Ensuring an Equitable Recovery

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

September 13, 2021

The ongoing turmoil in the global economy is forcing businesses, industries, and societies to reassess how their systems support or impede their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed some glaring voids in access to employment, education, digital connectivity, and medical care, among many other issues. These dire circumstances present significant challenges to everyone, not just governments, economies, or industrial sectors. However, they also offer significant opportunities to reassess how current societies function (or not) and to develop new methodologies to address those gaps and failures. 

The Economic and Workforce Development department (EWD) at Pasadena City College (PCC) will discuss these and more equity-related barriers and opportunities during its third annual Future of Work conference, happening virtually Tuesday, November 9th. Panelists, who come from a diverse range of EWD sectors, and the keynote speaker, Vijay Pendakur, Ph.D., will discuss how California’s community colleges can refocus their systems to ensure all learners, regardless of their background, thrive as both students and as contributing, employed members of society.


Facing Down the Equity Gap

The social failures encompassed within the equity gap are significant. Entrenched discrimination practices that limit opportunity because of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other fundamental human elements have eroded whole segments of society and reduced their capacity to both achieve their full potential and share that potential for the benefit of the rest. The current disrupted state of the community offers many now open pathways to approach this equity schism with new strategies that will bring fairness and justice to all members of society, not just a selected few. 


California Combats Inequity with Education

California’s State government is taking affirmative steps to address the equity imbalances that hamper its economy and its future. The State currently experiences the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country, and its Black and Latinx populations are disproportionately represented in that metric. The San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys are experiencing unemployment rates that equal those of a full depression at 29% and 27%. Those racial and geographical realities are stark indicators of the current disparate access to the State’s employment-related resources. They also represent an immense waste of invaluable talent and energy, resources that should be embraced and directed toward helping California recover from the pandemic.  

In response to these concerns, the Governor convened a “Recovery with Equity” task force (TF) from the State’s Council for Post Secondary Education to evaluate the full scope of the challenge. The TF’s purpose was two-fold:

determine how California’s higher education resources (its state universities and community colleges) contribute to the equity concern and also 

determine how to redirect those educational resources to eliminate inequities while also contributing more to the state’s overall economic health. 

Research completed by the TF drew five significant conclusions:

    1. COVID-19 has exacerbated difficulties across all educational sectors, especially in communities of color and diverse ethnicities. 
    2. The State suffers from a significant gap in educational attainment by both ethnic and racial divisions and regional geography.   
    3. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous high school students, who make up the majority of the State’s public high school population, are less likely to achieve the high school credits necessary for entry into California’s state university systems. Students who face additional challenges, those who identify as LGBTQ+, have disabilities, or come from economically challenged backgrounds, face even steeper obstacles.    
    4. However, demand for workers with higher-than-high-school educations is rising even in industries that previously had not established those standards. Workers who earn these credentials are also better paid and less likely to rely on unemployment benefits. 
    5. Barriers to success for all of the State’s college-aged populations (but that are especially dire for ethnic, non-traditional, or regionally dispersed populations) include:
      • insufficient support for basic needs, such as food and accommodation;
      • lack of coordination between the K-12 school system and California’s three higher education resources, the two state university systems and its community colleges;
      • a lack of clear pathways from entry to college to job attainment, which is made more difficult by a shortage of available classroom seats and course availability, and
      • a lack of data tracking student access, persistence, and attainment throughout their educational career. 

With the assistance of the TF, the State’s new goal is to address these barriers with intention, appropriate resources, and, especially, with an equity equalization goal in mind.


Innovational Approaches Can Pave the Way    

At least one educational scholar has a theory that could provide the foundation for equity-equalizing strategies at California’s colleges and universities. Vijay Pendakur, Ph.D., is the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Zynga, a social game development company based in San Francisco. Zynga is the host of top-rated online, multiplayer games, including FarmVille and Words with Friends. Zynga’s corporate footprint spans three continents and maintains a globally diverse employee population with workers in North America, Europe, and India. Dr. Pendakur’s previous experience included 3+ years as Cornell University’s Presidential Advisor on Diversity & Equity, membership on the National Institute’s of Health Director’s Working Group on Diversity, and several years as a diversity advisor and leader at both California State University, Fullerton, and DePaul University. 

Working for fifteen years in these disparate industries has honed Dr. Pendakur’s focus on equity and diversity issues, particularly those that arise in post-secondary school settings. Noting that students of color or from different/alternate cultures are often less successful than their white, ‘traditional’ cohorts, he began evaluating what parts of the post-secondary systems might be contributing to that reality. 

What he saw – the factors that now form the basis of his theory – was that most post-secondary systems address their student’s ethnic and alternate details separately from their educational details. There’s one ‘identity-centered’ support system directed at addressing the ‘equity’ challenges and another support system directed at achieving academic goals. ‘Identity-centered’ equity supports are designed specifically to address the student’s particular social, racial, or economic challenges.  

The problem, he finds, is that there’s no clear nexus between identity-centered supports and academic supports. The equity supports (housing, food, finance, etc.) aren’t directly connected to helping the learner achieve their desired educational, employment, or career credential. That gap, he surmises, perpetuates the equity challenge for the student. The two distinct support systems don’t work together to further the student’s efforts towards success as a student and success as an eventual contributing member of society. 

Pendakur uses the term ‘identity-consciousness’ as an alternative descriptor for equity supports that both address the student’s specific challenges and engage with their academic goals, too. He believes that higher education support systems should aim at achieving student success while also addressing individual social, racial, or other challenges. Students can achieve their employment or career goals because their college support systems help them overcome their unique equity-related challenges. 


Today’s challenging communities are struggling to find new footings as the COVID-19 pandemic erases their previous foundations. Discussing how to rebuild those communities and the economies that support them will be the topic of PCC’s upcoming Future of Work Conference. Register to attend this online event to hear Dr. Pandekur speak about his theory and what it might mean for your community college.   


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