A Culture of Inclusion

“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”

— Fred Rogers

Our Work to Build a Culture of Inclusion Amplifies

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was known for teaching kindness and equality. The expansive show encouraged viewers to explore their imaginations, choose love over hate and listen to other people. Because of Mister Rogers’ example, it seemed fitting to start my message today with a quote from him.

We, at Central College, are investing time and resources on diversity, equity and belonging. It’s worth the effort to help us deepen the understanding and knowledge of the Central family on the topic of racism and its impact on our lives and culture. Through this work we have learned to explore our imaginations, choose love over hate and listen to other people.

While our academic community has been committed to this work over many years and includes it as an essential component of our strategic plan, in the Spring 2018 semester, we deepened our review of the college environment and looked at how we could strengthen our efforts in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. An outcome of this work was the development of a Building a Culture of Inclusion initiative.

The goal of the initiative is to build a better future — one that includes everyone in our community. This initiative is working to dive below the surface and examine our campus culture in an effort to create long-lasting change. That takes time. And it is worth it.

One thing we have learned is that addressing this challenge takes all of us working together. Since the committee was first formed, it has grown and now includes faculty, staff and students. (For a list of those leading our inclusion efforts as well as insights into the student experience on this initiative, see this story in the January 2021 alumni magazine, Civitas.)

We also affirm that our community is committed to teaching, learning, growing and developing leaders — in the classroom and through student experiences — who will contribute to our nation and world in positive ways through civil discourse and active service during these increasingly challenging times. The Central community has long held a commitment to have a heart for others. Now more than ever we are committed to making sure everyone feels seen and heard in our community — even (or especially) in a place that is predominately white.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of our country’s political environment, the world is asking a lot of all of us right now. Even in the midst of all that, we must, and have been, doing more to create a culture where everyone in the Central family feels included, safe and welcome.

Recent Efforts

In the year before the pandemic started, the college created the Building a Culture of Inclusion initiative. This included recruiting faculty and staff to serve on the initiative. Faculty and staff identified five areas that members of the initiative could study and advance:

  • Recruiting and Hiring Colleagues and Students of Diverse Backgrounds
  • Pella Community
  • Communication
  • Professional Development/Training/Programming
  • Academics/Curriculum

Work was ramping up when the pandemic started in the Spring 2020 semester. We admittedly lost some momentum as many campus leaders focused their efforts on responding to new ways of teaching and delivering services to our students.

In the Fall 2020 semester, with the return to in-person learning, we also returned our focus to building a culture of inclusion. I share here a few of the accomplishments of our work while also recognizing this is not an exhaustive list:

  • We partnered with two students, Marin Harrington ’21 and Yana Rouse ’21, to recruit additional students to the initiative.
  • For the 2020-21 academic year, our academic theme focused on inclusivity. This focus included several guest lecturers:
    • The Geisler Penquite Educational Excellence Speakers Series hosted an event with Kyle Korver, an NBA veteran currently playing with the Milwaukee Bucks. He took part in a Q&A session about his essay “Privileged,” which appeared in The Players’ Tribune in April 2019. The essay garnered national recognition and initiated a larger conversation around systemic racism and what it takes to become a true ally to others.
    • Students, faculty and staff attended several different training sessions with Eddie Moore Jr., director of The Privilege Institute and recognized as one of the nation’s top motivational speakers and educators. He provided several different trainings, a portion of which was funded by Trustee Mary Worstell ’73. Moore also presented a live and virtual discussion for the public on his book “The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys.”
  • For the 47th consecutive year, the college was selected to receive funding under the U.S. Department of Education TRIO Student Support Services Program. The funding allows the college to provide opportunities for academic development, social and cultural opportunities to motivate students toward the successful completion of their postsecondary education. The goal of SSS is to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants. The federally funded TRIO programs at Central include three pre-college programs: two Upward Bound programs and Talent Search, in addition to the SSS program.
  • For many years Central has offered a need-based scholarship for multicultural students. In 2020 we made changes to the scholarship so that it is awarded to applicants whose ethnic background is underrepresented at Central. In addition, the scholarship is now awarded to students regardless of financial need. Further, several alumni have created endowed scholarships over the years that support underrepresented students. These changes are important in helping us build a diverse community at the college.
  • I signed the CEO Commitment to Racial Equity with other leaders in Greater Des Moines.
  • The Faculty Development Committee invited faculty to read Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents over winter break. During the spring semester, the faculty will provide two opportunities for discussion of this book: one among faculty about how this book might help inform our teaching, and the other between faculty and students who have also read the book. More information about the timing of these events is forthcoming.
  • The student group Black Excellence hosted a “Say Their Names” event, which brought awareness of those who have experienced social injustice in our nation. The Organization of Latinx-American Students and Common Ground (LGBTQ+) also sponsored several successful events for the campus community.
  • Many across campus participated in the United Way’s 21-Day Equity Challenge. In addition, several community members attended United Way’s Inclusion Summit following the conclusion of that program.

