GRCC honored as a promising place to work

Award recognizes commitments toward diversity

Students share a laugh during an event this year celebrating diverse student groups including ALAS, NIA and Brother2Brother

Hiring practices and services aligned with the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice are factors that make GRCC a promising place to work, said B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, GRCC’s chief equity and inclusion officer.

The institution is committed to building a foundation that promotes equity — a key part of the underlying goal of diversity — and embraces the philosophy of meeting the needs of all students, Cobham said. 

“One of the things GRCC can be credited for is they are aware of the pieces of the puzzle to do equity work,” she said.

GRCC is among 16 schools in the nation recognized as one of 2020 Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) and the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

According to fall 2019 data from GRCC, 22 percent of staff members — 137 of 637 — are minorities, which is still “unbalanced,” said McNeely Cobham. (As for students, 62 percent are white, 15 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American, 4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 1 percent Native American and 6 percent are unknown. The average age of students is 24, with 27 percent being 25 and older.)

But McNeely Cobham is very hopeful about recent changes in hiring practices. Those include GRCC’s Office of Human Resources moving to align hiring practices with a project called HireReach, a collaboration between West Michigan Works!  and Talent 2025

As part of this work, GRCC is shifting to an evidenced-based selection process model to reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment and hiring process. “It focuses on the cognitive and tangible skills of prospective employees,” she said.

B. Afeni McNeely Cobham is GRCC’s chief equity and inclusion officer

First-time Honor  

The annual award recognizes commitments to diversity through best-in-class student and staff recruitment and retention practices, inclusive learning and working environments, and meaningful community service and engagement opportunities, according to a press release. This is the first time GRCC has received the honor.

“Achieving equity is a strategic goal at GRCC and an important focus of all aspects of our work,” President Bill Pink said. “Addressing disparities in education and the workforce is essential for us to serve our students and our community as a whole. We are still a work in progress, and have much more to do, but we are honored by this recognition.”

NISOD is a national organization committed to promoting and celebrating excellence in teaching, learning, and leadership at community and technical colleges. It is based at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

Diverse: Issues in Higher Education is a biweekly publication covering issues pertaining to underrepresented minorities in American higher education.

“We are proud to honor these colleges for their sustained commitment to diversity,” NISOD Executive Director Edward J. Leach said in the press release. “We are also pleased about the large number of applications this year. It shows that a growing number of colleges appreciate how critical diversity and inclusion initiatives are to their campuses and communities.”

Moving Forward Toward Equity

McNeely Cobham emphasized a commitment to continuing to move forward with equity-centered projects. GRCC’s Campus Action Plan focuses on studying GRCC’s climate; creating courageous conversations and safe places for those to happen; and offering professional development training for equity and inclusion, including training for intergroup dialogue.

The Campus Action Plan is also focused on increasing faculty retention and recruiting of target groups through marketing the benefits of how the individual and GRCC can reach and teach diverse student populations. Other goals include implementing employee mentorship initiatives for underrepresented populations; implementing leadership development initiatives to help underrepresented populations prepare for promotion opportunities; and identifying and coordinating opportunities for students to be involved in decision-making processes. 

McNeely Cobham was hired in 2018 to provide oversight of equity and inclusion practices, culturally-competent training and development, and community partnerships. She retooled student groups including ALAS, which is mostly made up of Latino students; NIA, which is mostly women of color; and Brother 2 Brother Network, which is primarily African American men. The groups now focus more on connecting with resources and opportunities.

Students come to GRCC from all walks of life, she said. Many have economic challenges, face food insecurity, are single parents or veterans. GRCC tailors services to help them support and navigate the college experience while dealing with other things in their life.

“The community college philosophy is that it gives an opportunity for people who would otherwise not afford a good education to have one,” she said.

For staff members, she said GRCC offers opportunities for professional upward mobility. 

“One can gain enough skills and expertise to move on to another institution to be in a higher position. Faculty and staff can say they’ve gained enough skills to move on and do good work at a higher level.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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