- Campus DEI programs include more than just scholarships, and it's unclear how far proposed legislation in Florida will reach.
- DEI programs often help students of color feel their identities are validated and supported, which supports mental health.
- To remove such programs poses developmental harm to all, but particularly to young people of color.
One of the highlights of my college career was being a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO). Our chapter at the University of Southern Mississippi, a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), would not only provide the space for me to become a scholar and campus leader, but it would also give me a place to belong and form lifelong bonds with people who looked like me. (At the time, I didn’t know how much my membership in this sorority would support me in my adult years as well.)
Fast forward more than 20 years to today, where two higher education bills are being proposed in the Florida House and Senate to remove diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) programs from college campuses—some of us older members fear Black Greek Life might get swept under this umbrella. While DEI programs are generally thought of as institutional programs to increase minority representation or participation, they can also include targeted academic and social offerings. Lawmakers claim certain ‘cultural support’ programs would be allowed to remain, but the legislative waters seem too murky for clear confirmation of what’s truly on the chopping block.
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history to date—there are more people identifying as people of color than ever before—so the implications of these laws could have far-reaching ramifications for young people in Florida and beyond. Having spaces that value inclusion and belonging are key to a person’s psychological development, beginning in childhood. For all adolescents and young adults, having people, places, and spaces that support young people being their authentic selves is crucial for both healthy development and mental wellness.
But this is particularly true for young people of color. The historical legacies and present-day realities of discrimination can cause serious psychological harm. Honoring racial and ethnic identities is a strong defense against that type of damage. Those who are allowed to explore their ethnic and racial backgrounds as part of their overall identity development often report higher levels of self-esteem, greater academic achievement, fewer depressive symptoms, and lower rates of tobacco or alcohol dependence.
Springtide Research Institute recently released Navigating Injustice, a special report featuring insights from young Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) on how race, faith, and mental health intersects for them. They shared that their mental and spiritual health depends in part on how the spaces and places around them recognize and celebrate who they are. Some even described their racial identity as a spiritual gift, one that directs the divine’s purpose for their lives.
One of the participants shared, “I could’ve been born a White man. I could have been born a Hispanic girl. But I am African, I am a Black man. There’s a reason for that. God can use me in this way. He has designed me to go to certain spaces where other people can’t go.” For young people of color, leaving their racial and ethnic identities at the door is to not only to ignore pieces of themselves, but perhaps also to deny a divine birthright that leads them toward purpose and meaning. For most BIPOC young adults, ignoring key elements of one’s identity is simply not an option.
Yet, laws like these being considered in Florida would take away a certain part of young people’s agency. Schools, classrooms, and the peer relationships within them are important environments for development, and if the programs that help them learn, belong, and excel in those places are removed, that affects both how they see themselves and the power they perceive they have. Sadly, perhaps that’s the point.
I know what it meant for me to have a place and space to learn more about what it is to be a Black woman—to see the potential I had, the ways I could show up, who I could eventually become. And even if fraternities and sororities for minorities are still allowed to exist on these campuses, the removal of other programs in that same vein will create a void for today’s young people—one that does not serve their mental, emotional and spiritual health. Part of the beauty of our world is that our unique selves each contribute something different toward it. In not allowing young people to be fully who they are, we rob all the rest of us of what could be.
Frey, W.H. (2021, August 13). New 2020 census results show increased diversity countering decade-long declines in America’s white and youth populations. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-2020-census-results-show-increased-diversity-countering-decade-long-declines-in-americas-white-and-youth-populations/
Hope E.C., Brinkman, M., Hoggard L.S., Stokes, M.N., Hatton, V., Volpe, V.V., Elliot, E. (2021). Black adolescents' anticipatory stress responses to multilevel racism: The role of racial identity. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 91(4):487-498. doi: 10.1037/ort0000547.
Mandler, C. (2023, March 16). Florida bill targeting "diversity, equity, or inclusion" on college campuses advances to state Senate. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/florida-hb-999-diversity-equity-inclusion-college-campus-bill-advances/
Mathews, C.J., Medina, M.A., Bañales, J. et al. (2020). Mapping the Intersections of Adolescents’ Ethnic-Racial Identity and Critical Consciousness. Adolescent Research Review, 5, 363–379. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-019-00122-0
Osterman, K. F. (2000). “Students’ Need for Belonging in the School Community.” Review of Educational Research, 70: 323–367. doi:10.2307/1170786.
Tueme, N. (2023, March 13). Young people flourish where faith leaders see color. Religion News Service. https://religionnews.com/2023/03/13/young-people-flourish-where-faith-leaders-see-color/
Varn, K. (2023, March 6). As DeSantis, legislature weaponize diversity initiatives, many are enshrined in Florida law. Tallahassee Democrat. https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/politics/2023/03/06/desantis-weaponizes-dei-initiatives-as-many-are-enshrined-florida-law/69950245007/