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Cross-Racial Agency: Exploring a New Form of Collaborative Practice to Support Men of Color in Higher Education

by Joe Lott II, Dalya Perez & Theresa Ling Yeh - 2021

Background/Context: Men of color have been the focus of a growing number of research studies, as educators and policy makers attempt to address educational equity gaps along the P–20 pipeline. Compared with other educational settings, less attention has focused on how to increase persistence and graduation rates of men of color pursuing baccalaureate degrees. Yet national statistics over the past two decades show that men of color in colleges and universities graduate at lower rates than all other populations, including their same-race women peers. Interventions and supports for men of color in higher education often rely on siloed programmatic efforts that focus on the student as the primary unit of change. Little is known about how to create organizational change that addresses institutional barriers to equity.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This research examines a collaborative, equity-based inquiry approach to respond to equity gaps for men of color in college. The purpose of this article draws on the theory of relational agency to understand how practitioners of color worked together to design an institution-wide intervention that would benefit students and simultaneously drive institutional change. Guiding questions are: (1) How did relational agency manifest itself in the collaborative process of creating a cohort-based framework for undergraduate men of color at a predominantly White institution? (2) What is the impact of the collaborative process on the practitioners who were involved?

Research Design: This study uses a social design experiment (SDE) approach to examine what happens when staff of color on a predominantly White campus come together to address educational inequities for men of color. Pursuing this investigation through an SDE framework enabled us to apply a holistic perspective to real-world activities and our observations of them as researchers who co-constructed an intervention with participants.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We propose the concept of cross-racial agency as a unique form of relational agency in which practitioners of color use design-based approaches to work across professional and racial boundaries toward a shared goal. We suggest that developing communities of practice through this approach could lead to more enriched and comprehensive responses and to systemic organizational change.

This study engages in an inquiry-based process with practitioners of color to address the low graduation rates of undergraduate men of color attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs). College environments should serve as places that build on students educational experiences to facilitate learning that propels them into professional, civic, and leadership roles. Considering academia as a microcosm of society (Sweet, 2001), it is no surprise that young men of color in PWIs encounter isolation and marginalization, and rarely see powerful people like themselves. They lack a sense of belonging, interact with systems ill designed for them, and frequently engage with White students and faculty who do not understand or have low expectations of them, thus contributing to their low graduation rates (Cuyjet, 2006; Gardenhire & Cerna, 2016; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Sáenz & Ponjuán, 2009). Given that these young men of color cycle through these institutions in four to six years, professionals who work in these institutions for longer periods should collaborate, share resources, and shape the conditions for student success. This article highlights a design-based, longitudinal research project in which practitioners of color collaborated over a year to create a cohort-based pilot framework to shape institutional outcomes for men of color, in order to scale up promising practices for all men of color on campus.

We begin by presenting a brief overview of the research on men of color in higher education and the growing number of postsecondary programs for men of color that have arisen over the last two decades. We then describe the context for our study as an example of interprofessional practice between a group of practitioners composed almost entirely of people of color. In the conceptual framework section, we first review the research on relational agency, collaborative practice, and expansive learning (Edwards, 2005; Edwards & Protheroe, 2004; Engeström, 2007) as practices that produce enhanced outcomes for students. Next, we describe cultural historical activity theory (CHAT; Engeström, 2011) and explain how this theory was applied to an initiative to improve postsecondary outcomes for men of color. And finally, we show how the concept of social design experiments (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010) was used to develop and continuously refine this initiative. We describe our data collection and analysis procedures and share five themes that arose in our findings on the process of interprofessional learning and the development of relational agency among this cross-racial group of practitioners.

We argue for more leadership by people of color, particularly in creating and imagining spaces to address racial outcomes in PWI contexts. These practitioners are likely to work in environments where their voices have been systemically suppressed through an atmosphere of disinvite (Patton, 2016) and where they are not viewed as valuable policy contributors. Because they have a connection to and sensitivity about the marginalization of students of color, especially given that many in our study were former students at PWIs, we believe they can be powerful designers of ways of undoing oppression. Thus, our research centers their voices and experiences and provides an illustration of the powerful work that can be done with staff of color. This perspective is important because practitioners receive far less attention in the literature than students or faculty. We extend the work on relational agency by examining the process of interprofessional practice and interracial and interethnic collaborative efforts. We present the concept of cross-racial agency as a form of relational agency that considers how a cross-racial group of practitioners who work together in a PWI context can recognize, access, and align resources, knowledge, and lived experiences to address racial equity gaps.

We offer a few caveats. From its inception, this project has grappled with its focus on men of color while acknowledging that gender is a multidimensional, social construct. This project was inspired by observing differences between racial and gendered groups and their graduation rates at a PWI. Race and gender are self-reported; thus, the men of color represented in institutional data selected their gender. We also recognize that institutional data collection typically approaches gender as a male or female binary (i.e., biological sex). Because sex and gender are often conflated and used interchangeably (Glasser & Smith, 2008), these forms place artificial limitations on the full range of gender expressions and intersectional identities. Although these men self-report their gender, institutional data do not capture the spectrum of gender expressions, nor do they capture the marginalization of their intersectional identitiesparticularly sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and religion, among other identities that affect campus experiences (Dancy, 2011; Glasser & Smith, 2008).

Additionally, the focus on men of color, and men more broadly, is sometimes questioned by practitioners and researchers because men overall have benefited from gender privilege in virtually all aspects of society (Harper & Harris, 2010). Ample evidence suggests, however, that men of color, and Black men in particular, experience unique racial and gendered forms of discrimination across all social institutions that have profound psychological and physiological impacts on their academic and social well-being (Curry, 2017; Smith et al., 2007, 2011). We acknowledge the continued oppression and gender inequities faced by women and transgender and gender nonbinary individuals, as revealed in gendered wage gaps at all levels of employment, and how, when intersected with race, they compound disparities of sexism and racism (Crenshaw, 2017). Nevertheless, data demonstrate that women have consistently outperformed men in educational outcomes for the past three decades. These gaps are wider for minoritized men and worthy of closer study (Harris et al., 2010).


Extensive research highlights racial inequities in college completion, and the gap is most pronounced for men of color. From early childhood to graduate education, men of color have been graduating at lower rates than their White and female counterparts for over two decades (Buchmann, 2009). At the undergraduate level, national data show that in 2016, the six-year graduation rate was lower for all males than females (57% vs. 63%), and the same pattern was true for each racial/ethnic group. Pacific Islander students had the narrowest gender gap (53% for females vs. 50% for males), and Black students had the largest gap (44% for females vs. 34% for males). For degrees earned, during the 201516 academic year, female students across all racial/ethnic groups earned the majority of certificates, associates degrees, and bachelors degrees. The gender gap for bachelors degrees was 28% for Black students (64% female vs. 36% male), 20% for Hispanic students (60% female vs. 40% male), and 21% for American Indian/Alaska Native students (61% female vs. 39% male) (de Brey et al., 2019). Similarly, Integrated Postsecondary Data System data from the top 25 public U.S. research universities revealed that men of color who were first-time freshmen in 2007 had lower six-year graduation rates across all institutions. More strikingly, 16 institutions had graduation gaps of at least 10% between underrepresented men of color and their White, Asian, and female counterparts (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 2015). For the class of 2015 at the institution under study, the six-year graduation gap was 15% between men of color (67%) and their peers (82%).

