Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access 101

We are all functions of the system that we live in; a system that has taught us how to think about ourselves and others, how to interact with others, and how to understand what is expected of us. These thought processes and expectations are based on the specific set of social identities we were born into that predispose us to unequal roles that allow us to access (or deny access) to resources. 

The information here provides a basic overview of important considerations related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA). It is crucial that you continue expanding upon this knowledge and look further into the concepts presented that you are unfamiliar with and/or are curious about. 

In addition to the resources provided below, you can also review additional terminology interconnected with DEIA here.

Understanding Identity

Understanding identities can seem confusing when you hear people say, "but we are all human right?" However, identities are more complex and nuanced; by saying "we are all human," the unjust, and often violent, plights marginalized persons have experienced are completely ignored. By upholding a shared understanding that we all have our unique experiences, we also have the ability to relate and learn from others.

Think of your own overall identity (who you are as a person) as a bowl of soup. Your identity is made up of different "ingredients": race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, education, family structure, hobbies, beliefs, career, experiences, etc. There are times where you will share the same "ingredients" as others, and there will be times you will have completely different "ingredients." No one will ever have the same exact "soup" as you. This is because all the components of your authentic self (your "ingredients"), interact together within an oppressive system that influences/cultivates your lived experience. A white, cisgender woman will have a very different lived experience than a Black, transwoman; while both may share similar experiences/understandings of oppressive systems as women, there are many experiences that each woman will not share based on additional oppression a Black, transwoman will experience. Regardless, both lived experiences are valid and true. 

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Power & Privilege

Privilege refers to a right or exemption from liability or duty, granted as a special benefit or advantage.

Power, in this context, refers to the capacity to exercise control over others, deciding what is best for them, deciding who will have access to or denial from resources. 

The following terms are ones we use to define social groups that society has afforded more or less power (more/less access)

  • Marginalized/Oppressed/Disadvantaged: Social group with less power/less access/less privilege; social groups that have been disenfranchised, invisibilized, dehumanized, and exploited. 
  • Dominant/Privileged/Advantaged: Social group with more power/more access/more privilege; social groups who have the ability navigate the world w/o consequence due to unearned advantages at the expense of folks who are marginalized.

There are a few of things to keep in mind when it comes to understanding power and privilege. 

  1. Privilege is interconnected with power in our society i.e. those who have privilege have the ability to create/maintain societal norms, often to their benefit at the expense of others etc.
  2. Privilege does not mean that a person has not experienced struggles or that their life has not been difficult.
  3. Privilege does not mean that you did not work hard for the things you have. 
  4. Privilege is fluid; it can change as you move through life.
  5. Privilege is contextual; identities you hold can give you an advantage or a disadvantage based on how people perceive you. 
  6. Privilege has strategically been set-up as a "taboo" subject, allowing those in dominant groups to ignore embedded, and often invisible, forms of oppression. 

Now, when we say someone has privilege, we want you to think about their accessibility to resources. Those in power, generally, have unearned access to things that those not in power, typically members of marginalized groups, do not have access to. This notion of unearned access is where the inequity lies because access is based on an identity someone holds that has traditionally been associated with power.

To put this in perspective, let's look at white privilege*. People who are white have unearned access to resources that work in their favor as opposed to people of color who experience a multitude of barriers to gain access to the same resources. These barriers, rooted in historical inequity, include systems, policies, and laws that disenfranchise people of color. White people are not forced to question their behaviors because the system is set-up to afford them that luxury. For example, a white child is not often taught how to interact with authority figures, like police, whereas for significant safety reasons, a child of color is. 

Bottom line--if you do not have to think about it, most often, it is because of privilege.

We want to highlight that intersectionality plays an important role in understanding how power and privilege interact to create oppressive systems. Learn more about intersectionality within our Intersectionality learning guide.

Note*: Read more about white privilege in Read more about white privilege in Peggy McIntosh's article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

"Social structures construct, limit, and place value on identities. A clash begins when the social messaging and actual experiences do not match. We cannot be equal if we define one group as better or even superior to another." 

Graduate School of Social Work-DU, Creative Commons Attribution License (resuse allowed).

