of social equalization has done its job… it’s no longer needed. For a number of reasons, many individuals … even some who are on the more liberal end of the political and philosophical spectrums… are saying, “enough is enough.”

Lastly, judicial, legislative and executive branch scrutiny of affirmative action programs will continue to increase significantly at all levels of government and in more sectors of our society. For example, our national judiciary continues to make more pronouncements limiting affirmative action as an appropriate remedy for discrimination. And while these pronouncements may only limit affirmative action, too many "supporters" have reacted as if these decisions and initiatives have tolled the death of affirmative action.

These court decisions and legislative initiatives have created, in addition to negative coverage in the popular media, confusion and wavering support for affirmative action. They have also served to sway the lukewarm and “fair-weather” supporters of affirmative action toward a less aggressive and less controversial posture of mere verbal "support." This has resulted in a willingness to talk of support for affirmative action in principle, and, too often, an unwillingness to take any meaningful action in response to the attack on affirmative action. This is especially true if the response in support of affirmative action as a tool toward increased inclusion and participation of minorities and women means expending any political, personal or professional capital.

This is certainly a grim picture I have painted. It may not be what you would have expected for a message of celebration. But these musings reflect the social, political, philosophical and legal contexts that we must understand if we are to continue to give life to our commitment to affirmative action, equity and diversity in this country. It is a reality that we must acknowledge and commit ourselves to counter with a heightened sense of urgency, purpose, resolve, and willingness to contribute to saving affirmative action as a tool of equal opportunity.

If advancement and protection of civil rights continues to be an important part of the mission, then our leadership and we must continue to be vocal and unwavering in our commitment to promoting and supporting affirmative action, equity and diversity. If our personal and collective philosophy to redress social injustices is still deemed worthy of protection and advancement, something more than a perfunctory "fight" in defense of affirmative action must be mounted, lest these much needed programs fade unceremoniously into history, relegated to a mere footnote in the annals of the civil rights movement.

The choice seems simple: we must either continue to zealously support affirmative action, or we must dispense with the empty rhetoric of social justice as a core principle of our personal and organizational philosophies. I trust the vast majority of us will choose to continue to assiduously support the cause and the work of our affirmative action colleagues. Further, I am hopeful we will publicly renew our collective commitment to enhancing and ensuring diversity, inclusion, and representation within our organizations. Representation of not only those of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, but of women, and people with disabilities, and individuals with different sexual orientations.

In closing, let me share with you a list of things that we must continue and augment to ensure that our institutions do not become casualties in the war against affirmative action.

1. Focus on making affirmative action a core value and a guiding principle within the organization.

2. Make affirmative action an explicit part of the organization’s vision and mission statements.

3. Resist institutional efforts to eliminate the words “affirmative action” from the organization’s social justice lexicon.

4. Work toward adopting a policy that will serve as a clear statement that affirmative action is “alive and well” and a priority within the organization.

5. Develop the expectation that promoting and supporting affirmative action, as a tool toward attaining diversity within the organization, is everybody’s responsibility.

6. Require that diversity-related topics and issues, including affirmative action principles and goals, are part of all staff and organizational development and training activities.

7. Ensure that “diversity” goals are part of the performance evaluation expectations for all employees, particularly those in leadership positions within the organization.

8. Advocate for a discrete and adequate budget to support meaningful diversity related activities within the organization.

9. Make acknowledging, rewarding, and celebrating “diversity” achievements and contributions an integral part of all recognition activities within the organization.

10. Establish and communicate the decision-making authority and management support needed to implement effective affirmative action programs and activities.

11. Advocate for and facilitate the building of interracial, intercultural, and interethnic coalitions.

12. Continue to assess and proactively address changes in the organizational, social, and political environments of the future.

I am hopeful you will continue to change and exert leadership in you sphere of authority and influence, and demand that others in the organization do the same. However great or small… all contributions must be welcomed, acknowledged, and are needed to ensure a vibrant and meaningful future for affirmative action, equity and diversity in our country. I applaud your efforts, celebrate your accomplishments, and wish you continued success in 2003.

Thank you.

Jose J. Soto
Vice President for AA/Equity/Diversity
Southeast Community College Area
Lincoln, Nebraska

Letter dated November 6, 2002

Jose Soto is 2nd Vice President - American Association for Affirmative Action and Vice President for AA/Equity/Diversity Southeast Community College Area. Lincoln, Nebraska. .

Published in In Motion Magazine, November 10, 2002.

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