Lower persistence and completion rates have often been attributed to a hostile campus climate, which serves as a significant barrier for students of color in community college and university settings (Bonner & Bailey, 2006; Cuyjet, 2006; Hurtado & Ponjuán, 2005; Palmer et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2007). At PWIs, the lack of peers and faculty of color can elicit feelings of isolation, alienation, invisibility, and disengagement for minoritized students (Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Sáenz & Ponjuán, 2009). Furthermore, racism and stereotypes of Black and Latinx students are often manifested in low educational expectations, lack of support from White faculty, and hostility from White peers (Cuyjet, 2006; Gardenhire & Cerna, 2016). Men of color, and Black men in particular, face a set of conditions that place them at a distinct disadvantage in educational spaces (Smith et al., 2007). In their research on racial battle fatigue, Smith and colleagues documented the long-term impacts of anti-Black male stereotyping and microaggressions. Over time, the culmination of these environmental stressors leads to a long list of harmful, chronic psychological and physiological symptoms that negatively influence academic outcomes (Smith et al., 2011).

Much of the research on institutional policies and interventions for improving postsecondary outcomes for men of color has focused on African American men (Brooms, 2018; Harper, 2014; Harper & Harris, 2012; Palmer et al., 2014), although a growing body of work includes Latinx men and other underrepresented groups as well (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2014; Gardenhire & Cerna, 2016; Sáenz & Ponjuán, 2011). The steady increase in the number of programs seeking to improve the college persistence and completion rates of men of color suggests that programmatic support is the primary institutional response to the graduation gap for this population (Gardenhire & Cerna, 2016; Keflezighi et al., 2016). These programs are often designed to mitigate the effects of social and academic isolation for men of color at PWIs by focusing on community building and developing cultural and navigational capital (Brooms, 2018). Descriptive reports on programs for men of color indicate that the most widely used interventions are mentoring, leadership development, and social events, with a smaller number including advising and academic skill-building. Although such programs are invaluable for the students who participate in them, they are often isolated or disjointed from institutional-level approaches (Harper & Harris, 2012). Harris et al. (2010) asserted that compensatory student support strategies center students as the unit of analysis and thus frame the problem around individual student deficits. They argued that programmatic approaches alone are insufficient to overcome the historically entrenched structural barriers that lead to racial inequities.

To pursue more systemically equitable outcomes for men of color, Harris and his colleagues proposed the Equity Scorecard process, a collaborative, inquiry-based approach to addressing inequities in postsecondary education (Bensimon, 2005; Harris et al., 2010). Responding directly to traditional deficit-based frameworks that position students as the problem rather than examining the educational systems that are failing them, Bensimon (2005) called on institutional leaders, faculty, administrators, and counselors to engage in organizational learning processes that shift their attitudes, beliefs, and values to equitable outcomes. The Equity Scorecard process brings teams of university staff together to analyze disaggregated racial data for gaps in educational outcomes and then set equity targets. The teams examine the structures, policies, and practices at their own institutions to understand why they have been unable to promote successful outcomes for students of color and create systemic change on campus (Harris et al., 2010).

Our research builds on the principles of the Equity Scorecard. First, we adopt a social design experiment (SDE) approach (Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010) and center cross-racial collaborations with staff of color representing five racial/ethnic groups1 to create systemic change. SDEs belong to a family of design-based research (DBR) projects that address issues and improvements in educational environments through collaboration between research, education, and community stakeholders to design projects and create experiences with the aim of improving educational and community spaces (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016; Cobb et al., 2003; Fishman et al., 2013; Reinking & Bradley, 2008). We also draw on relational agency, a theoretical concept about collaborative practice across different units that addresses problems of practice and creates a foundation for a longitudinal, iterative project to increase retention and graduation rates of men of color who attend PWIs so they can scale up promising practices and principles (Edwards, 2005, 2009).


Our study of practitioner collaboration and relational agency is part of a larger, ongoing project focused on achieving equitable educational outcomes for men of color at a large, predominantly White public research institution in the Northwest region of the United States. Located in an urban setting, West Coast University (WCU) enrolled approximately 32,000 undergraduate students and an additional 11,000 graduate students in 2019. Launched in 2016, the MOC Initiative2 is a cross-unit (multiple divisions and departments) collaborative effort at WCU that draws on an extensive body of research, including studies of men of color (Palmer et al., 2014; Sáenz & Ponjuán, 2009; Williams, 2014) and high-impact practices for student engagement (Cuyjet, 2006; Kuh, 2008). The initiative was designed to support students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds and students from Black, Latinx, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian backgrounds (including Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese, Cambodian, and Hmong students). First-time freshmen were admitted to a cohort of approximately 35 students, and they took courses and engaged in educational and community-building experiences through graduation. The goals of the initiative were to increase graduation rates for undergraduate men of color and to inform and transform institutional practices and policies in order to promote systemic approaches to creating equitable outcomes.

A steering committee of staff, faculty, students, and community volunteers who met regularly guided the MOC Initiative to understand the graduation gap for men of color, design a long-term intervention, and shift practices and policies to close the gaps. Although the focus of this article is on the steering committee, the MOC Initiative also included a research team that was involved in the research-to-practice process. The team of seven PhD students and two postdoctoral staff took observation notes, conducted literature reviews, gathered data, and staffed the daily operations of the project. The research team met weekly to organize data and review theories relevant to the steering committees ideas and proposals.

With the initiative in its fourth year, we sought to understand the linkages that have kept the group together through its evolution. Although not our central theoretical framework, critical race theories highlight the voices of leaders of color whose experiences have been excluded from theoretical developments about racialized outcomes. Its core tenet is counternarrative, or storytelling that challenges larger systemic patterns of racial disempowerment (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; DuBois, 1994; Solorzano, 1998; Yosso, 2005). Our research draws on the voices and experiences of practitioners of color who create new ways of addressing racial equity gaps in postsecondary contexts.



Collaborative action toward institutional change that addresses racialized outcomes should focus on creating conditions to foster relational agency among practitioners of color.3 The research on interprofessional practice and relational agency has noted that a network of practitioners with multiple perspectives and expertise will ultimately have greater benefits for students (Edwards, 2005; Edwards & Protheroe, 2004). Relational agency offers a framework to analyze interprofessional networking and ideas of distributed expertise and intelligence in working toward a shared goal. Edwards and her colleagues (2009) conceptualized relational agency as a two-stage process: (1) working with others to expand the object of activity by recognizing the motives and resources that others bring to bear as they interpret it, and (2) aligning ones responses to newly enhanced interpretations with responses from other professionals to act on the expanded object.

Relational agency evolved from Edwardss collaborative research across multiple human service contexts, and it focused on identifying interprofessional work that could be deepened in ways that lead to systemic change. Some of Edwardss work emerged in the context of interagency collaboration to prevent social exclusion of youth in England; the focus was on diminishing social exclusion that followed anticipated disruptions in the labor market from demographic change (Edwards, 2005, 2009; Edwards & Mackenzie, 2005). Edwards and her colleagues called for a whole-system approach to support the social inclusion of children and young people. They described features of interprofessional practice that enable delivery of services to respond to young peoples needs, including (1) focusing on the whole person rather than on a few specific needs, (2) conversing and working across professional boundaries, and (3) understanding that changing student circumstances requires their developing confidence and skills, and expanding opportunities and removing barriers (Edwards, 2005; Edwards et al., 2009).

