Image of flags from around the world in the Memorial Union with text saying: Inclusion Diversity Equity Awareness

Feb. 23, 2021
By Jens Odegaard

The best way to deliver a diagnosis is directly and clearly. Here’s a diagnosis of the veterinary profession. The profession doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Consider this for example. It is the only profession in the United States where Black or African American people statistically make up 0.0% of the total, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The best way to respond to a diagnosis is with a clear treatment plan. At the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, a key part of the plan for changing the profession to be inclusive and welcoming of all people, especially the underrepresented and marginalized, is the IDEA Committee. IDEA stands for inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness.

First formed as an ad hoc committee in June 2017, “part of the IDEA committee’s job is to connect the CCVM community with opportunities to learn about why this work is so important, and help develop strategies to incorporate inclusive practices in our day-to-day,” said Committee Chair Renee Norred, a histotechnologist at the CCVM.

In January 2021, the CCVM formally recognized the committee as a standing committee with both elected and volunteer membership positions made up of students, faculty and staff.  “The veterinary profession should reflect the people (and their animals) that it serves,” said CCVM Dean Susan Tornquist. “The shift to a more formalized standing college committee acknowledges that our work in this area is going to be ongoing and of great significance to the college — its students, faculty, staff and clients.”

Putting a face to an IDEA

Dr. Troy Holder was born and raised in Barbados. “I grew up for the first 26 years of my life in a society 95% black people, governed by black people,” said Holder, assistant professor of large animal surgery at the CCVM and a member of the IDEA Committee. “I was not ignorant to what diversity and inclusion and racism was, but it was not part of how I was socialized.”

That changed immediately upon coming to the United States.

After graduating from the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine, Holder moved to Tennessee for a minority residency program.

“That was the first place I lived in America. There were clients who did not want to deal with me, who called me n***** to my face,” Holder said. “So then when I got there, they had a clear set of rules. So you can't go to this county or this county because you probably won't come back. If a client calls you n*****, just stabilize the horse and find somebody else. So those were day-one type of rules. So I kind of just felt like, ‘OK, this is the program.’”

This straightforward, no blushing, no sweeping under the rug way of confronting racism appeals to Holder. “My personality is one that if you have a problem, you fix it. I'm a surgeon. That's what I do,” Holder said.

After residency, Holder worked alternately in veterinary academia and private practice in different parts of the country. In 2016, the faculty position he now holds opened up at the CCVM, and he jumped at the chance to return to education.

Though in a different part of the country, racism and bigotry were still present. In Tennessee it was overt. In Oregon it was masked.

“My venture into Oregon was kind of a little different,” he said. “As a black, queer immigrant from the Caribbean, I was just ripe for the picking. I had microaggressions like people mis-gender me and calling me ‘she’ on purpose and laughing.” He also had people doubt his ability and second guess his decisions.

Holder realized that it wasn’t just aimed at him.  “The more gathering of information and observing I did, I realized that this wasn't personal. These people also were known for being misogynists and sexist and treating women horribly,” Holder said.

Holder is quick to point out that many people didn’t and don’t participate. “To be honest, 90% of the people I work with are actually fantastic. So it’s one of those cases where the few bad apples rotten the cart.

“I am a firm believer that people can believe what they wish and have all their beliefs and be entitled to them. But I don't think we're entitled to hate or make people uncomfortable.”

It was in hoping to change this climate that Holder committed to joining the IDEA Committee and speaking out on these issues. “I felt like, ‘OK, well, if I'm going to really stay and work here, I need to be able to also have a voice and try to make a difference,’” he said.

Committing, not just committee

Much of the IDEA Committee’s work to date has been in providing voluntary educational events and seminars about racism and other forms of discrimination, bigotry and bias. “The hope is to have participation,” said Sara Smith, CCVM alumni coordinator and IDEA Committee member. “If you're sitting in the seat, you're going to learn something.”

Norred is one of those who had her eyes opened by similar efforts, and it’s what inspired her to join the IDEA Committee in the first place. “Becoming aware of and understanding these inequities is the first step towards resolving them,” Norred adds. “I was born with a lot of privileges that I never earned or even knew existed. I assumed that my reality was similar to everyone else’s. It wasn't until I became an adult and started learning the life experiences of some of my friends, that I learned that my assumptions were incredibly inaccurate.” 

Holder agrees that this awareness is a key first step in changing the environment. With the consistent offering of diversity and inclusion education his work environment has improved and colleagues have begun to reach out after participating.

“I've had faculty members come to me afterwards to talk: ‘I understand it a little bit more now, and I was ignorant, and I didn't understand that these are some of the things that you may have been feeling,’” he said. “And so I think its people being made much more aware of what it is like to traverse this world for people who look like me or are falling into different categories I fall into. So I think they're more likely to not only check some of their behaviors, but also be able to check other people when they observe them not being collegial. So I think we're on the right track from that point of view.”

Now that it’s a formal standing committee, Holder, Norred, Smith and other committee members are hoping to build on this educational foundation with continued progress toward more holistic and formalized approach to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

For faculty and staff, the college has instated mandated continuing education in diversity, equity and inclusion; a required section of the annual review to show demonstrated commitment to DEI; implicit bias training for all members of the admissions committee and strong encouragement of all faculty and staff to complete search advocate training, which is designed to help people recognize and remove biases in the hiring process. Students are also required to take DEI courses as part of their education.   

It’s in this effort to continue moving toward sustained action that the IDEA Committee’s work will continue.

“By changing the committee from ad hoc to an official standing committee it really shows that our administration is acknowledging that we are dealing with an issue that won't be solved immediately. I hope by elevating the committee to this status it gives us more visibility and encourages more people to become involved,” Norred said. “Ultimately I hope the college no longer needs this committee. That eventually our culture has shifted so much towards inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness that we no longer need a committee to bring these concepts up.”