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Moving beyond words: Pierce College is taking action for racial equity

Stories & Case Studies
September 28, 2022

In Pierce College’s relentless pursuit of its mission to create quality educational opportunities for a diverse community of leaders, they began a twelve-year journey by examining longitudinal data and disaggregating by student demographics. They were shocked by what they saw: Students were not persisting or completing at rates acceptable to leadership and there were significant areas of inequity among the most marginalized and minoritized students.

Pierce joined the ATD Network in 2012 and committed to a bold goal to increase graduation rates by more than 100 percent and eliminate equity gaps by 2020. Working with their ATD coaches, they held a “y’all come” and more than 200 college staff and faculty showed up to work on 40 different interventions. This work included a college success class, English and math redesign, advising, and other projects that were mission-driven, data-informed, and equity-minded.

Mobilizing for students

Pierce College was one of ten institutions to participate in the first Racial Equity Leadership Academy (RELA), an intensive leadership program that equips college leaders with the tools they need to dismantle structures and policies that serve as barriers for racially minoritized students. In partnership with the USC Race and Equity Center, ATD supported college teams as they developed bold action plans and implemented change efforts at their institutions.

Pierce College has taken steps to dismantle racial inequities in two critical areas: the student experience and teaching and learning. Benefiting from the expertise of local equity, diversity, and inclusion leaders as well as insights from peer colleges in RELA, the college completely redesigned their student services division. Pierce dismantled their existing model and rebuilt it to put historically marginalized students at the center, with a focus on Black and Brown student excellence.

In a conversation with Chancellor and CEO Dr. Michele Johnson and Charlie Parker, vice president of equity, innovation and engagement who is also serving as the interim vice president for learning and student success, Pierce College Puyallup, they told ATD, “We now have the most racially diverse leadership structure in the history of our college.”

Through RELA, the college also worked to diversify their faculty through a focused cluster hiring program centered on Black and Brown student excellence. This project included a redesign of faculty tenure elements, professional development focused on racial equity, and a redesigned first-year induction program.

When asked what the most important takeaway from collaborative RELA work has been, Parker responded: “No matter where we are in this work, we can never underestimate the amount of courage and sacrifice it takes to move past circular conversations to critically engage in this work. With racial equity and justice at the forefront, many brave colleagues are mobilizing for our students.”

Michele Johnson, Chancellor of Pierce College, and Charlie Parker, Vice President of Equity, Innovation & Engagement

Accelerating equitable transformation

RELA colleges spent a year engaging in intensive and intentional work to advance racial equity at their institutions and in their communities. Community colleges across the ATD Network are undertaking similar work, committed to flattening barriers to success for their students. College leaders can take steps — right now, and in the longer term — to accelerate this work, but it won’t be easy. “Every leader and institution must deeply reflect and deconstruct their identities, positionality, and power when engaging in racial equity work,” said Chancellor Johnson.

Parker outlined questions that college leadership teams can ask themselves to start this deconstruction:


  • What is your politic and what informs it?
  • What is the explicit politic of your organization?


  • What are you willing to sacrifice, lose, and give back for the liberation of BIPOC people?
  • What is your organization willing to sacrifice, lose, or give back?


  • What motivates you in this work?
  • What does your organization value and how does it explicitly show it?


  • In what ways are you complicit in the reinforcement of white supremacist culture and norms?
  • What are your explicit and accountable plans for responding to these findings?


  • What is your plan for harm reduction?
  • Who are you accountable to? Who’s your organization accountable to?
  • What is your organization’s explicit responsibility to acknowledge its history, and its proactive plan for harm mitigation?


Moving past words to action

As ATD prepares for a second RELA cohort, Pierce College’s RELA and broader leadership teams will continue leading the way to center racial equity throughout leadership, instruction, and campus culture at Pierce College. “Racial equity is imperative because we can no longer continue to move along in this sector without the deep acknowledgment of our field’s failure to resource, empower, and focus on Black and Brown peoples,” Parker said.

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