Edwards (2007) concluded that interprofessional practice should address complexities through reconceptualization, creating conditions for and establishing cross-organizational collaborations to nurture systemic change based on expansive notions of a problem. Her research draws on the theory of expansive learning, by which a work organization resolves its internal contradictions in order to construct qualitatively new ways of working (Engeström, 2007, p. 23) and collaborative practice (Edwards, 2007). According to Engeström and Sannino (2010), expansive learning has its theoretical roots in (a) making the distinction between action and activity, (b) the zone of proximal development as a space for transitions from actions to activity, (c) being an object-oriented theory that positions the motivations of learning activities in the object to be transformed and not in individual subjects, (d) working from contradictions within learners activity systems, (e) understanding the mediation of actions by way of cultural tools and signs, (f) double-bindedness, which privileges cooperative actions rather than individuals to solve problems, and (g) the multivocality of different groups and their complementary and conflicting interpretations. These precepts should lead to new ways of understanding the multidimensionality of the object and the object of activity (Engeström & Sannino, 2010).



Expansive learning is maximized in an activity system whose theoretical roots lie within cultural historical activity theory (CHAT). CHAT is an activity system that takes seriously historicity and the mediating role of context, community, and culture and therefore holds special potential for illuminating complex social interactions (Anderson & Stillman, 2013, p. 2). CHAT emerged from sociocultural learning theories whose foundations are based on the idea that learning through interactions with others is nested in and shaped by social, historical, and cultural contexts (Engeström, 2011; Vygotsky, 1978). It is a robust framework for understanding how historical trajectories shape organizational and individual practices informed by collective learning actions that respond to systemic contradictions, which enable possibilities for new types of interactions, relationships, and outcomes (Foot, 2014).

For CHAT, the entire activity includes interacting conceptual tools, such as division of labor, community, rules, and subject, that explain how an artifact-mediated network of relationships moves an object in its initial state (raw material) to one that is collectively constructed to address the ultimate outcome; CHAT provides a conceptual framework to illustrate and hypothesize how the artifact-mediated network of relationships improves our understanding of the object of activity (Engeström, 2011). For instance, Edwards and Protheroe (2004) focused on the student teacher as the unit of analysis or subject, and they found that national standards governed the rules of the activity system that were taken up in the community of classrooms. These classrooms adopted uniform practices that led to a division of labor, which resulted in a restricted focus on curriculum delivery and inadequate feedback to teacher mentors. Their use of language, classroom resources, and traditional student teacher evaluation methods resulted in restrictive interactions between the student teacher and teacher mentors (object of activity) and limited their ability to recognize the potential for transformative change (Edwards & Protheroe, 2004).

CHAT is a useful analytic tool to understand how organizational practices can be reshaped. When applying CHATs conceptual tools to our study, organizational practice is the unit of analysis or subject, guided by rules of efficiency, accountability, and deficit-based practices (Bensimon et al., 2007; Harris et al., 2010). These rules are pervasive throughout the university community that focuses on student services, retention, and teaching, but they are steeped in a division of labor among practitioners, student service professionals, and faculty that is siloed across campus units (Bensimon, 2005). These communities tend to aggregate student outcomes and deficit-framing perspectives, which have created, maintained, and reproduced inequitable outcomes (Patton, 2016; Smith et al., 2007; Yosso, 2005) for students of color (Bensimon et al., 2007; Harris et al., 2010) and, in particular, the graduation gap for men of color (object of activity). Figure 1 illustrates the current activity system.


Figure 1. Activity System of Traditional Organizational Practices for Men of Color at PWIs


Given that relational agency research provides no guidance about how race can impact and shape collaborative contexts, we draw from the theoretical guidance of SDEs to situate our collaborative, racial equity work. SDEs are interventions that draw from equity-oriented principles to empower researchers, educational practitioners, and members from historically marginalized groups to collaboratively create new ways of defining and solving problems (Gutiérrez, 2016; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010). In addition to disrupting educational, structural, and historical inequities, SDE seeks fundamental social transformation (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016).

SDE, developed in response to educational systems that were failing mainly youth of color (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016), has developed over three decades and draws from democratizing forms of inquiry to transform the educational and social circumstances of nondominant communities in order to promote equity and learning. Its part of a larger participatory design tradition that pays attention to how power, relational dynamics, and critical historicity shape the process of partnering and how learning occurs in these partnerships (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). It draws from several traditions, including DBR, which attempts to engineer particular types of learning, and develops theories about what works in school and classroom settings (Bell, 2004; Cobb et al., 2003; Reinking & Bradley, 2008). DBR is a collaborative research-based approach that includes researchers, practitioners, and students in designing policies that change teaching and learning environments by generating new theories, changing professional practice, and shaping learning ecologies (Bell, 2004; Cobb et al., 2003; Reinking & Bradley, 2008) that sometimes are designed in ways to develop capacity for sustaining change in systems (Penuel et al., 2011).

Gutiérrez and Vossoughi (2010) highlighted four organizing principles of social design experiments: (1) design as a re-mediating activity, (2) contradictions, (3) historicity, and (4) equity. Design as a re-mediating activity refers to designing robust learning environments and reorganizing entire ecologies so that interrogating historical, structural, institutional, and sociocultural contradictions is viewed as generative and as an expansive form of learning (p. 102). In our CHAT example, low graduation rates of men of color are the object of activity; our goal is to collaborate with practitioners of color to design organizational practices and principles that leverage their collective experiences, and provide new ways of thinking about creating better learning environments for men of color that lead to higher retention and graduation rates.


Drawing from Engeströms (1987) CHAT approach, contradictions are viewed as stress points that are inherent in all activity systems. Contradictions constrain opportunities to uncover inequitable learning environments that have emerged from top-down or bottom-up approaches. Our studys major contradiction, which prompted our collective action, is that mission statements and other external and internal university declarations prioritize a universal commitment to high-quality education, diversity, and preparing students for civic leadership (Morphew & Hartley, 2006), yet a graduation gap between men of color and their White peers still exists.


Historicity focuses on how historicized understandings of normative practices within the social design intervention have shaped and can shape learning ecologies (Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010). College campuses have historically been sites of exclusion and marginalization for people of color (Williamson-Lott, 2018). The civil rights movement of the late 1960s provoked nationwide student movements that made demands for more support services for students of color, hiring staff of color, and creating ethnic studies departments (Gitlin, 1987; Perlstein, 1990). College campuses, like WCU, where we examined contemporary struggles and barriers, are highly politicized. Developing the historicized self and historicizing the collective experience of marginalized people with social design experiments allow us to contextualize inequity and can lead to new analytic tools and imaginations for better futures (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016).


SDEs equity principle is an organizing idea that aligns perfectly with our study. According to Gutiérrez and Jurow (2016), it focuses on challenging and transforming inequitable social systems, organizing pathways for expansive learning and identity development, and working with community partners to identify the most pressing concerns and needs of nondominant communities (p. 569). Our goal is to center the voices of practitioners of color on the low retention and graduation rates of undergraduate men of color at a PWI by creating a framework that fosters their success and wellness. We aim to create a community of practitioners of color who see themselves as change agents and share practices that connect them to social and professional resources. This network among staff of color enhances their capacity to achieve professional goals and increase cross-unit collaboration.


We use these four principles in our design process to create the conditions for stakeholder collaboration that addresses retention and graduation issues and shapes a professional learning network. Our SDE helped us understand why a graduation gap exists and what happens when staff of color come together to solve the problem. This framework allows us to holistically approach our investigation of real-world activities and co-construct an intervention with participants.

The overarching research questions for this study focus on a codesigned research project with a cross-racial group of practitioners working to increase graduation rates for men of color at a PWI:


How did designing a framework for undergraduate men of color at a PWI impact the practitioners of color involved in its creation?


In what ways did relational agency emerge in a project aimed at addressing racial inequity for men of color?



