Dr. Ame Lambert. Courtesy of Portland State University

Time to act: talking about equity at PSU

An interview with Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Ame Lambert

Dr. Ame Lambert is Portland State’s new vice president of Global Diversity and Inclusion (GDI). On Oct. 30, GDI is hosting “Time To Act: Envisioning and Creating a Just and Equitable PSU,” an equity summit created by Lambert and PSU President Stephen Percy. Before the summit, Lambert sat down to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, and how to best improve equity on campus in the years to come. 


Portland State Vanguard: Talk a little bit about the position of Global Diversity and Inclusion (GDI), in the context of this moment of these past six months of racial equity work. What do you see as the biggest benefit of being in Portland and doing this work, and the biggest hurdle?


Lambert: It started out as a chief diversity officer role, really building out the compliance function of affirmative action, equal employment opportunity, Title IX and then community engagement. Those were the original pillars in terms of the first round of the work. Now that we have the resource centers, it allows GDI to be a place that elevates minoritized students’ success. Increasingly, we also need to focus on employee success as well, to build capacity along the full spectrum of DEI-related pieces: recruitment, retention, success. It’s not enough just to bring people in: What are the experiences that they have in terms of climate? How are we building the capacity for what comes next? Are they advancing within the institution? 


PSU is incredibly decentralized, and pretty autonomous. In some ways, this allows for innovation and the ability to move faster in this big machine—but what we’re hearing [is that] folks are looking for alignment, but they’re also looking for structure. Is there a framework or model we’re using? How are we assessing them? What are the accountability structures? Those are all things that we get to drive at GDI. Working with [Percy] as president and the executive council, we get to build those things. And then partner with folks across the university to do what they want to do. 


VG: Perfect segue. Why is this position important to the university’s mission, or slogan, to “let knowledge serve the city?”


Lambert: PSU is of Portland and drives Portland. It’s driving the economic vitality of the state in terms of providing talent. It’s educating a lot of people from Portland, and from the state of Oregon, and so it is driving social mobility that way. So I think there’s a responsibility, a special one, that PSU has to the city and the state as a whole. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to lean fully into this work. 


VG: In terms of responsibility, you mentioned [in an email] that there was a noose found on campus. My first layer of shock was from the pain of reading that. And then, the next layer of shock was, how did I not hear about that? Can you share some of the context behind the incident?


Lambert: It was at the Fourth and Montgomery building site. That site is a partnership between OHSU, PSU, PCC and the city. There has been a pattern of nooses at construction sites, and so there has been activation of the construction industry with an initiative to stamp out hate. Dr. Marvin Lynn, who is the dean of the College of Education [at PSU], led a process to refocus the energy on the possibilities of the partnerships in the building and away from the hate and the disruption that the noose created. So it was a powerful, powerful ceremony. It happened about two weeks ago and folks spoke, there was poetry, and music. 


VG: How do you talk about something without giving it more power? 


Lambert: We’ll never act like it’s not impactful, but we’re not going to spend all of our time and energy responding to anything. You could spend three, four months chasing after one incident, when that’s energy that could be spent on uplifting BIPOC communities. And so you’re exactly right. We will acknowledge the harm done, but we’re not going to dwell, we’re just not. It’s not worth our time and our attention. We will spend our attention constructing.


VG: In that spirit, do you want to share anything more about the October 30 event—what’s on the table, where the planning for that event came from, and why somebody should attend? 


Lambert: There are a couple reasons for it happening and it happening now. In the summer, emails were fast and furious, in terms of sending a list of demands or recommendations for things to do. But it was like, “This person doesn’t know what that person is saying, so, if you do this one, then what about that one?” We were trying to figure out how to prioritize, and the challenge was: “Why would [the executive council] get to [decide]?” The community should get to prioritize their own recommendations. 


It is important for the community to come together and co-create a vision of what it means for us to be racially just and equitable [at PSU]. Everybody is sure that that’s a good idea—so what does it mean? What does it look like? What does it feel like? And what will it take to get there? And so that’s what October 30 is about. 


It’s really critical that the community is fully represented at the table as we have these conversations. We’re talking about the future. We’re doing it for students, and students are doing it for the folks who come after them. So really, students need to be at the table fully present, fully voiced, so that we build the institution we want. As you know, when people co-create something, there’s a little bit more buy in. This is what we’re going to hold ourselves accountable to.


VG: You’re doing it in a way that will last beyond the momentum and energy of the moment. Someone in your position, getting all these requests, could just take that moment to bring the solution themselves. Along the way, you have picked up a different perspective on leadership. 


Lambert: In the idea about leadership being about kind of collective engagement, there is a theory I appreciate very much. It distinguishes between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are the ones that are easy to identify, and very quickly the solutions are apparent. There are lots of things related to DEI, for example, that could be like that. If you were going to get a search advocate program, we don’t need to talk to a million and one people to do it. You just do it. 


But the core of the work, the kind of transformation that is needed for equity, is adaptive. Adaptive challenges take a really long time. People forget what the heck is going on, because it’s pretty amorphous. In order to solve adaptive challenges, it requires change in multiple places. And not just change in places, it requires a change in paradigm, a change in relationships. So the only way to solve adaptive challenges is the collective leaning in together. Taking some risks. You’re going to screw up, because, you know, we’re not even sure what the problem is. In my mind, and in my experience, the reason that we have not made enough progress on DEI work is not that we don’t care. It’s that we don’t care enough, and we don’t understand how complex it is. Because it’s adaptive. We [make] a declaration, “This will be the solution!” and that has never worked. It’s not sustained, it’s not deep enough.


There are five shepherding groups that are organized according to a framework and are engaged in meaning-making. Then we’ll continue to get feedback from the campus. It really is important that whatever we come up with is a partnership, a collective voice, because if not, we’re not getting to any real solutions.


VG: And what about the role of story ownership and storytelling—both an individual owning their own story, and then also our collective story of this institution—in that process? 


Lambert: On the individual level, our journey is about a search for our story. What I love about college is that there are all of these moments outside the classroom when life is speaking to you, calling out to you, and you are activated. When something really angers you, or something really ignites your passion, that is the world and your life speaking to you about what you’re supposed to do in the areas of multiple impact. This is the reason that I’m such a passionate believer in the integration of professions in the liberal arts: the opportunity to build capacity in different areas through these moments that speak to you and ignite you. 


On an institutional level, when we coalesce around who we want to be, what does that mean in terms of who we have been? Systems are wired to go back to the status quo, and so understanding who we have been or what’s in our core, in our DNA—or in our birth date—is a very important part of moving towards where we want to be.


VG: That’s a bigger topic than we thought.


Lambert: I am excited to be here, I am excited to partner so I invite folks to partner. I invite folks to lean in for the long haul, because we’re not talking about a quick journey here. And so lean in, and just hold on as we move through.


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More information on the Equity summit, or to reserve your virtual spot at the event, can be found on the summit’s webpage