The Prevention, Outreach and Education Department at Michigan State University engages members of the university community by utilizing multidisciplinary, community-driven and trauma-informed approaches to educating on the prevention of gender-based violence. One critical area of concern for the department is the lasting impact that harassment or discrimination can have on the climate of a workplace or learning environment.
Executive Director Kelly Schweda, who has been spearheading prevention services at the university since 2008, and Climate & Response Program Administrator Lydia Weiss, explained in a recent interview how their team of 12 dedicated staff members support MSU units and organizations move toward healing and prevent gender-based violence.
Q: When did your group start to address workplace climate issues?
In 2018, we turned into a department and started to do prevention, outreach and education with faculty, staff and graduate students for the first time.
We quickly realized that to be holistic, our work needed to address multiple levels in order to make large-scale change. we recruited Lydia Weiss as the climate and response specialist to lead that initiative, and she was the one who created the process we use today. Now she’s the program administrator for the Climate and Response unit.
The process we developed is a values-based approach, helping units and leaders identify what the values of the coin order to support them in moving forward. Our goal is to prevent future harm from happening within a community of people. We know historically at MSU — and just the ways that gender-based violence works — that there are often residual impacts on those who are in a community. It goes beyond the person who caused harm and the person or persons who are impacted by that harm. We look holistically at everyone who might be impacted, how it’s impacting the climate and how we can help those folks move forward and find the pathways to healing that are available to them.
Q: In addition to the initial harm, what are the ongoing negative effects in workplaces that have experienced or discrimination?
Whether it’s gender-based or other identity-based harassment or discrimination, you’re going to find a reduction in productivity. The research has shown this . Another thing to recognize is that it isn’t just the people directly impacted by harassment or discrimination. It affects the entire climate of a unit, whether that’s, ‘I can’t trust that my leader will take this seriously,’ or, ‘I can’t trust that my colleagues won’t behave this way, or my back if I talk about what I've experienced.’
As is true of any community, everyone may experience these things differently. There is a wide spectrum of ways that people may respond — some people might feel anger about the situation and others may not even be aware of what happened. An additional factor is that whether the person who caused harm is found responsible or reintegrated back into the unit, the upheaval can start all over again. So, to have the climate and response team in place to support people in working through the impacts on the climate and someone to understand what they are going through can be .
Q: How soon do you jump into action and how long does the process usually take?
It all depends. Working with our team is never required. These are folks who are reaching out voluntarily to shift the climate in their own unit or organization, and that’s to the work that we do. Typically, it takes a year or two for a full climate response process with listening sessions to identify trends and then to support that unit through implementation of whatever we collectively determine are the best ways to move forward.
Q: What does the process look like?
The great thing about the way that we do climate and response work is that it’s completely adapted to the needs of that team, unit or student organization. Never does it look identical. But , the first step is doing an intake with the contact person or persons, often the leader of a unit, so we can impacts and needs. Is there historical harm? Is there current harm? We can assume that there are survivors of gender-based violence in any space that we engage in. And being aware of that helps inform the way that we do our so we don’t cause further harm.
One of the things that makes us unique is that we’re asking the community to come together to think about resolutions, to think about those pathways forward so it’s just not one person’s idea, but a collective commitment to improving the climate, restoring trust and reducing the risk of further harm. Sometimes it’s a multitier approach: We are often engaging at all levels of the unit — with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and supervisors and leaders — and then we, as the Climate & Response unit can help fill in those gaps to keep things moving forward.
Q: What impact has your climate work had at MSU?
I feel of what we’ve created and the commitment that we supporting folks in their climates. I’ve gotten feedback from folks who said they decided to stay at MSU because of this climate and response work. We are making a significant difference, not just at the individual level but across the university. It’s about helping people who are going through a hard time. They don’t have to do it alone.
I completely agree. I really believe that this is one of the ways that Michigan State is being values-based because this is a values-based intervention. We have the RVSM strategic plan, the DEI strategic plan and the university strategic plan; they all started from a set of values. I feel like the way that our work is done reflects those university values. It’s not just dropping a report and walking away, it’s people to the center of where they need to be, as Spartans.
For more information on the Prevention, Outreach and Education Department’s programs or to inquire about a Climate Assessment Toolkit, please visit https://poe.msu.edu/.