This study seeks to understand how a cross-racial, cross-unit group of practitioners collaborated to develop the MOC Initiative, how the concept of relational agency mediated that process, and how the collaborative process influenced the practitioners. The practitioners participated in a steering committee of staff, directors, faculty, and undergraduates who represent a wide variety of campus divisions and departments. We interviewed 20 members of the steering committee (see Appendix A for roles and social memberships; pseudonyms are omitted to preserve participant confidentiality): nine African Americans, two American Indians, three Latinxs, one Pacific Islander, and four Asian Americans, as well as one White. Fifteen identified as men and five as women. In addition to this core group of members, six people joined for one or two meetings in the first year. We did not interview them, but their voices formed part of the project. Data sources consisted of minutes from the first 10 meetings of the steering committee, analysis of research team meetings, artifacts from the formation of the initiative, and 20 in-depth interviews with steering committee members about their experiences throughout the process.

We collected detailed minutes and observation notes from 10 steering committee meetings that spanned the year, May 2015 to June 2016, leading up to the launch of the cohort-based intervention. Each meeting was approximately three hours, and all were held on campus at WCU. After each steering committee meeting, we reviewed the meeting notes to inform the structure of the next meetings, and we reviewed observation notes to analyze interactions between committee members, which enabled us to adjust our facilitation strategies. Various sources of data, including graduation data and two institutional reports on retention and graduation, were used to understand the problem. The steering committee and research team used these data to map solutions and create a programmatic design, logic model, and theory of change. We refer to these items as remediating artifacts. Notes and documents from this process are part of our data.

We conducted semistructured individual interviews with 20 steering committee members in June and July 2018, where we asked participants to reflect on the impact of collaboration on their professional work. We interviewed each participant once for 7590 minutes in their campus offices. The one-on-one interviews allowed us to compare participant experiences so that we could dive more deeply into their evolving professional experiences, networks, and learning. Our interview protocol (see Appendix B for full protocol) focused on four areas: (1) background/context, (2) state of men of color at WCU, (3) experiences with the steering committee, and (4) professional development.


Audiotaped interviews were transcribed and read in full by the three authors. The initial analysis of the interview transcripts began with a round of open coding drawing on grounded theory concepts to look for inductive themes and reoccurrences in the data (Glaser & Strauss, 2009). Open coding accounted for emerging ideas, theories, and unanticipated outcomes of the MOC Initiative members work together. Our next round of coding focused on SDE themes of contradiction related to race and equity (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016). We noted how staff of color understood the graduation gap and when they offered knowledge and resources rooted in their experiences as members of marginalized communities. We coded for how historicity lent itself to the problems of siloed workspaces on campus (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016). We also coded for how staff of color experienced racial oppression, felt isolated, or sensed a lack of accountability in doing campus racial equity work (Bensimon et al., 2007).

The initial open-coding process revealed the importance of interprofessional relationships and how they affected shifting systemic partnerships and practices. We created a coding scheme that examined tenets of relational agency (see Table 1). We then conducted two subsequent rounds of blind coding to ensure alignment and validity in our application of the theories to our data (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). Once we agreed on how to apply these codes, we divided the remaining transcripts among the three authors and compiled our list of findings in a shared Excel spreadsheet.

We replicated this process and applied relational agency codes to the MOC Initiative steering meeting minutes and observation notes, examining the data for evidence of how committee members developed a holistic understanding of the problem. We also sought to document shared goals among the committee members, self-described impact of interprofessional learning, ways that distributed expertise shaped committee negotiations and decisions, and instances when staff shared their professional expertise and knowledge of the racial and ethnic groups they represented.

In addition to relational agency codes, we coded MOC Initiative steering minutes by looking for themes of organizational change and ideas that lent themselves to scaling our initiative to serve a broader group of students. Analysis focused on how the committee decided on a theory of change that would institutionally impact the graduation gap, and we noted moments when decisions were made that changed the direction of the initiative. In developing our preliminary analysis, we conducted member checks with half of the participants to gauge their reaction to our sense-making. No issues arose.

Table 1. Relational Agency and SDE Codes

Relational Agency & SDE Codes



Developing processes for knowledge sharing and pathways for practice across departments


Identifying fractures and separation across campus offices and systems

Racialized experiences

Discussing experiences as staff of color that were impacted by race and or racial inequity, such as isolation, imposter syndrome, or microaggressions

Holistic perspective or understanding of the problem

Examining or contesting interpretations of the object


Practitioners would share information that revealed historical knowledge about students of color or about university practices

Tensions/contradictions about race

Practitioners would talk about contradictions between what the university said they were doing versus what was happening related to racial equity

Shift in distribution of intelligence and expertise

Practitioners negotiate understandings and share best practices and resources to contribute to collective problem solving

Discussion, disagreement, criticism

Various interpretations of the problem and solution are shared

Boundary crossing & rule bending

Fluidity of relationships occurs in previously siloed work. Risks are taken to work across previous boundaries between units/departments

Aligning ones own response to newly enhanced interpretation

Learning to enhance individual understanding leads to learning as systemic change

Sense of purpose

There is a sense of mutual responsibility/common good to improve problem/s of practice.

Note. SDE = social design experiment


Our positionalities shaped our work. The principal investigator of the initiative is an African American male faculty member whose research has included civic engagement for African American undergraduates, parents, and families in schools, and the achievement gap for men of color. He seeks transformational change for men of color at the institution under study. Another coauthor is a Filipinx-Egyptian American PhD student who has been with the project since its inception and whose research is focused on Filipinx American undergraduates and the impact of colonization on racial identity. The other coauthor, a Chinese American research scientist who joined the project as a postdoctoral staff person, wrote her dissertation on community engagement and postsecondary success for first-generation men in higher education. All three authors have years of experience working with undergraduate students as course instructors, academic advisors, and in other student and academic affairs roles. Our expertise and understanding of systemic barriers for undergraduate men of color are grounded in our experiences and histories as professionals who have each dedicated 1025 years to higher education.



This study is not without limitations. It focuses on the formation process of the MOC Initiative but does not capture the multidimensionality of the project or the impact that these practitioners have on students lives. In addition, the participants do not represent all professionals of color on campus in terms of race and gender. The steering committee included less than 1% of professionals of color on the campus, and within the committee was an overrepresentation of African Americans and men. Although the goal of the steering committee was not to have proportional representation relative to the campus population, we recognize that a different committee makeup could have generated different approaches to the initiative and may have generated other participant data. We did not conduct focus groups that may have provided additional insights from participants. We decided to conduct semistructured interviews to generate individual insights at a particular time to understand if and how individual trajectories change over time. Despite the studys limitations, we provide insights into how a group of practitioners of color collaborated over a year to leverage their expertise in order to create a framework for supporting men of color as they began addressing the graduation gap.


Our findings revealed important themes that map onto our theoretical frameworks, most notably the analytical dimensions of relational agency and social design experiments. What we found was a hybridity of meaning-making that crossed not only various professional practitioner boundaries but also a simultaneous learning across racialized understandings and identities.


The first stage of relational agency is working with others to expand the object of activity and understand the holistic nature of the problem. Thus, we drew on the practical and knowledge expertise of practitioners of color from different units to understand the problem that men of color had along the educational pipeline: Why is there a graduation gap between men of color and their White peers at WCU? We asked how the steering committee collectively understood inequities within the data provision system and organized our thinking about possibilities for social and institutional change (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010).