What is the difference between equality and equity?

Often times people use the terms "equality" and "equity" interchangeably because there is the misconception that the terms have the same meaning. However, they do not have the same meaning and they cannot be used interchangeably even though they sound similar. 

A metaphor we often use is equality ensures that everyone has a pair of shoes; equity ensures that everyone has a pair of shoes that fitThe graphic* to the right is also a visual metaphor depicting the differences between equality and equity, but it also expands to include reality (how inequitable our system is), and the need for liberation (removing the "fence" or oppressive system all together)With both metaphors, cultural context and systematic barriers that marginalized persons are subjected to are not considered; understand that these concepts are bigger than having shoes that fit or breaking down a fence.

Note*: While this graphic helps us visualize the differences between equality, equity, reality, and liberation, it is potentially problematic. The crates are meant to symbolize equity ("leveling the playing field"), however, the focus becomes on the individuals who are "shorter" and need the crates.The inequity of the height of the fence therefore becomes inherently biological i.e. persons of color need help because they are biologically deficient (emphasis on height of person), not because of systemic racism (height of fence). Furthermore, it perpetuates deficit thinking where victims of oppression are blamed for their situation, therefore needing a "savior." Cultural context and systematic barriers marginalized persons are subjected to are not considered. 

Understanding Bias

"Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice -- and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding."

Bias refers to prejudice that is in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair way. 

Biases develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages all around us i.e. media, punishment and rewards, education, peers, family etc. These learned associations cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status etc. ​

Implicit Bias (also known as unconscious bias) refers to the attitudes based on stereotypes we have been taught that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner; the attitudes and beliefs are often involuntarily and without an individuals’ awareness or intentional control. 

Explicit Bias (also known as conscious bias) refers to attitudes and beliefs we have about a person and/or social group, on a conscious level, based on stereotypes we have been taught; these biases are attitudes and beliefs formed and acted upon with deliberate thought. 

News flash: we all have biases and no one is exempt from having them. Naturally, our brains categorize things. So, it makes sense that we would do that with the people we interact with.

There is also an assumption that only people in power can have biases, when in fact, people who are in marginalized groups can also show biases in favor of or against certain groups.

Are you curious to know what your own implicit biases are?

Learn what your own implicit biases are by taking Harvard's Project Implicit Association Test.You will be prompted to answer questions that describe your own self-understanding of the attitude or stereotype that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures.


Microaggressions refer to the normalization of commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities (whether intentional or unintentional), that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward culturally marginalized groups. While microaggressions can be seen as innocent, harmless comments, they actually reinforce stereotypes and are a form of discrimination. The term "microaggressions" was coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970 and was resurrected by Dr. Derald Wing Sue in 2003.

Let's look at the impact of microaggressions through the metaphor of a crumpled-up piece of paper. The piece of paper represents one person and each crease on the piece of paper represents one ignorant comment someone has made to them. So, the hundreds of creases on the piece of paper represent the many ignorant comments made to this person, every day, by folks they interact with. It would be impossible to flatten out the piece of paper  enough to remove all the creases; the creases are  permanent. Just like a crumpled-up piece of paper, microagressions can make a permanent impression on someone. It is important to understand that the cumulative impact of microaggressions can be severely traumatic and painful for folks who continually experience them. 

Learn more about microaggressions using another metaphor--"mosquito bites."

There are three types of microaggressions.


1) Microinsults refer to subtle insensitive comments and/or behaviors (often unconscious) related to a person’s identity.

  • Example: “Helping” a wheelchair user without asking if they would like assistance​


2)Microassaults refer to conscious and intentionally biased/discriminatory comments and/or behaviors related to a person's identity​.

  • Example: Using racial slurs; denying accommodations for trans persons​


3) Microinvalidations refer to the subtle exclusion or negation of one's feelings and/or experiential reality related to that person's identity. 

  • Example: Repeatedly asking someone where they were born; Saying that you are “color-blind”

Often, when you point out that someone engaged with a microaggression, their response can be focused on defending their intention and displacing blame. For example, “You completely misunderstood what I was saying. It was just a joke." Or,  "My intention was not to hurt you. Why are you being so sensitive?" 

