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Macdonald DeWitt Library at SUNY Ulster

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice: Equity and Inclusion

Diversity - Equity - Inclusion logo

Why Diversity Matters

The United States of America is viewed the world over as a leader in democracy and democratic ideals. Our nation, young by most standards, continues to evolve to make freedoms and opportunities available to all. Where the benefits of citizenship have been imperfect, discord over issues related to civil rights and inclusion have often been at the center of the conflict.

To understand the importance of civility and civil engagement, it is necessary to acknowledge our country’s history. The United States is a country born out of protest, with colonists protesting what they felt were unfair taxes under King George III. Ultimately, conflicts over democratic representation and legitimate government authority were at the foundation of the Revolutionary War. Over time, this same spirit of rebellion has earned many groups their civil liberties and equal access to all that our country has to offer.

The United States is often described as a “melting pot,” a rich mixture made up of people of many colors, religions, abilities, etc., working together to make one great big stew. That is the image generations of Americans grew up learning, and it is a true one. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and cultural influences from around the world have added to its strength.

Historically, however, not all contributions and voices have been acknowledged equally or adequately. Some groups have had to struggle to have their contributions valued, be treated fairly, and be allowed full participation in the civic life of the country. Entire populations have been oppressed as a part of the nation’s history, something important for Americans to confront and acknowledge.

Diversity refers to differences in the human experience. As different groups have gained in number and influence, our definition of diversity has evolved to embrace many variables that reflect a multitude of different backgrounds, experiences, and points of view, not just race and gender. Diversity takes into account age, socioeconomic factors, ability (such as sight, hearing, and mobility), ethnicity, veteran status, geography, language, sexual orientation, religion, size, and other factors. At one time or another, each group has had to make petitions to the government for equal treatment under the law and appeals to society for respect. Safeguarding these groups’ hard-won rights and public regard maintains diversity and its two closely related factors, equity and inclusion.

The Role of Equity and Inclusion

Equity plays a major part in achieving fairness in a diverse landscape. Equity gives everyone equal access to opportunity and success. For example, you may have seen interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing people in situations where a public official is making an announcement about an impending weather emergency. Providing immediate translation into sign language means that there is no gap between what the public official is saying and when all people receive the information. Simultaneous sign language provides equity.

Similarly, many students have learning differences that require accommodations in the classroom. For example, a student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be given more time to complete tests or writing assignments. The extra time granted takes into account that students with ADHD process information differently. If a student with a learning difference is given more time than other students to complete a test, that is a matter of equity. The student is not being given an advantage; the extra time gives them an equal chance at success.

Equity levels the playing field so that everyone’s needs are anticipated and everyone has an equal starting point. However, understanding equity is not enough.


equality vs. equity


Equality is a meaningful goal, but it can leave people with unmet needs; equity is more empowering and fair. In the equality portion of the graphic, people of all sizes and a person who uses a wheelchair are all given the same bicycle, which is unusable for most. In the equity portion, each person gets a bicycle specifically designed for them, enabling them to successfully ride it. Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation / Custom License: “May be Produced with Attribution”)





When equity is properly considered, there is also inclusionInclusion means that there are a multiplicity of voices, skills, and interests represented in any given situation. Inclusion has played a major role in education, especially in terms of creating inclusion classrooms and inclusive curricula. In an inclusion classroom, students of different skill levels study together. For example, students with and without developmental disabilities study in the same classroom. Such an arrangement eliminates the stigma of the special education classroom where students were once segregated. In addition, in inclusion classrooms all students receive support when needed. Students benefit from seeing how others learn.

In an inclusive curriculum, a course includes content and perspectives from underrepresented groups. For example, a college course in psychology might include consideration of different contexts such as immigration, incarceration, or unemployment in addition to addressing societal norms. Inclusion means that these voices of varied background and experience are integrated into discussions, research, and assignments rather than ignored.

Positive Effects of Diversity in an Educational Setting

Why does diversity matter in college? It matters because when you are exposed to new ideas, viewpoints, customs, and perspectives—which invariably happens when you come in contact with diverse groups of people—you expand your frame of reference for understanding the world. If you approach diverse settings with cultural competency, you are able to learn about the experiences of others and your thinking becomes more open and global.

More than half of all US babies today are people of color, and by 2050, the United States will have no clear racial or ethnic majority. By 2050, half the workforce will comprise persons of color (Center for American Progress, 2016). These statistics underscore the importance of cultural competency in an increasingly diverse American society and workforce. When approached with an open mind and a willingness to learn, diverse environments can produce many benefits.

Academic freedom applies to the permission instructors and students have to follow a line of intellectual inquiry without the fear of censorship or sanction. There are many heavily contested intellectual and cultural debates that, for some, are not resolved. A student who wants to argue against prevailing opinion has the right to do so based on academic freedom. Uncomfortable conversations about diversity are a part of the college classroom landscape. For example, a student might use statistical data to argue that disparities in degrees for men and women in chemistry reflect an advantage in analytical ability for men. While many would disagree with that theory, the student could pursue that topic in a discussion or paper as long as they use evidence and sound, logical reasoning.

Licenses and Attributions

LicenseCC BY: Attribution

Baldwin, A. (2020). College Success. OpenStax.