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Statement on Issues Related to Inclusion and Equity in Communication and Rhetoric

From the President and Board of Directors of the Rhetoric Society of America:

In the past week, a controversy has emerged in Communication Studies that highlights the problems that result when expressed commitments to equity do not lead to the changes necessary to embrace structurally marginalized people. The personal statement released by Executive Director Gerard Hauser on June 14 identified some of these issues. Additional information can be found in the archives of CRTNET, the website of the National Communication Association, and in the “Open Letter on Diversity in the Communication Discipline.”

This is an important moment for RSA’s officers and members to consider their own institutional practices and take ownership of a process that addresses the lack of inclusion and equity that exists across multiple levels of the Society and the manner in which power and privilege continue their exclusionary work. For example, the RSA Fellows are, much like the Distinguished Fellows of NCA, disproportionately white and male. Ensuring that an academic association’s awards reflect not only exemplary scholarship and teaching but also the plurality of its membership is an aim that every association must pursue. The RSA President and Board of Directors affirm and support NCA's Executive Committee and elected leaders in their effort to make the NCA Distinguished Scholars selection reflect NCA’s goals in the areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We reject the claim that academic merit is a neutral standard or that it can be separated from histories and emergent practices of gender discrimination, white privilege, classism, heteronormativity, and ableism. We agree with the authors of the Open Letter on Diversity that “a homogeneous group of scholars will almost certainly judge merit on the basis of their own experiences and standards of rigor and presume that such experiences and standards are universal.”

But our statement cannot end here. It is important to note that many women, people of color, queer, transgender, and scholars with disabilities have labored to find a space for their concerns and raise awareness about these problems. Too frequently they have found their efforts undervalued or unacknowledged, even when that work has made a difference. In a 2017 strategic assessment prepared by Immediate Past President Kendall Phillips, he reported that “some members see the association as unwelcoming. Specific barriers cited by members in this anonymous survey include race, gender, sexual orientation, and employment status. . . . Some characterized RSA as ‘cliquish’ too focused on ‘big R1 institutions’ and too dominated by older white men.”

After Dr. Phillips presented his strategic report in September of 2017, the Board agreed that one of its four-year strategic goals should be to enhance the inclusivity and diversity of RSA. At its most recent meeting in College Park, Maryland on June 6, 2019, the Board of Directors made several decisions that have grown out of that strategic focus.

  1. It charged the RSA President with creating an ad hoc committee to review the suite of RSA awards and awards processes to ensure that they meet the Society’s strategic goals of enhancing inclusivity, member opportunity, mentorship, and public presence.
  2. It voted to alter the description and awards criteria of the Fellows’ Early Career Award to add clarity and transparency to the review process.
  3. President Kirt Wilson declared his intention to use the modest interest from the Corbett Endowment as travel grants to the 2020 RSA Conference among graduate students of color who have insufficient funds to attend.
  4. The 2020 Conference organizers agreed to create an opportunity for registrants to support a scholarship that will help fund graduate student attendees.
  5. The Board approved the creation of a new endowment, in honor of Dr. Andrea Lunsford, which will be used to support future inclusion initiatives.
  6. The Board approved the founding of “RSA Discussion Groups,” networks of 12 scholars or more who share interests and common identities--broadly construed--and want to secure evening space at the 2020 RSA Conference to meet, socialize, network, and organize around their common interests.

Implementation of these new initiatives is under development now, and RSA’s members will learn more about them in the coming weeks and months. Despite this progress, much work remains. As RSA moves forward, learning from the experiences of the past week and the examples of organizations like NCA, ICA, CCCC, and MLA, we must commit ourselves to additional aims: 

  1. Institutionalizing our short-term strategic goal of enhancing inclusion and diversity into the official policies, structures, and governing documents of the organization.
  2. Building a structure that holds RSA leaders and programs accountable for the success or failure of its diversity initiatives and that ensures a diverse and inclusive membership on the RSA Board of Directors and working committees.
  3. Creating new spaces, programs, and events for talking about past and current practices of exclusion and to organize against such practices.
  4. Extending RSA’s attention across a broader array of identities and intersections and reshaping its public discourse so as to create a more welcoming environment for all persons.
  5. Creating a more robust and active volunteer pool to pursue initiatives, to create opportunities for allyship, and to mitigate the uneven burden of labor that too often falls on those who are disadvantaged and marginalized by existing structures and practices.
  6. Creating new inter-organizational initiatives, especially with CCCC, ICA, and NCA, so that each organization can benefit from the experiences of others.
  7. Creating a strong and stable Equity and Diversity Committee that can anchor the Society’s commitments.

The goals and tasks described here are not going to be fulfilled within the tenure of any single president or Board of Directors. A fundamental shift in many RSA operations is required; a shift that is consistent with its stated goals and espoused principles, but that, too often, the Society has failed to materialize in a sustainable way. Creating a Society where everyone--broadly construed across fields of inquiry and across categories of difference--feels respected and valued is a collective endeavor. It is relatively easy to write about what we can do. It will be harder for the Board, RSA’s officers, and its members to pursue it. In this moment, let us commit to this work and pursue it with honest acknowledgments of past failures, an intent to pursue concrete change, and investments of time and energy.

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