The group engaged in an initial brainstorm about how to address issues for undergraduate men of color, focusing on lack of access to WCU. It identified low enrollment of men of color with structural and systemic racism, such as antiaffirmative action legislation, prompting conversations about the contradictions between the WCUs purported mission and what was happening. WCU circulated widespread messages about its role in educating citizens for a democratic society; however, participants agreed that the student body did not reflect that ideal, leading to a sentiment that theres work to be done to turn the language into action, as Gabriel,4 a student services practitioner, stated. The critique of all talk and no action was a common sentiment among the group. Lamar, a community outreach practitioner summarized it best:

There havent been any changes. There havent been any tangible changes. Thereve been a lot of symbolic changes, a lot of markets and rallies, and events to talk about it, but when you look at the numbersI just looked at the numbers for this incoming yearits supposed to be the most students ever admitted, but its still mostly White.

During the steering committees third meeting, it narrowed the focus of its direction to concentrate exclusively on developing an intervention to increase retention and graduation rates rather than encouraging the institution to lobby for dismantling antiaffirmative action legislation. This decision shifted the nature and purpose of the work and, ultimately, the trajectory of systemic change. As one member noted, the low-hanging fruit was to focus on retention, given the collective expertise of practitioners who worked across campus units on college retention. In addition, members shared views of the problem from their professional vantage points, which included concerns regarding restrictive majors, struggles to navigate college as first-generation students, financial hardships, and a sense of division between offices and units on campus.


Based on these discussions, the research team organized data resources that the group should interrogate to understand the inequitable outcomes for men of color. The group examined data from two institutional reports from 2006 and 2013 (one about the general student population and one specific to students of color) in order to explore, through disaggregated race and gender data, retention-related patterns. As the researchers and practitioners examined the report data, they noted differences in attrition and dropout rates between racial and ethnic populations. In addition to documenting a 12% graduation gap between men of color and their White peers, the reports included data for students of color who dropped out. They showed that students left primarily because of racial microaggressions, denial of their choice of major, mental health struggles, and a lack of a critical mass of men of color.

Closer examination of institutional data and ongoing discussions about the groups with the largest gaps revealed the complexity of race and ethnicity, particularly within groups that are most often treated monolithically. James, an American Indian participant who works in a student support role, educated the group about the different treatment of American Indian students from a federally and nonfederally recognized tribes. He explained that, unlike other racial and ethnic groups, to receive scholarships and admission benefits, American Indian students must go through a process to prove their lineage and to have identification and blood quantum. Others shared their observations about barriers for this population, including recent reductions in outreach to American Indian students and rising trends of students with fake tribal identification.

Additionally, when the committee examined the disaggregated data on Asian students, they could see that Southeast Asian students faced disparities in their graduation rates that were similar to the other racial groups. A Southeast Asian committee member and student services practitioner, Bopha, noted that many of these students faced barriers of poverty, secondhand trauma from war and refugee displacement, high dropout rates, and gambling in their communities. Many scholars have called for disaggregating data on Asian American students to highlight and understand unique challenges that they face (Buenavista et al., 2010; Museus et al., 2013; Teranishi, 2010). Because of model minority stereotypes and the aggregation of Asian students into one monolithic category, Southeast Asian student issues are often marginalized.

There were also robust discussions about Black students on campus. A student services professional, Mary, who works with many Black male students in student success courses, noted that the students always seem to carry heavier burdens than other students:

Weve had three to four black students in our courses, and you may have some Latinos in there and maybe some Muslim students. But it always comes down to my Black students feeling the worst coming out of those conversations, especially in the climate that weve been in this past year, with Black Lives Matter, and the constant shootings in their communities. Thats very prevalent in their daily life, and then you come into a classroom; of course, theyre going to walk out feeling the heavier pain than anybody else in that space.

Hope, a student services leader on the committee, related her perceptions of African and African American students. She noted that there is this competition feeling, or theres more numbers of one than the other, or theres resources that are being used that could go to Black students that are for African students that they take, or vice versa. Hope discussed the lack of African role models who could offer guidance to students about navigating professional or corporate cultures because most of the African staff were working in custodial and facilities roles rather than professional roles. While describing perceived differences across Latinx communities, admissions staff person Corey offered thoughts about African American and African students:

Sometimes the students that are considered Latino, they relate more to a certain population or culture than others. So, for instance, Puerto Rican, Dominican, I feel like they dont have the same tight-knit community as Mexicans on this campus . . . I feel like students are separating. Ive had a lot of students that have come to me that are African American, and they feel like they dont fit well in like the Black Student Union or African Student Association because they dont have these African identities, and its hard for them to communicate about this.

The group discussions also highlighted observations about intersectional identities that men of color experience. For instance, Ben, a student affairs leader, reflected on the conversations that he had with gay men of color on campus, highlighting their unique challenges. Because of conservative views in their communities, some students had not yet come out to their families; he urged the group to consider how to support queer men of color as they developed the framework. There was also a caution about how traditional heterosexual or binary ideas of masculinity could be reinforced in our initiative. There was a consensus that society needs to transform ideas about the definition of manhood and be inclusive and supportive of transgender and nonbinary individuals. Group members were eager to apply an intersectional lens to educating young men of color to redefine masculinity in expansive and progressive ways.


The second stage of relational agency involves aligning ones responses to newly enhanced interpretations of the problem. Creating the conditions for this alignment can include being a resource for others, drawing on cultural and conceptual tools, and sharing expertise (Edwards, 2005). The idea is to foster the capacity for deliberative action in ways that develop purposive identities for group members. Deliberative action is most likely in settings of group trust (Edwards et al., 2009). We engaged in several process steps to create a space for group bonding and trust. First, we held three-hour meetings once a month to give group members time to get to know each other, process information, and explore the issues that emerged. We intentionally structured meetings with a summary of the previous meeting, explaining how we believed we should move forward, and we held small-group breakouts so that everyone could integrate their voices into the conversation.

We learned that most staff of color felt isolated in their respective units. Our data show that respondents, who also graduated from or worked at PWIs, had collective histories of hailing from marginalized communities. They created opportunities to connect over common goals and develop professional networks. Jackson, a student affairs leader, stated,

Because we come to a common space where we have this common goal, it makes it easier for me to develop my relationship with you. At that point, we could potentially link up to be able to create partnerships. . . . It provides an avenue for all sorts of professionals essentially to get to know one another. Thats been very beneficial.

The shared sentiment of racialized experiences and isolation on campus was a theme that recurred in the meetings and interview data. Many participants graduated from WCU and experienced racism and isolationism as students, which is far too common among students of color who attend PWIs (Cuyjet, 2006; Palmer et al., 2014; Williams, 2014). Most on the committee worked in predominantly White campus units that they perceived as operating from a historical legacy of racism and exclusion. Lamar shared, On campus, its just a war thats masked behind titles and old buildings and classrooms. For social support, they typically joined professional groups and organizations specific to their own racial backgrounds and histories. In addition, many participants felt uncomfortable sharing views or racialized experiences working in units with majority-White staff because they feared being further tokenized, judged as weak, or perceived as not knowing how to create supportive networks. As Jackson noted about his experience as one of a few people of color in his unit,

I havent felt like this in a long time . . . in terms of imposter syndrome, in terms of how much do you push on things that have been said, [it] has been real interesting . . . its one of those things where it almost reminds me of what it was like to be an undergrad.

Many participants felt that the steering committee meetings, however, were a space where they could comfortably share their views. For example, Lamar noted,

One thing I do like about the community is that folks feel comfortable speaking and disagreeing . . . so if folks dont agree with something they feel very comfortable saying, Hey actually, I dont agree with that, and you talk about it.

Michael agreed: I really value partnering with campus partners and other departments, and learning from them as well. I think that my colleagues have a lot of expertise. I think its just kind of building up that sense of community.


