Inclusive Cultural University, created by Iowa State alumnus, focuses on ‘give respect, expect respect’


Jonnell Marion is an ISU alumni who started Inclusive Cultural University which is an organization focused on diversity and he is pitching it in Ames. He also led a task force that saved the Black Cultural Center.

Mike Brown

Two years ago, Iowa State alumnus Jonnell Marion sought to create an organization built on acceptance with the goal of bringing people together. It is now recognized as Inclusive Cultural University, or ICU.

Marion, who graduated from Iowa State in 2007 with an international business and marketing degree, said that although ICU is not a traditional university with a campus, it does have the same goal of teaching people and spreading a message.

“It’s a simple message of substance: I see you,” Marion said. “Meaning, I respect you, and I don’t even have to know you on a personal level, but as a human being I can acknowledge you.”

ICU’s adaptability, Marion said, is something that sets it apart as an organization focused in diversity and inclusion work.

ICU is an organization that Marion said attempts to spread a message of “give respect, expect respect” through creating a community of members. The members, called ICU agents, sign a short pledge saying they align themselves with the organization’s message of respect.

“Anything that involves implicit bias training, character counseling, the power of positive thinking, law of attraction, all of these concepts, theories and ideas are packaged into the university,” Marion said. “They’re not new ideas, it’s just packaged in a user-friendly way for us to be able to apply and implement seamlessly into our day-to-day lives.”

Through ICU’s branding and messaging, Marion said he hopes to create a visible commonality to encourage people to approach even someone who is a relative stranger with respect, rather than implicit biases or prejudices.

“This provides an actual tangible way of symbolizing being that change agent, what I call an ‘ICU Change Agent’,” Marion said. “So instead of talking about it, let’s actually be about it.”

The idea for ICU originally came to Marion after he heard about an equity audit, followed by a community discussion at his alma mater, Valley High School, in 2016. The school had an equity audit in response to a race related fight that broke out in 2015.

“Watching people talk over each other, someone would make a comment and then it was as if the next person didn’t even really comprehend or fully digest what the previous person’s comment was, we just weren’t seeing each other,” Marion said.

After prayer and meditation after the meeting, Marion said the idea for ICU began to form in his head, and during the time where he began to work out what it would be, he had a hard time sleeping at night.

Marion said he hopes to create “ICU Campuses” through finding companies or organizations where he can partner with leaders who have expressed interest and buy in, and use a combination of orientation and workshops to introduce the rest of the community to the ICU message, as well as the collectivistic aspects of the “agents” and the focus on creating a community.

Vice president for Diversity and Inclusion Reginald Stewart, who previously met with Marion about ICU, said he enjoyed the adaptability of ICU and its ability to be applied across multiple platforms.

Marion said he has met with different companies and organizations across a variety of industries, including a meeting with the Ames Police Chief and the Altoona Police Department.

The Altoona Police Department, Marion said, is the first police department to receive ICU workshops, and the Des Moines Police Department began receiving ICU workshops in December 2018.

Marion also said he has met with different Universities in Iowa and has upcoming plans to meet with Drake University and the University of Iowa football team.

Oftentimes in diversity and inclusion work, Stewart said, each industry has its own diversity and inclusion programs and people. Stewart said he sees the way ICU can be applied to multiple industries as a type of disruptive innovation within the field.

Stewart said while he believes the different styles of diversity and inclusion work are not inherently better or worse, having innovation and different people and organizations approaching the work in different ways is important in creating a more inclusive world.

Ames Police Chief, Charles Cychosz, who met with Marion in the fall of 2018, said he most identified with ICU’s focus on mutual respect.

“We deal with a lot of people in crisis and try to respect their circumstances, while simultaneously working towards solving the problems, and I think that foundation of respect, if it’s there, moves us forward much more quickly than if it’s not,” Cychosz said.