Inclusive Excellence and Strategic Practice (IESP), the educational outreach arm of the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) is proud to present “Creating Community” – a new monthly series that will shine a spotlight on the exceptional work happening across campus in the areas of inclusion and belonging. We believe that achieving our goals in these areas is the work of everyone, and this series seeks to honor the accomplishments and contributions of the outstanding faculty, staff, students, colleges, student organizations and alumni.
This series was born out of the Chancellor’s Creating Community Awards, given each spring during OIED’s annual Recognizing Excellence in Diversity (RED) Event. 2022 and 2023 saw a combined 81 award nominees and 17 winners across six categories. Today we introduce one of those winners, CALS assistant professor and extension specialist Maru Gonzalez, in our first Creating Community spotlight.
We spoke with Maru about her extensive work to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at NC State, what led her to this work and why campus collaboration is her secret to progress.
What brought you to this important work, and why is it important to bring this work to CALS?
My journey to this work has been shaped by a myriad of people and experiences. Growing up, my parents taught me to believe in the power of my own voice; I was always told that my perspective mattered, that the truth mattered. I was taught to speak out for what was just, even if doing so got me into trouble. And when it did—because it did—my parents always had my back.
I have taken those lessons with me throughout my career as a school counselor, co-founder of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and now as a faculty member at NC State. So much of my current work is focused on belonging, storytelling and youth development, especially as they relate to amplifying the voices and stories of young people and shining a spotlight on the work they’re doing to improve their schools, communities and the world. I have my parents and the many young people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working to thank for that.
Within CALS, I have the opportunity to work with youth development professionals across North Carolina to build belonging and strengthen youth adult partnerships. Additionally, I’m in the process of establishing partnerships with scholars, professionals, and activists in Puerto Rico that allow for mutual learning and collaboration in areas including sustainable farming, affordable housing and disaster preparedness that integrate my work in youth development and equity and nurture collaboration across my department and the College. I’m also working on a youth-led project with students in my Storytelling for Social Change course in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru to create awareness about gender-based violence through storytelling. To me, the work of belonging is about bridge building and collaboration; it’s about “we” and not “me,” and it’s about fostering spaces where everyone feels valued, supported, and included. With a large outreach and Extension presence and an interdisciplinary focus, engaging in this work in CALS provides ample opportunity for community engagement and collaboration across the realms of teaching, research, and Extension.
What specific DEI programs or achievement(s) would you like to share more about?
I’m currently working on several projects and programs simultaneously. Since 2019, I have served as co-director of #PassTheMicYouth, a multimedia Extension program, including a podcast and blog, focused on lifting the voices of young people and providing youth-serving professionals with resources for centering storytelling and developing critical consciousness. My work with #PassTheMicYouth includes a 20-lesson Amplifying Youth Voices curriculum, an annual TEDxYouth event, and a Pass the Mic summer camp. I am also serving as senior author for an upcoming book entitled Teaching Storytelling in Classrooms and Communities: Amplifying Student Voices and Inspiring Social Change, which is scheduled to be published in 2024. In addition, I am currently leading a grant-funded Race Conscious Parenting program that provides caregivers and Extension agents with tools to talk to youth about race and racism, nurture self-love and address systemic barriers that they face. I’m also the current chair of the CALS Strategic Taskforce to Continually Grow and Reinforce a Culture of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging and Well-Being, which is a key pillar of the CALS strategic plan “Growing Our Future.” Additionally, I’m leading a multi-state research team in a nationwide study, including Puerto Rico, to assess 4-H professionals’ LGBTQ+ competencies. Finally, I will be co-leading a week-long course in Puerto Rico through the Honors College over spring break. Entitled Puerto Rico After Maria, the course will focus on the ongoing impact and implications of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Through informative site visits and meaningful community engagement experiences, students will explore concepts related to politics, policy, environmental justice, colonialism, agriculture, youth development, disaster relief and preparedness, and community solidarity. Students will also learn from people and organizations who are building a more sustainable Puerto Rico through food sovereignty, education, affordable housing, and renewable energy initiatives.
What can you share with others who’d like to have a DEI impact but are finding it challenging?
Collaboration with campus partners is key, especially in the current political climate. There is a lot of valuable work happening across the university (OIED Centers, the University Sustainability Office and the Diversity Network Group come to mind) and within units and departments. The more people doing this work, the greater the impact! Of course, I recognize that supportive colleagues and supervisors facilitate this work. I am grateful to work within a department that values my work and I look forward to continued opportunities for collaboration.
What did it mean to you to receive recognition at the 2022 RED Event?
Receiving the Chancellor’s Creating Community Award is deeply meaningful to me. Such a prestigious recognition, particularly from the Chancellor, is especially significant given the current political climate, as it legitimizes my efforts and those of the other recipients to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) within NC State and beyond.