Despite being comfortable with one another, there were occasions when disagreements arose while negotiating across professional practices. For instance, a contentious discussion took place regarding the best way to support students who did not get into their first-choice major. WCU is known for using weed-out courses (e.g., calculus, biology, chemistry, economics) as a gatekeeping mechanism in competitive majors, mostly in STEM and business. The group discussed several examples of undergraduate men of color who intended to major in engineering but were not accepted into the major. Some transferred to other universities and were successful in gaining admissions to engineering programs. Many pursued other academic majors at WCU. It raised the question about how the MOC Initiative should advise its students who do not get into their first choice. The group wrestled about whether to advise them to choose a more accessible major or transfer to another institution where the major is more accessible. The group did not decide on an approach, but the discussion generated tension.

Another contentious point involved negotiating different vantage points and values regarding racialization. The representation of African versus African American students in the MOC Initiative was one such negotiation. A member of the group, Jamal, felt strongly about prioritizing legacy Blacks, that is, African Americans who were born in the United States and are descendants of enslaved Africans. He argued that the enrollment of legacy Blacks at WCU has remained flat while there has been a significant increase in African students. Others in the group felt that African students should be included because they are also marginalized at PWIs and need the same support as African American students. Similar to the discussion about how to handle students who do not get into their first-choice major, there was no decision made about how to approach the issueinstead, they agreed to disagree. Eventually, the primary lesson was understanding that one size does not fit for all people or all men of color. As committee members with shared knowledge and experiences specific to their racial and ethnic groups, a collective understanding emerged about specific barriers, strengths, and histories for these groups. Hope described the learning process from this tension:

When you join a committee, you have to be prepared to be accepting of different views and opinions. But, you also have to be ready to be challenged, and answer for work that you feel knowledgeable about that may be critiqued. Practices were constantly critiqued. And, you could take personal offense to those critiques, because youre so ingrained in that work. But, its also the patience around helping others understand systems and roles around the university that impact the student experience. . . . We learn from each other, so if you dont agree with something, you have to be okay with disagreeing sometimes. You sit at a table with people with a lot of rich knowledge. . . . And, you have to be sometimes willing to disagree and find an area of compromise and always stay centered on who this is for.

Although these tensions were challenging to navigate, this interprofessional boundary work was necessary to generate a comprehensive response to issues facing men of color. As Edwards and her colleagues (2009) observed, professionals experienced tensions when working on familiar boundaries, while also being pulled forward to new forms of collaboration (p. 38). Philip described the processs ebb and flow:

This is how communities get built. Every culture and community has its own space and place in practice. And right now, its kind of like theres saltwater and theres freshwater, and . . . its brackishbrackish is the word. So, the meeting of waters is a beautiful, powerful thing. A lot of amazing, miraculous things happen there.


Our data suggest that the space in which people shared common ground as practitioners and negotiated their differences across professional and racialized lenses were core factors in generating momentum for the initiative. Our analysis of steering committee notes illustrates that about five months into the steering committee meetings, the group felt that it was time to get more concrete about the activities in which future students would engage. It was clear that practitioners had knowledge about campus resources (i.e., financial aid, student life, counseling services, academic advising, and cultural and ethnic specific spaces) to support students, and they possessed expertise that they acquired through their professional work with (and sometimes against) institutional systems. Philip observed,

There are different types of expertise, and therere different types of things that people are offering. So, there are some folks who offer incredible social capital and legacy and standing, who have a lot of historic wisdom in the space, and that is invaluable. You cant put a price tag on that. Other folks are brand new here. Other folks are using the [MOC Initiative] just to learn about the system, or to participate. They love what theyre doing. You know what Im saying? Everybody has a different type of expertise that theyre bringing to the table.

This system of distributed expertise and practice (Edwards, 2009) became instrumental in cocreating a series of logic models for a four-year initiative for men of color, and providing direction for a cohort-based curriculum. The lead facilitator created subgroups to develop a required academic curriculum for all first-year students in the initiative, as well as a cocurricular initiative that provided a set of experiences outside the classroom that would increase a sense of belonging. Committee members chose subgroups based on their prior experiences teaching, engagement in a class designed for underrepresented students, or facilitating out-of-class experiences for students of color. The curriculum subgroup comprised practitioners who worked with a pipeline program in a business school, an engineering bridge program, and a program that supported migrant communities. Their collective experiences and expertise led to the development of a first-year seminar, incorporating concepts of first-year transition, financial literacy, unpacking masculinity, identity development, introduction to research and service learning, racial identity, storytelling, and critical thinking. Simultaneously, the cocurricular subgroup, which included professionals from student services, a STEM pipeline initiative, and a minority affairs division, drafted a longitudinal framework for programmatic activities that could shape the initiative. Jackson summed up the cross-unit collaboration and expansive learning:

Youre bringing different units together to serve a particular student population, and thats the way it has to be, right? That doesnt necessarily mean that one unit is gonna stop existing as a result. It just means that we understand that one single unit is not gonna serve the holistic student. They have to live somewhere, they have to eat somewhere. They have to go to class, they have to join groups, get internships. So it makes sense for us to come together and be mindful of the partnerships that we create, to serve students better.


The shared goals and collaborative space established through the MOC Initiative steering committee fostered conditions to nurture the interprofessional practice needed to develop a whole-system approach to the men of color graduation gap. Many felt that steering committee meeting time was well spent, especially the conversations about the postsecondary research that guided the initiative. Others appreciated the opportunity to examine an issue or problem from multiple perspectives. Corey reflected, I feel like I get some unique perspectives from Black and Brown males from the different departments that are reflected, and I just love the fact that were coming together and coming towards a similar goal.

By working with practitioners from different units and examining various cases, steering committee members modified or created myriad practices and partnerships, including coadvising across programs, connecting students to targeted academic and cocurricular resources, and offering study abroad as a racial equity practice. For example, Eli, an academic advisor, shared,

We need to be innovative in how we deliver our services. Working with this initiative on the coadvising model, I can see the blind spots that I sometimes have, because Im used to doing things a certain way. But also, I can make suggestions when I think there is another option.

Similarly, Gabriel explained that his involvement with the group prompted him to be creative and think out of the box:

I like it that we get to collaborate and try things that can really, hopefully, impact [students] lives . . . this is just a way for me to keep expanding and learning and professionally grow in interesting ways. . . . Its given me lots of inspiration to try new things.

Learning more about the mental health issues that undergraduate men of color face on campus, Michael developed a proposal for mental health group advising sessions to be held at the cultural center where many students of color spend time. His committee experience convinced him that campus professionals should do everything possible to meet students where they tend to congregate instead of expecting them to come to unfamiliar offices and buildings. He also collaborated with another committee member across units to leverage technology via group chats and videos.

These examples support Edwards and colleagues (2009) argument that productive interprofessional collaborations involve working across systems to advance new practices that challenge historically established responses. Some of the MOC Initiatives most valuable aspects were the collaborations that emerged from this experience, creating bridges of communication between individuals, units, and divisions. Reflecting on their steering committee experiences, members particularly appreciated having a space to collaborate with colleagues from different campus units. Jackson remarked,

I was able to create a lot of relationships that have been beneficial to what I do, based on thisespecially when you bring all these people into the room, and we have the common denominator that we want to help and make a difference. It makes it easier to develop those relationships. Now, the relationships that I develop over time may not necessarily have to do with men of color, but because you and I were in the same room at the same time, it makes it easier for me to be like, Hey! Can we talk about something completely different, but still job related?

Gabriel summed it up nicely: Ive kind of gotten a new network of people that Im very excited to work with. . . . Its not insular, its not insulated, its cross-disciplinary, its cross-functional. Shanice reflected on the committee and the prospect of adopting this model elsewhere:

I think if this were to go to another university, theres certain aspects of the steering committee that make it successful. I think people on the steering committee feel like they can utilize their own expertise, dollars and space here to move this forward . . . I think people took their own expertise and matched that with the passion and then the goal of the project to really move it forward, and thats the magic of what happened on this steering committee, and you wouldnt want to lose that in replication.