To be successful, Dr. Derald Wing Sue advises folks to focus on the impact of a microaggression so someone can understand what happened and how they may have caused pain. Microinterventions must address the underlying message. 

There are three steps to intervening with microaggressions when you notice someone else behaving in a problematic way and/or when you hear someone making discriminatory comments. 

    Name It

    If you hear someone making discriminatory comments or you notice someone behaving in a problematic way, call attention to the problematic behavior or comment that was made and address it out loud.

    Example: I overheard you talking about having a "pow wow." Do you know where that term came from? Some people have no idea that it is actually an offensive appropriation of a term of great cultural importance to Indigenous folks.

    Claim It

    State why you are uncomfortable, upset, offended or why someone else (who the comment is directed towards) may feel that way. 

    Example: Woah. The assumption you just made about trans folks makes me feel uncomfortable. I know it maybe wasn't your intention to stereotype, but what you said could easily be interpreted in a hurtful and offensive way. 

      Stop It

      Ask questions and seek to understand. Have the person explain why they said what they did or why they are behaving in that way. Finish by expressing your feelings of discomfort with future directives. ​

      Example: Can you explain that joke to me? I don't think making light of sexual assault like that is funny. In the future, I'd appreciate if you wouldn't make jokes like that.

      Now, if you are being addressed because of problematic behavior and/or because you made a discriminatory comment (regardless of your intent) the following is critical to remember: 

      • Stop before you respond or react. Do not take it personal. It is not about you; it is about that person who has been impacted. 
      • Do not justify why your actions should not be interpreted as a microaggression because you have a [insert marginalized identity] friend.
      • Recognize your impact, reflect on what has been said, and understand where you need to grow. 
      • Own the impact and correct your behavior. 
      • Diligently work to be better and not make the same mistake(s). 

      It is your responsibility to be aware of your own unconscious bias, to be observant of others, and to notice reactions of those in the room to know when to intervene.


      You have probably heard this word thrown around, particularly in the DEIA world, but do we actually know what it means? The answer is, it depends on the context because it boils down to intent.  

      In one article written by the Business School at Vanderbilt, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated "fairly.” In this example it mentions tokenism in relation to hiring.

      We can take this further in another example, think about committees and task forces that are often put together at institutions. One common theme that comes up in creating such entities is to make sure that there is diverse representation. One thing to note is when “diverse representation” is mentioned, nine times out of ten, they are referring to visual diversity, not the other ways diversity can show up (campus diversity in offices represented, or other identities that can bring about diverse perspectives). Once this is mentioned, the folks in charge with creating this committee or task force often go to racial/ethnic diversity category and immediately start thinking about colleagues they can ask to be part of the group.  

      Tokenism and representation are often confused with one another and used incorrectly. The difference between the two is the intent

      Are you asking a person to be part of the group because you are wanting to make sure you appear diverse?Are you afraid of your committee or task force appearing too white? Too male or female dominated? Or is it because you value different perspectives and are genuinely trying to diversify (beyond the visible)? Are you wanting to give other community service opportunities to your colleagues that may not otherwise have a chance to participate? 

      Cultural Appropriation

      Cultural appropriation refers to the borrowing or adoption of something as one's own when it did not originate from them or their culture. This type of use occurs without proper understanding, credit, and/or permission. 

      Examples of cultural appropriation include, but are not limited to:

      • A person who is non-native or indigenous wearing feathered headdresses or traditional regalia as costumes during Halloween.
      • Celebrating Cinco de Mayo (often mistaken as Mexico's Independence Day) as an excuse to drink, wear sombreros and/or other traditional regalia. 
      • A person of non-asian or pacific islander decent wearing chopsticks in their hair or getting a tribal tattoo. 
      • Stereotypical themed parties like a "thug party" or "cowboys and Indians." 
      • Wearing any colored-face that is not yours i.e. blackface, brownface, redface, yellowface etc. 
      • Dressing up as the opposite gender for entertainment i.e. "gender-bender day". This is different from drag culture. 

