Knapsack Institute celebrates 20 years of critical conversations

As the Knapsack Institute looks back on 20 years of education, it’s also looking forward to the ever-evolving future of research and practices in equity, diversity and inclusion fields.

For 20 years, the Knapsack Institute at UCCS has worked to transform the way classrooms and workplaces talk about highly political and emotional subjects — from race, class, gender and disability to inequality and privilege.

Those conversations have changed over the years, but the Institute’s mission has remained the same: providing skills that allow people to successfully navigate conversations on these critical topics.

The Institute, which began offering its first three-day summer program for educators as early as 1999, takes its name from gender and anti-racism scholar Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking academic reckoning of privilege. In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh writes that privilege is “an invisible weightless knapsack” of tools, safety nets and assurances: “unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

Abby Ferber, director of the Matrix Center and professor of sociology and women’s and ethnic studies, has led and co-facilitated the Institute for 20 years — and has helped flip the Institute’s name on its head.

Flipping Peggy McIntire’s “invisible knapsack” of privilege on its head, the Knapsack Institute at UCCS gives participants a knapsack of tools and strategies to understand and advance topics of diversity and inclusion.

“Participants leave the Institute with a knapsack full of concrete tools, ideas and strategies to use in the classroom and workplace,” Ferber said. “They leave with ways of engaging people in these issues respectfully, with the skills to help others in the room understand each other and have authentic, honest dialogues in which everyone can fully participate.”

The Institute’s “knapsack” of tools has evolved over the years. 20 years ago, its focus was on transforming the classroom: from encouraging UCCS faculty members to include academic works by marginalized scholars in their curricula, to creating an inclusive classroom dynamic where underrepresented students felt they belonged and their voices were valued.

As research into diversity and inclusion topics has evolved, the conversations have changed, too.

Each year, Ferber and co-facilitators revise the Institute’s curriculum to address up-to-the-minute issues and research findings. For example, this year’s curriculum will offer sessions on cancel culture and transgender issues, along with flagship workshops on facilitating difficult discussions and dealing with resistance to respectful dialogue around diversity and inclusion topics.

“We focus on research-based best practices that address the moment,” Ferber said. “We cap the Institute at 40 participants so that we can create a small learning community. And each of the faculty members involved are doing research on these topics right now. It’s what they study and teach every day.”

Ferber reflected that as the academic understanding and practices of diversity and inclusion have advanced, the needs of participants have changed, too.

The Knapsack Institute offers up-to-the-minute research and strategies on equity, diversity and inclusion.

“Today we’re finding, more and more, that bringing topics of diversity and inclusion into the classroom can create an emotionally charged environment. These topics have become very politicized,” Ferber said. “Our participants want to come and think about how they can engage in civil, respectful dialogue around these issues, and how they can facilitate these conversations in their classroom or workplace. They want skills to teach about these topics in their environments.”

The Institute doesn’t just serve classroom needs. As research continues to show that diverse and inclusive environment support positive business outcomes, some participants have been asked to serve on their organizations’ diversity and inclusion committees — often without a background in the issues.

“Many of those people don’t have the background or training to really make a difference on those committees, or for those committees to carry out their work,” Ferber said. “People come to the Knapsack Institute to learn about best practices, recognizing that they can’t adequately address diversity, equity or inclusion in their organizations without training.”

After 20 years, Ferber foresees that the Institute will continue to flex with the times. And the team of facilitators have every intention of continuing their work — addressing new and evolving topics each year.

“We have no thoughts about stopping in any way,” Ferber said. “Our basic core goals and values remain the same, but the Institute will continue to change and evolve every year, because the issues that people are facing change every year.”

“Everybody is an educator in some way,” Ferber concluded. “No matter what you do or where you are, these issues are all around you, and there is always more to learn.”

The Knapsack Institute, a flagship program of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion at UCCS, offers a three-day institute each summer open to educators, trainers, facilitators and individuals from the non-profit and corporate sectors.

The 2021 session ran from June 16-18 in a virtual format. Having offered a successful virtual Institute, the Institute plans to increase its sessions in future years to include one virtual and one in-person program.