A surprising finding was the impact that research had on participants. Our approach using SDE as an intervention was to provide theoretical and conceptual guidance for sustained change-making work. We found that consistently reminding them of the research that guided our approach and providing them with meeting minutes to move toward the next iteration of the work resonated. Our goal was to establish a culture of inquiry among the group, but we did not realize that it would have such an effect on the group so early. As Hope noted,

The other cool thing, I think, is the research aspect. I dont have a PhD. I dont do any of that stuff, and so I think about how does research impact this or how do we think about this from a pedagogy standpoint? Because there isnt research on a scholarly, pedagogy kind of practice of men of color. Theres lots of activities and programs, and theres some research on those men, but not in a program thats such an academically driven program. Its usually social, kind of psycho-social. So, thats been really awesome because I dont think theres any other working group where we think about the research part of that in any way, because its either program based, or you are in academia and youre doing the research. So its really cool.

This sentiment illustrates how a collaborative, inquiry-based approach to the contexts of inequities in postsecondary education can lead to an enhanced understanding of the research process. That understanding allows practitioners to expand how they integrate research into their practice. An academic advisor noted how he learned to navigate conversations with PhDs at the table, giving him confidence in other professional conversations that he had while he served on university-wide committees with faculty. Such revelations reverberate across professional communities and change normative practices that do not draw on research processes.



Our findings revealed a unique type of relational agency that emerged from sharing knowledge among practitioners of color. The combination of bringing together campus actors across siloed campus units and a focus on racial equity across racial and ethnic groups produced interprofessional and cross-racial learning. We named this phenomenon cross-racial agencythe process of increasing the capacity for a cross-racial group of practitioners to work together in historically and predominantly White organizational contexts by drawing from SDE principles and other participatory design approaches. Cross-racial agency enabled practitioners to expand the object relating to closing racial equity gaps and to recognize, access, and align resources to interpret and respond to the object in ways that address the racial equity gap. Although the concept of relational agency served as a useful foundation, it did not provide enough conceptual guidance to establish a framework for racialized experiences in a predominantly White institutional context.


We believe that initiatives addressing racial equity on a predominantly White campus should be grounded in the epistemological foundation of people of color. Because their issues relating to racism and oppression tend to be at the margins, centering their voices and actions to interrupt the work of oppression provides a liberating way of approaching theorizing (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Solorzano, 1998; Yosso, 2005). The process of developing cross-racial agency illustrates possibilities for re-mediating activity systems to address racial equity outcomes. Going back to our CHAT examples, we propose an activity system where collaborative inquiry-based approaches are the unit of analysis (subject). These approaches are guided by a sense-making process that relies on data disaggregation approaches and involves negotiation across different stakeholders (rules) and leverages institutional reports, meeting notes, and quantitative and qualitative data (tools) to engage in a holistic understanding of the problem. We imagine that this process is taken up by a micro-community of practitioners of color (community) who work across a range of campus units, who take ownership in the work, and who create a new division of labor among practitioners, student service professionals, and faculty. We believe that such an approach leads to new professional learning networks and professional practices that better address outcomes for men of color. Figure 2 provides an illustration of this re-mediated activity system.


Figure 2. Remediated Activity System to Address Outcomes for Men of Color at PWIs

The remediated activity system is based on organizational dynamics of PWIs. Regarding outcomes related to race, believing people of color have deficits, are outsiders, or commodities to be leveraged has shaped policies and practices in these institutions (Iverson, 2007). In addition, the voices of practitioners of color are typically suppressed in decision-making processes (Patton, 2016). The consequences of these dynamics partially explain the PWI organizational culture that both results from and fortifies low numbers of faculty, students, and staff of color, and unwelcoming campus environments for them. Although relational agency provides an appropriate foundation to understand how to generate a more sophisticated response to address issues for men of color, it does not go far enough in revealing how racial dynamics should be considered. Cross-racial agency empowers constituents of color at PWIs to be agents who, through voice and experience, reshape organizational dynamics and follow an inquiry-based process that considers the problem expansively.

The idea of cross-racial agency situates people of color who are educated at or work in PWIs as creators of pathways toward liberation. We incorporate SDE principles because they are predicated on the development of new tools and practices that leverage both everyday knowledge and scientific practices (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016, p. 594). Design work that promotes community creation among a cross-racial group of practitioners, draws upon varied data, including participant experience, and is led with intentional facilitation, establishes a foundation for sustained work that addresses practitioner isolation through community building and improves outcomes for men of color.

The Equity Scorecard process (Bensimon, 2005; Harris et al., 2010) informed our inquiry-based practice, and inviting the steering committee to investigate campus equity issues and codesign a dynamic SDE-guided intervention was central to increasing agency. Further, asking staff to engage in a more than four-year-long process has supported the relational bonds between campus actors.

Throughout our research, we learned that positioning staff of color as racial equity experts, policy designers, and practitioners allowed them to think about their professional and lived experiences in ways that could lead to responses that would look vastly different from traditional approaches. Engaging these practitioners in boundary work across race and professional identities was critical to this process. Collaboration across institutional boundaries can result in fluid relationships that disrupt traditional organizational siloes (Edwards et al., 2009). We sought to create neutral spaces on the boundaries of more than one organization where the values and professional priorities of each practitioner are respected, where information can be shared, and where trust can be built (Konkola, 2001, as cited in Edwards et al., 2009, p. 38). Developing this boundary zone for staff of color and the codesign process created a cross-racial community of stakeholders dedicated to closing the graduation gap. We believe that the cross-racial connections and education produced a type of interaction that may have yielded different outcomes if the group were not so racially diverse. Many of our participants talked about feeling isolated, and they typically socialized and joined groups with other same-race colleagues. The process of cross-racial agency has the potential to strengthen bonds, familiarity, and cross-racial solidarity. This idea builds on the aspect of relational agency that involves recognizing how another person may be a resource (Edwards, 2005) but situates racialized experiences as bonding mechanisms for people of color.


For practitioners who work at PWIs, this research has several implications for developing cross-racial agency in closing racial equity gaps. We encourage practitioners to draw from SDE (Gutierrez, 2008, 2016; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010) for theoretical guidance to create new ways of understanding, approaching, and solving problems that empower members from marginalized groups. Establishing the epistemological foundation of practitioners voices is important to ensuring that interventions are shaped by those voices that have been historically excluded, which also empowers them collectively as they transform inequitable policies and practices. Among the first steps in achieving this idea is bringing a cross-unit, cross-racial group together to understand the problem in a manner that is grounded in student and practitioner experiences and institutional reports that illustrate target group issues vis- à-vis White students. Drawing on multiple forms of data to shape the collective understanding of the problem can generate an expansive notion of how to address the problem.

We encourage practitioners who take on this work to be patient throughout the process. Data from community members, institutional data, and reports take time to process when they come from an equity-based organizational learning perspective that focuses on institutional responsibility for unequal educational outcomes rather than a deficit-based perspective that focuses on students as the problem (Bensimon, 2005; Bensimon et al., 2007). Participants in this study found that working with researchers who assist in literature syntheses and collect and analyze data is critical in generating and sustaining momentum. Detailed minutes available before meetings reorient people to the work, particularly if several months have passed between meetings. At each meeting, we restate the initiatives goals and focus on the iterative journey.

