The Power of a Great Question

HEI Research Analyst, Donté McGuire, shares his reflections on the power of a great question…

question mark on chalk board
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I truly believe there are few things as powerful as a great question. Asking great questions is at the heart of all learning organizations as they allow us to check our assumptions and biases while unlocking key insights. As we near the end of the calendar year and the fall semester, I want to highlight some great questions our clients are asking of themselves and their partners that might be helpful to others as they look to the year ahead.

Question 1: How does living in a global pandemic impact the mental health of students of color?

HEI has worked with The Steve Fund on several projects, most recently supporting efforts to evaluate the Equity in Mental Health on Campus initiative. The Steve Fund’s work centers on the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color. Recently, like many organizations, they have had to consider the implications of living in a global pandemic to their work. Given the impact of COVID-19 within the context of systemic racism and where many colleges and universities faced shortages in their mental health staff, this question remains pertinent and one that colleges and universities should consider.

Question 2: How have organizations followed through on their DEI commitments?

These days most organizations at a minimum have a diversity statement, outlining how their mission and vision align with their values for hiring diverse talent and creating an inclusive environment. Rarely, however, do organizations think deeply about how to operationalize those commitments. When police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, many organizations revisited their DEI commitments and some even discussed the changes they needed to make. Others made huge financial commitments, however, after a study conducted by Creative Investment Research found that a year after a historic nearly $50 billion was pledged toward racial equity, only $250 million had been spent or committed to a specific initiative; there remain questions about companies’ follow through on public commitments.

HEI worked with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to examine investment practices by foundations where we found that philanthropy has fallen short in its efforts to make STEM more diverse.

Question 3: What did the “new normal” teach us about different ways of relating to one another?

There was a lot of talk about the “new normal” at the height of the pandemic. Now that students are back in residence halls, faculty in classrooms, and staff in buildings and offices, I hear the term a lot less. In fact, it feels more like a rush to “return to normal.” I will never intentionally minimize the tremendous personal and collective loss we experienced and continue to experience as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also found in a reflection on my experience, there were things that I appreciated about the spaces I was in and the work I was a part of while navigating a difficult time that is not always present. 

As a Black person, there are many events that impact me and those I care about that never show up on the radar of my non-Black colleagues. Similarly, as a man born and raised in the US, there are events related to gender or immigration status that impact my colleagues and those they care about that do not show up on my radar. So there are things I appreciated about a collective, though admittedly differential, awareness and experience of living in a very difficult time.

I appreciated that it was more acceptable to talk about our mental health, to acknowledge that we’re human beings and not machines who cannot work tirelessly, especially when going through hardships, and to not feel the need to place a positive spin on everything.

The truth is there are always individuals and communities who are living through very difficult times and I hope we can continue to engage one another in ways that honor this reality and center our humanity.

As it happens, asking thoughtful questions, listening, and exploring can be a powerful approach to accomplishing this.