Can we review the differences among diversity, inclusion, and equity work? I think we should. In blogs written by Meg Bolger and Dr. Geraldine Cochran we are given tools to work through our understanding and often mistaken conflation of these three terms that have dominated the academic landscape for decades now.

  1. Diversity is simply defined as the “presence of difference in a given setting.” In its purest application it is merely compositional. This means that if you were to catalogue or take a census of your program’s participants you would find representation of a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. However, this compositional approach to diversity has been deemed by many as an unfinished thought. Yes, there is representation, but that representation does not mean there is change or community.
  2. Inclusion rarely appears without diversity and perhaps can be viewed as the verb to diversity’s subject position in a basic sentence. Bolger defined inclusion as, “different identities feeling and/or being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting.” A focus on inclusion means a movement beyond just recruiting for diverse populations or participants towards reframing around interactions, practices, and barriers that both increase and decrease retention for persons with marginalized identities.
  3. Diversity and inclusion are like peanut butter and jelly (PB & J) sandwiches. It has been relatively easy to see how these two concepts pair together. We pursue a diverse student body or undergraduate participants involved in high-impact practices, and when they arrive, we engage in inclusive programming to support retention. However, I would argue that perhaps the most important component of the PB & J sandwich is the bread. Think about it– who wants to eat a clump of peanut butter and jelly out of their hands. Is it even a sandwich if there is no bread? Equity is to me the bread. It is the overlooked but needed component that is the foundation of the classic sandwich. Equity is the recognition of barriers and privilege. Equity is also a call for equal access, but more importantly equity is the acknowledgement that historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS) have been given unequal starting places. Bolger insists that equity is the continuous pursuit of “correct[ing] and address[ing] the historic imbalance.” Cochran, further clarifies our understanding of the crucial need of equity when she describes what happens when diversity is sought without it: “Diversity efforts are often concentrated on how we ‘fix’ individuals from marginalized or minoritized groups or what we can do to support them to pursue or persist despite inequity. Equity concerns focus more on changing the structures and systems that create the inequities in the first place.”

Here is where we DIEDiversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Another way to capture how these concepts build and form needed synergies is to compare them to the three-act basic structure of a story or performance. The active quest for diversity is the first act or the set-up. Here we populate our story or stage with the actors and players. The second act is where the action takes place. In other words, we have the players and now we must get them to work together building community. This is inclusion.

The final act is the where we find the resolution and the end to the story. Introducing equity into the final act to me suggests a sustainable, committed attempt to address historical and structural barriers that produced the need for seeking diversity in the first act.

Equity work is critical in understanding the HURM experience with high-impact practices. We can’t simply focus on inviting difference or on how we are developing belonging without addressing the fact that HURMS have had and continue to have different starting places in the engaged learning race. We know that equity is the bread that holds the PB & J sandwich together; equity can also be viewed as the third defining act that offers the actors and audience attainable resolution. But what could it look like in the context of HURMS? I’ll start with what it is not, it is not the creation or the endorsement of the same starting positions for HURMS and students from predominate identity backgrounds. That approach is based on equality; what I am advocating for is an equity approach. An approach that, in recognition of sustained historic barriers and omissions from discourse HURMS have systemically faced, gives HURMS advantageous starting positions, positions that reflect not just a call for equity but also a need for socially just resolution.


Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.

How to cite this post:

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2018, October 8. Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, Oh My! [Blog Post]. Retrieved from