Moving the needle on inclusive language. Monique Umphrey

Oshrat Nir, Shahed Alqadi | August 25, 2021

Moving the needle on inclusive language, with Dr. Monique Umphrey from Houston Community College

Welcome back to our series Moving the needle on inclusive language. In this series, we talk to leaders in the cloud-native space as they share the inclusive naming initiatives they care about. This will include tools, activities, and results they have discovered along the way.

Dr. Monique was recently named one of the top 50 most powerful women in technology . She became president of Houston Community College in 2019. She was not a typical candidate who had climbed the ranks in academia. Rather, she served as a software developer for the first 14 years of her career. She spent the next 10 years leading software development projects. During this time she also taught as an adjunct instructor at a community college. She has always been a fan of the underdog and the underrepresented. Working at a community college allowed her to become part of the solution, by cultivating more diverse IT talent. She achieves this by increasing awareness about technical career paths for underrepresented populations and ensuring they have viable pathways into careers with family sustaining wages.

Please describe a situation where biased language affected you. My freshman year, I was started at a selective R1 research institution. It was not a pleasant experience at all, it was actually hostile. It was not nurturing, it was not welcoming. I felt like I was being treated like a research subject and it felt like they did not expect me to succeed.

I was lucky that I had people who cared about me outside of that environment. They were determined to show me that I had something inside of me that was worthy of cultivating and that I was college material. So I was able to push on. I saw students that didn’t have similar support quit their college journey.

I saw the power of negative language. I saw the power of negative reinforcement and stereotypes. I experienced how powerful language is and how it can be used in a negative way. So it was really important to me to create a different type of academic environment that was more nurturing.

One of the things that I really try to create, at our college, is what we call a “hospitality environment”. It fosters a sense of belonging, where students feel celebrated for their unique brilliance and the unique elements that they bring to the table.

That was really important to me and it was birthed out of some of the situations and experiences that I had.

You hold a leadership role in an educational institution. Do you think inclusive naming initiatives should happen top-down or bottom-up? I think it could go either way. I know when I was in corporate, we started an agile movement that was bottom up. We didn’t tell the senior leadership what we were doing. It was very important to us. We started a cultural movement from the bottom.

That being said, inclusive language is important to me, so I’m starting top down. I think that it’s important from a cultural perspective, that it be a top down movement. It shows that it is supported by the top executives at the institution. I want everybody to know that no matter where they are in the organization that they are supported in this.

Our country (the USA) is so polarized right now especially on issues of race. In such an environment I think it’s really important that people feel that supported on certain topics. If people are going to take a stance, they need to know that they will be supported by the top administrators or top executive leaders at their institution.

What steps have you taken to eliminate bias from the language you use at HCC? What will keep the initiative moving forward? We’ve done quite a bit from a professional development standpoint with our faculty and staff. In terms of inclusiveness, we’ve recently hired a chief diversity officer that helps with professional development across the institution.

We are also doing quite a bit in terms of faculty from an iterative perspective. We are always looking for new opportunities to make sure that everyone across the institution is kept abreast of trends, such as inclusive language. In this way we all work to create an environment where everyone feels safe and supported.

We have a weekly series at our college called a virtual coffee break on Friday. In it we encourage different people across the college to share and lead things from their particular perspective. It can be from an LBTQ+ point of view or from our diverse cultural groups. It allows us to share different perspectives to help us to understand each other’s backgrounds.

How do you account for diversity in your organization? We really do a lot.

One of the things I’m really proud of is our hometown of Houston. Relative to other major cities, we are one of the most diverse as far as of demographics. There is no single group that can claim they are the majority in Houston. And that’s a rarity. The Rice Kinder Institute shared some demographics with us. One of the things that they shared is that Houston is the city that most accurately reflects America twenty years from now.

HCC, specifically, is a leader. We’re the number one associate degree institution for awarding international degrees. We put a lot of effort into translating our material to different languages. At one point, some of our printed material had been translated into 122 languages. So when I say there’s a lot of work that goes into inclusiveness here, this includes our international student organizations and our international office. They both have diverse representation to ensure that we are able to speak to everyone.

Furthermore, we have many students that are first generation. As a result, the language barriers alone could cause some communication challenges. We have started offering dual language options for many of our existing courses. This promotes enrollment and workforce readiness. We work with the community to meet people where they are. We also focus on ensuring that the messages that we’re sharing are received as they are intended. So there’s a lot of intentionality around our messaging.

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.” ~ Ingrid Bengis

In this interview, I found a fearless advocate of inclusive language. Dr Monique Umphrey, withstood the challenges of a difficult and unaccepting environment in her college years. After overcoming this and becoming a prominent woman in technology, she is now paying it forward. She is working on creating an intentionally inclusive environment at Houston Community College and creating access to careers in technology for underprivileged groups.

If you’d like to be featured or know someone who’d be a great fit you can find us on Twitter @inclusivenaming and spread the love.

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