      When folks are participating in this type of behavior, it negates and trivializes the historical, cultural, and ancestral practices that are sacred and meaningful. 

      Reflection: “When in doubt, back out”

      As a general rule, if you have any doubts about whether something would be considered cultural appropriation, do not do it. It is better to avoid any means of culture appropriation rather than taking a risk and running into the possibility of disrespecting a culture.

      This does not mean to live life in a state of avoidance or inaction. However, when you do have doubts or hesitation, it is valuable to take the initiative and learn about cultures and the significance behind their customs, symbols, regalia, etc.

      When you are unsure whether something may or may not be culturally sacred, it is important to discover and unpack "the why" of your uncertainty (is it warranted or is it not) in order to expand your level of cultural awareness. The key is reflection. 

      Cultural Appreciation

      There are ways a person can learn to appreciate a culture and their customs. It all starts with researching the culture and learning about its history. With more information about a culture, you will learn what is considered sacred, and thus, something you could never “borrow”. Referencing the examples of cultural appropriation we provided in the previous tab, a non-indigenous person who understands the tradition and significance behind the feather headdress would know it is never appropriate to put one on.

      With cultural knowledge, you will be able to diminish the portrayal of problematic stereotypes and instead develop an appreciation for customs and traditions that have intimate, historical meaning. 

      What is E.Q.U.I.T.Y.?

      In the Office of Equity, we want to promote key principles of allyship for our campus community to follow. To understand these principles, it would be helpful to know how we define "ally."

      Allyship works like a timecard; every day you clock-in you are working to fulfill your assigned duties as an ally. Then you clock-out and repeat it all again the next day.This metaphor illustrates that allyship is a verb An ally is not a title that someone gives themselves; it is the embodiment of equity in the form of action. 

      Key principles of allyship:

      • An ally consistently promotes and embodies inclusive leadership and equitable behaviors/practices;
      • An ally understands the necessity of moving beyond diversity initiatives towards human equity; and 
      • An ally passionately and actively engages their own communities and continuously works to dismantle oppressive structures. 

      E.Q.U.I.T.Y. was created to serve as an acronym to remember our office's charge to you; a charge to be better so we can cultivate a campus environment built upon inclusion and advocacy. Please note that while most allies come from dominant/majority groups, many allies come from oppressed groups as well; horizontal/internalized oppression (fighting within groups and/or with ourselves) is a tool implemented by those in power in order to maintain the status quo. 

      The moment you stop learning is the moment you die. Sure, this metaphor may seem intense and a little dramatic, yet it highlights just how vital educating yourself on topics pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion are.   

      Let’s face it, we live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving.  Daily we are charged with striving to be more inclusive than the previous. How does one do this when language is evolving? When thought, theory, cultural/political dynamics are shifting to become more equitable? The answer is simple; commit yourself to learning

      Below are a few ways to get you started on your continuous journey to learning: 

      • Understand your identity (see above section, "Understanding Identity") and how it interacts (and impacts) with society and systems.  
      • Take stock on what you believe to be true and question it. Often times the things we learned in history classes as children are false and inaccurate. For example, the concept and recount of what we were told about Thanksgiving.
      • Explore various scholars. Be sure that you are learning from scholars that are part of the community in question. Have you read any Black feminist theory? Queer theory? Anything written by native and indigenous folks? If not, ask yourself why? As a general rule of thumb, if you are unsure of where to start, DO NOT immediately go to a friend or colleague that is part of (insert marginalized identity here) and ask them for suggestions. It is not their job to educate you. Google is your friend. If, and only if, you have searched and need more guidance, then, and only then, can you ask your friend or colleague for their suggestions. It is always good to come with some information first, as opposed to setting up the expectation that they will “teach you.” 
        • If you ask someone for their input or suggestions, that individual is not obligated to provide you answers. This is perfectly okay; do not make this about you.  
        • If you are the person being asked for personal input or suggestions, you are not responsible for educating them. Do not feel guilty or like you must represent your community.  
      • Do not think of learning as a “one and done,” it is continuous and ever evolving.
      • Just because you read a book, researched a topic, or attended a webinar, that does not give you the pass to now consider yourself the expert on said topic. Give credit where it is due and do not take up space by speaking for a community that you are not a part of. Sure, you can share your experience in learning about the topic, but before you do, make sure you are providing the space and opportunity for someone to speak up about their own community.
      • If you perceive that a community is not represented, bring it to the conversation and ask if there is a perspective that might be missing. Be cautious here. Do not assume identities in the room.  While you may not be an expert, it is important for you to share what you have learned or your experience in learning (without taking up space), so that an opportunity for dialogue presents itself. This can hold us accountable by fact checking one another, create space for learning, and ensure communities are not associated with inaccurate storytelling.  
      • Remind yourself that this is a marathon, not a race. 

