Last fall, as I sat at a dinner table across from John Legend — yes, the Grammy Award winner — I thought to myself, “I have landed my dream job in a great place.”
Legend was the convocation speaker at Wright State University where I had recently been appointed the vice president for multicultural affairs & community engagement. As I reflect on my first year on the job, this is one of many events that make me certain that joining my current institution’s executive team and moving to Dayton was the right choice.
That same weekend, my husband and I found ourselves sitting front-row center at a charity event at the Fraze on behalf of my university president for which the headliner was Smokey Robinson.
For an arts enthusiast, these were two very good omens. I don’t believe I could have gotten a better start.
Some of the staff at my previous institution also contributed to this auspicious beginning by sending me flowers on one of my first days on the job. It’s wonderful when endings and beginnings combine in such a positive way.
My formal welcome on behalf of the university culminated with a very public “reception” that — to my family — felt more like a coronation. It provided a platform for me to share my vision for achieving inclusive excellence — as well as an opportunity for the university president, board members and key community leaders to show their commitment to our shared diversity work. The highlight of the evening was a performance by the world-renowned Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, up close and personal, directly in front of where my family was seated.
This inspirational performance highlighted a very intentional and celebratory process designed to help my transition to a new position of leadership go smoothly. The process which unfolded over months made me feel valued, set me up for success and introduced me to many of the wonderful assets Dayton has to offer — and, as a consequence, created a sense of loyalty to the institution and city that I am sure will span the remainder of my professional career.
As you can see, I have been fortunate over the past year. I had the pleasure of getting to know a city with a rich history. One, which despite its many challenges, seems to be succeeding in reinventing itself. From its immigrant-friendly Welcome Dayton initiative and local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice to its National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, extensive bike trails and vibrant arts scene, it has far more to offer than you could ever discover looking from the outside in. That’s not even mentioning the city’s most important asset: its warm and friendly citizens.
I’ve enjoyed very obvious institutional and community support from the start of my new role as chief diversity officer. However, support does not mean that there won’t be challenges. I have learned that support from leadership is necessary but not sufficient for sustained institutional change.
I still face challenges inherent to academic culture, such as the diminishing financial support for public institutions of higher education, and, from within, an aversion to anything considered mandatory, particularly for faculty. There is also the general cynicism that has characterized the U.S. cultural perspective in recent decades, as well as problems related to educational access and attainment due to poverty and growing income inequality. Not to mention the tensions between one of our most prized cultural values, rugged individualism, and any effort aimed at the common good. But I must say it has been easier to maintain what I call my clear-eyed optimism in the face of these endemic challenges with the overwhelming support I’ve received from the leadership of my university.
So, as my first year comes to a close, I’d like to offer a heartfelt “thank you” to my colleagues at Wright State University and my new neighbors in the Dayton area. Of course, with reflection comes the urge to offer a little advice. So I ask your indulgence as I share some with others working to promote diversity, inclusion and social justice.
My advice to institutions bringing on board a new chief diversity officer is to provide both symbolic and tangible support. The wonderful welcome reception Wright State University provided for me was a very effective symbolic gesture. However, they have also provided tangible support, such as staff, financial resources and a seat at the decision-making table, all of which are essential in helping me address the wide array of issues involved in creating an inclusive organization.
Finally, to all of you diversity practitioners, I urge you to act boldly and communicate widely because there are many like-minded people here. Let your organization and community know that you are on the job, actively working to create the type of organization that welcomes all who can contribute to and benefit from the experience, an institution that is a microcosm of the just society of which we all would like to be part.
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