Understanding the organizational practices that inform an issue can shift outcomes. A CHAT framework illustrates and hypothesizes about how different organizational and individual practices lead to contradictions that constrain the creation of an equitable learning environment. We found in the beginning of our project that CHAT illustrated traditional approaches and factors that explained the graduation gap, and CHAT was helpful as we focused on changing organizational practices. In addition, we understood and acknowledged the racialized history of organizational practices that shaped the emerging CHAT framework. The organizational practices that focus on efficiency, accountability, and deficit-based practices exist in siloes across campus units (Bensimon et al., 2007; Harris et al., 2010), creating conditions that overlook and/or obfuscate the deleterious impacts that university policies have on graduation rates for men of color. Understanding the racialized history of specific campuses adds valuable context as new analytical tools and imaginations emerge.

An initiative for men of color, or any historically marginalized racial group, must provide a space for understanding the unique experiences of members from different racial groups. Our data reveal campus tensions between African American and African students; however, this tension has not deeply addressed larger conversations about how to create a framework for men of color. We encourage practitioners to use existing frameworks, such as the heterogenous race model (Celious & Oyserman, 2001), as a lens to highlight the multiple experiences within racial groups. For Black immigrant students, Mwangi and English (2017) have reminded us that there is no single story. Traditional Black identity models fail to capture the multidimensional intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, nativity, and other sociohistoric, political, and cultural factors (see Hatoss, 2012, for the influence of refugee background on identity).

Although Black American and African college students share common histories of domination by Whites (Phinney & Onwughalu, 1996) and continue to experience racism and isolation on U.S. campuses (Mwangi & Fries-Britt, 2015), Phinney and Onwughalu (1996) noted major differences in their world views and how they navigate U.S. higher education. African students and other Black immigrant groups grow up in cultures where Blackness is the norm, whereas Black Americans come from generations of historical oppression and racism and thus have been socialized and positioned as minorities with a different history and struggle for human and civil rights. In addition, Black college students have different experiences based on physical appearance, skin tone, gender expression, speech patterns, clothes, and stereotypes (Celious & Oyserman, 2001; Harper & Nichols, 2008). Therefore, tensions between African and African American students are not surprising, and as more Black-focused initiatives emerge, these factors must be considered.

Just as there are differences within the Black student population highlighted in our study, differences within other racial groups mean that practitioners should avoid the one size fits all approach to racial equity interventions at PWIs. Latinx student populations are as diverse as any in terms of language, country of origin, experiences across higher education, identities, political beliefs, and so on (Crisp et al., 2015; Núñez, 2014). Furthermore, we recognize that the aggregate term Asian does not reflect the heterogeneity and complexity of people who fall into this category, and the educational disparities faced by many Asian ethnic subgroups are masked by imprecise data and reporting (Buenavista et al., 2010; Museus et al., 2013; Teranishi, 2010). Last, Native American student populations differ based on tribal affiliation, federal recognition status, understanding of masculinity, identities (Innes & Anderson, 2015), and experiences across secondary and higher educational contexts (Brayboy et al., 2012; Fryberg & Stephens, 2010). We agree with Mwangi and Fries-Britts (2015) larger point that practitioners should work with institutional research units to understand the effects of location of origin, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics on the profile of racial groups enrolled on campus. Understanding the factors that explain heterogeneity within these groups will enhance opportunities to imagine new organizational practices related to racial equity gaps.


Creating community among a cross-racial group of practitioners, using varied data sources, including participants experiences and facilitating with intention, established a foundation for transformational learning and relationships. We believe that a cross-racial agentic approach serves to remediate isolation for staff of color, increase the understanding of heterogeneity among people of color, and close the gap between siloed campus units. Most important, these practices can provide better outcomes for men of color than traditional approaches to closing the graduation gap.


We'd like to thank the Everyday Science & Technology Group at the University of Washington's College of Education for providing feedback on several iterations of this manuscript.



The five racial and ethnic groups in this study are Black, Latinx, Native, Pacific Islander, and Asian American (including East Asian and Southeast Asian)


MOC = men of color.


Practitioners of color are highlighted in this study and make up the large majority of group membership, but the steering committee is not exclusive to any one social group or identity and has had White members, participants, and allies.


All names are pseudonyms.


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Research Participant Social Memberships

Functional Role/Area of work


Self-Reported Gender

Academic Affairs Leader



Student Affairs Leader

American Indian


 Student Services Practitioner

Southeast Asian


 Admissions and Recruitment Practitioner



Student Services Practitioner



Student Services Practitioner

Pacific Islander


Student Services Practitioner

Asian American


Student Services Practitioner



Student Affairs Leader



Academic Affairs Leader

American Indian


Community Outreach Practitioner



Undergraduate Student



Student Services Practitioner



Student Affairs Leader



Student Services Practitioner

Asian American


Student Services Leader




Asian American


Student Services Leader






Student Services Leader




Steering Committee Interview Protocol




Whats your position (i.e., what do you do?), and how long have you been with the university?


How would you describe todays campus environment for racial diversity? What changes have you seen since youve started working here?


What have been your experiences as a person of color on this campus?


At this institution, theres a 14% graduation gap between Black and Brown men and their peers. Why do you think there is this gap?


From your perspective, what institutional practices have led to this graduation gap for Black and Brown men?


Are there unique challenges for students from certain groups (Black, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian)? What about men within these populations?


From your perspective, what strategies have been successful for Black and Brown males in facilitating their graduation at this institution? Why?


What do you think are new or different ways to approach this gap?


What are some of the things that you believe males of color at this school are concerned about, and feel are important to change or address?


How do you measure equity or equitable outcomes in your area/department, if at all?


Steering committee experience


Why were you interested in participating in the initiative?


What are some professional lessons that you have learned?


What have you learned about men of color?


How has being on the steering committee changed your approach as a practitioner, if at all?


How would you describe the next phase or level of engagement that needs to be put in place for males of color at this institution, through the initiative?


How do you see the work we do in the steering committee as making larger changes on campus?


What would make the steering committee more effective, moving forward?


How can we better utilize the expertise of the group?


If you were to offer the steering group a training or workshop in something, what would it be? Why?


How have you developed new relationships through participating in the initiative?


Professional development


What does professional development look like in your current role?


What professional development experiences have you been involved in that have been the most helpful? How? (probe for conferences, webinars, trainings)


What data or information would help you to do your work more effectively?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 2, 2021, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23588, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:26:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Joe Lott II
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    JOE LOTT II, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. He is also the founding faculty director of University of Washington’s Brotherhood Initiative. His current research agenda investigates how educational systems can create the conditions to empower boys and men of color to thrive. Recent publications include an article titled “Undergraduate men of color experiences with the 2016 presidential election” published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, and a co-authored article titled “Families in the driver’s seat: Catalyzing familial transformative agency for equitable collaboration,” published in Teachers College Record.
  • Dalya Perez
    E-mail Author
    DALYA PEREZ currently works as a Program Manager for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Microsoft's Mixed Reality organization. Her research interests focus on developing critical historical consciousness for Filipinx Americans and addressing postsecondary graduation gaps in postsecondary contexts. She received her Ph.D. in 2020.
  • Theresa Ling Yeh
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    THERESA LING YEH is currently the Director of Research and Programs for the Brotherhood Initiative at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on postsecondary access and completion for first-generation, low-income students and men of color, community college transfer policy and practice, and community engagement. Her recent publications include a co-edited volume for New Directions for Community Colleges, titled Transfer Partnerships for More Equitable Outcomes, and a co-authored chapter, “A Continuum of Transfer Partnerships: Toward Intentional Collaborations to Improve Transfer Outcomes.”
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