      Question everything you believe to be true all the time.

      We have been conditioned as a society to understand the world based on biased, white-washed, and often incomplete information. We have been taught that there is only one way of thinking and if you deviate outside of that it must be incorrect. By teaching us not to question what we are told and by reinforcing the same inaccurate messages in every aspect of our lives (school, laws, families, peers, music, TV etc.) we do not change the status quo and inequity remains. 

      So, start to unpack what you have been taught. What biases have you learned to be true about marginalized groups? Who is in your inner circle--do they all look like you? Why does our nation only celebrate certain holidays? Why do you attribute certain roles and characteristics to someone based on their gender, race, ability-status, socioeconomic status etc.? 

      To achieve equity and to liberate yourself and others, you must question with an open-mind. 

      Before you can advocate for equity, you must understand your own identities and how they can serve as privilege or oppression in different contexts. 

      Ask yourself, how much space am I taking up in conversations? In the organizations I am participating in? How much do I know about those I am trying to work with and support? What are my assumptions about marginalized persons and how am I actively contributing to their oppression?

      Below outline critical responsibilities you have as an ally in relation to understanding yourself within an oppressive system, provided by The Anti-Oppression Network:

      • It is your responsibility to do the intentional self-work to actively acknowledge when you are operating in a position of power that is perpetuating inequity and openly discuss why that is a problem.
      • Build a personal capacity to receive criticism and hold yourself accountable for making mistakes. 
      • Your needs MUST come secondary to the people you are seeking to work with. Recognize that part of the privilege of our identity is that we have a choice about whether or not to resist oppression; we do not expect the people we seek to work with to provide emotional support (and we’re grateful if they do).
      • Redirect attention to the groups we are supporting, and the issues they face, when any social recognition is given to you.

      Allyship is not a title; it is a verb, an action. For example, you cannot say, "I do not stand for racism," and then be silent when you witness discrimination.

      Below are ways that you can involve yourself in the fight for change: 

      • Advocate for issues related social justice reform and equity progression
      • Amplify (online and in-person) the voices of those without your same privilege
      • Research histories of marginalized groups and invest in your cultural awareness development 
      • Volunteer for non-profit organizations devoted to social justice reform and equity progression

      These actions can help you recognize and navigate situations where you will need to intervene. Intervention not only requires you to address the problematic incident(s) BUT it requires you to bring attention to the root issue(s) of the incident(s) when implementing change and behavioral correction. 

      Below are example of problematic situations that warrant your intervention:

      • Offensive identity charged jokes
      • Microaggressions
      • Misuse of pronouns/Misgendering someone

      Remember that involving yourself in the fight for equity is an on-going, intentional process. In order to uphold and advocate for equity, you must continually and consistently remain active. 

      This work requires constant, consistent, and intentional engagement with yourself and others that you interact with on a daily basis. Just like anything else you aspire to change in yourself or in your environment, you must commit that same time and effort in showing up as an ally and advocating for necessary change.

      Transformation is not easy. It is the result of:

      • Remaining present when you are uncomfortable;
      • Accepting that you are part of the problem so you can work to change it;
      • Learning how to empathize with others’ experiences that are different than your own;
      • Making mistakes and correcting your behaviors to be better tomorrow;
      • Educating yourself and those around you (it is not the burden of the oppressed to teach you); and
      • Showing up with thoughtful action that matches your words.

