Published: April 27, 2023

Celeste Montoya, hailed for her work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, reflects on DEI initiatives and current political challenges

Celeste Montoya, associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of four people honored for making significant contributions to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) across the university’s four-campus system.

Last month, CU President Todd Saliman announced the President’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Awards, which also recognized one program.

Montoya, who is the faculty director of the Miramontes Arts & Science Program, studies race and gender in U.S., European and global politics and has published extensively on topics such as gender violence, voting rights, political representation and social movements. 

Image of Celeste Montoya

Celeste Montoya holds a PhD in political science and a graduate certificate in women, gender, and sexuality studies from Washington University in St. Louis.

Her current research examines Latina leadership in Colorado, a project that is of both personal and professional interest to this southern Colorado-born professor. 

Montoya recently answered five questions about her work, the status of DEI initiatives nationwide, and the challenging climate that exists. The interview follows:

Question: You hold three degrees in political science and a graduate certificate in gender studies; what drew you to focus your research, teaching and service on diversity, equity and inclusion? 

Montoya: I remember growing up and seeing a lot of disconnect between the way I thought or was taught things were supposed to be (in terms of fairness and equality) and the way that they were. Whether they were things that I experienced firsthand because of my gender, race-ethnicity or class, or things that I witnessed or learned about from others, I think I’ve always been curious to better understand these disconnects, but also to find ways to address them. 

I see my research, teaching and service all as ways to both better understand and address inequality and oppression, and to lessen the distance between what could/should be and what is. 

Question: DEI initiatives seem to have been embraced by many universities, although different institutions might choose different strategies to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. In your view, are there “best practices,” meaning features of a university DEI structure that make it more likely to succeed? 

Montoya: I think my biggest frustration with DEI (in any institutional setting—from governments to higher education) is that so much of the change is rhetorical. It is relatively easy to state a commitment to DEI (although even that is being challenged in some states). It seems much more difficult to commit resources, build capacity, coordinate efforts, and establish accountability. 

While I’m heartened by a lot of the work that’s currently being done, I think we have a long way to go. 

Question: One of your research foci is intersectionality. To what extent do you think this concept is well understood within and beyond the university? And to the extent it is not well understood, how can that lack of understanding be corrected? 

Montoya: There are definitely a lot of misunderstandings about intersectionality, both within and outside of academic settings. As the term has been mainstreamed or institutionalized, it has become more disconnected from its origins in social movements, where those at intersectional of multiple marginalities challenged single-axis (race-only, gender-only, class-only) understandings of oppression that often excluded or overlooked their experiences and sought to combat oppression in all its interconnected, interlocking forms. 

I think of and use intersectionality as a framework for better understanding how something might impact those who are differently situated. I also see it as a way of creating inclusive communities. Some people misunderstand intersectionality as divisive, of dividing us into smaller and more finite identities/groups. But intersectionality can also allow to delve into the messiness of our lived realities, that while we may differ along some dimensions, we may find commonality upon others.   

Question: Journalists from around the country have reported on attempts in some state legislatures to restrict DEI programs at colleges and universities. What do you make of such efforts, and how should experts in DEI respond? 

We are definitely in a precarious moment of our history, but not an unprecedented one. There have always been differences in how people understand and approach structural inequalities … whether to recognize, ignore, combat or uphold them. How engaged the political parties (either of them) have been on these types of issues has and continues to vary."

Montoya:  We are definitely in a precarious moment of our history, but not an unprecedented one. There have always been differences in how people understand and approach structural inequalities … whether to recognize, ignore, combat or uphold them. How engaged the political parties (either of them) have been on these types of issues has and continues to vary. 

What is particularly alarming about this moment is that several state legislatures have decided to cut off any sort of deliberation or debate about inequality. It is an alarming attack on academic freedom, and a devastating blow to higher education. 

If education holds the potential to be the great equalizer of society, then shutting down the ability to even speak about, let alone address, the inequalities within it, is a tragedy. I think a lot of DEI experts are already aware of the ebbs and flows of governmental and institutional support, and to never take anything for granted. If ever there were a need for speaking up and showing solidarity, now is the time.   

Question: You’ve won a dozen awards for your teaching, research, service, mentorship and more. What reaction do you have to being recognized for your work in DEI?

Montoya: I think everyone likes to be recognized for the work that they do. But I don’t do the work for the recognition; I do the work because it needs to be done and because I feel the responsibility to do it. 

I’ve been given a lot of opportunities because of the sacrifices made by others, by my family, by my community, by the generations who came before me. I feel like it is my responsibility to use whatever talents and resources I have to do the same for others—to pay it forward. 

If I can make someone’s path a little easier where I can, then the work is worth it. I hope that these awards can bring attention and resources to the work being done and that which could/should be done.