Next Steps and Upcoming Events

I’m pleased with the energy the inclusion efforts have taken. Faculty are reviewing courses to see how inclusion initiatives can be integrated into coursework. One example of this is a theatre topics course called Problematic Plays, which will be held during the spring semester. The course will critically examine issues of social justice, discrimination and inequality and how they appear in dramatic literature.

We are working on submitting a grant proposal to highlight the book “So You Want to Talk About Race?” During the spring semester we also plan to sponsor several movies with a social justice theme and encourage discussions among community members. The Building a Culture of Inclusion team members will continue to meet to advance this important initiative.

Many opinions exist about what the college “should” do to be more inclusive. Some believe we need to hire someone to fulfill a full-time diversity position. Although we may one day return to that model, we also strongly acknowledge that one person cannot do it all. The actions we have taken and the steps we have planned for the future are all about empowering everyone in the Central family to do the right thing and keep inclusion a focus.

In just a few days we will, of course, celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. During his life, King never backed down in his stand against racism. Below are a few ways we intend to celebrate this historic leader.


  • Faculty will facilitate an in-class experience at 11 a.m.
  • Students will share their dream for 2021 beside the MLK display in Maytag Student Center.
  • We’ll feature King in a slideshow on the Campus Life Channel.


  • We’ll offer an MLK Day of Service Opportunity where students can tie fleece blankets for a local charity.
  • At 8 p.m. we’ll host “What They Didn’t Teach You in History Class,” a virtual presentation by Fred Safford, a national speaker and curator of the True Black History Museum.

We’ve also got some incredible activities planned for Black History Month, including performances by the Zuzu African Acrobats and Kiry Shabazz, comedian. Angel Del Rio ’21 will talk about his service-learning work with the Polk County Housing Trust.

To take advantage of this great programming, I encourage you to check out the Student Crier for details and additional events.

We’ve also selected our academic theme for 2021-22: responsible citizenship. Beginning in the fall, this theme will help us amplify the work we have done around inclusion this year. We’ll look at political polarization, civil unrest, climate change, economic inequality and more. Central’s mission calls upon its community to help students “[develop] values essential to responsible citizenship,” preparing them for “service in local, national and international communities.” How will we respond to today’s challenges? Anticipate those of tomorrow? Have difficult conversations? Act with empathy for those around us? Work toward a just society?

Our Work Together

As we move forward, I implore you to forge relationships with all people, seize opportunities to learn about cultures and histories different from your own and speak up when you see injustice occurring. All of this is in alignment with who we are as a community focused on elevating each other — even when we don’t always agree on how to get there.

We are stronger together. In our effort to build a culture of inclusion, we will continue to focus on what we always focus on: Having a heart for others.

I’ve said it before, and it remains true — we need to do more. I appreciate the work we are doing in a thoughtful and achievable way while upholding the values in our welcome statement.

I invite you to contact me or a member of the Senior Leadership Team at any time to share concerns. It will take all of us to keep moving forward.


About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.