      In order to grow and become a better version of yourself, you must do what you have not done before. 

      We acknowledge that it is difficult to do this; consciously choosing to unlearn everything you have been taught about navigating the world. But you are where the change starts. Hold yourself and those around you accountable. As you continue on in this work, operate on the assumption that people are doing their best, most of the time. Remember, you do not know what you do not know; but when you do know, you need to do better--shout out to Maya Angelou.

      Have you ever started thinking about how you plan to respond to someone while they are still finishing their sentence? Typically, you start your response with a brief acknowledgement of what they said and then respond with, "BUT..." and carry on with your point; which often goes against what the other person said. It's safe to assume that we have all done this at some point and are familiar with the action of listening to respond.

      You may be thinking, but sometimes our response is to provide the other person additional insight or a new perspective. The intention is not always to shut someone down or poke holes in what they said, but instead it is to engage in further dialogue.

      While that is a great point, and totally valid, there are also considerations about how it can be beneficial to truly acknowledge someone else's truth before providing personal input. Seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. 

      Now, we are not saying do not challenge anyone to consider new thoughts and perspectives. Dialogue is critical to growth. Instead, we are encouraging you to reframe how you think about dialogue. A first step in doing so is to replace "but,"  with "yes, and." 

      "But" translates into something that you may object to; something that is apart from and/or separate. "And" translates into connecting words or thoughts; adding to something and/or introducing a new thought. While we are talking about this linguistically, it also is a metaphor for reframing your thought processes to become more open-minded and empathetic. 

      All of our lived experiences are a culmination of our social identities interacting within a system of oppression. Your world view will not look like anyone else's world view. However, just because you do not have the same perspective or the same lived experiences, that does not make your world view untrue. We have been traditionally taught that there is only one answer; however in reality, there are a multiplicity of truths that coexist. Fluidity in thought and understanding is something to appreciate; it allows us to intentionally engage with others and with ourselves. 

      Expanding Your Awareness

      Let’s face it, we live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving.  Daily we are charged with striving to be more inclusive than the previous. How does one do this when language is always evolving? When thought, theory, cultural/political dynamics are shifting to become more equitable? The answer is simple; commit yourself to learning. 

      Language is a critical aspect of this learning because it is what communicates, enforces, and perpetuates the “status quo,” or in other words, our society’s collective shared rules and values.

      We know there are certain words or phrases that society commonly considers problematic to use because of painful, historical connotations. Some examples include, but are not limited to:

      • Using the “R” word or words that end in “-tard”. The implication is that persons with intellectual disabilities are unintelligent or incapable.
      • Using “as a rule of thumb” as an approximate method for doing something. The use of the phrase lacks understanding of the origin; phrase comes from an 18th century law that legally allowed men to physically assault their wife with a stick no thicker than their thumb.
      • A person who is non-native or indigenous referring to something as their “spirit animal.” The use of the term by a non-native or indigenous person lacks understanding of the act being cultural appropriation, which is defined as the borrowing or adoption of something as one's own when it did not originate from them or their culture. When folks are participating in this type of behavior, it negates and trivializes the historical, cultural, and ancestral practices that are sacred and meaningful.

      It is essential that you are aware of the impact our words have and the power of language. You don’t have to know everything about every identity or every new development in the DEIA field; however, it is your responsibility to educate yourself on the evolving cultural/political climate so you can mirror relevant, critically-aware, trauma-informed, language and spread that knowledge within your circles of influence. 

      To reiterate, content in these guides are designed to provide a basic overview of key components related to DEIA; content is not exhaustive, and much more can be discussed in relation to these topics.

      We highly encourage you to reach out to your campus-affiliated DEIA office to find additional resources, facilitated training opportunities, and learning tools to further your education.




      In an effort to assist the university community and the general public, the OE has gathered the list of resources above, including links to websites. Please note, the OE does not accept solicitations to partner, sponsor, promote, and/or publish content from external organizations.   

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      Credit: Sara D. Anderson, Karissa Stolen, and Paulina Venzor, 2020, Office of Equity at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

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