As organizations increasingly claim diversity, equity and inclusion as top priorities, they've hired chief diversity officers to make that shift abundantly clear. This isn't an easy job for any individual, particularly in storied institutions like universities. But Carol Henderson sees her role as lighting a torch that others will help carry.
First as vice provost of diversity at the University of Delaware, and now at Atlanta's Emory University as its first chief diversity officer, Henderson realized that she'd need as much of the campus community as possible invested in this grander vision. To do that, she'd need to “shake the syllabus, shake the mind, create a safe space,” as she had as a professor of English and African-American literature. “I took those skill sets and brought them to these administrative roles,” Henderson said at a recent From Day One conference in Atlanta. “In this level, I am doing a master class in getting folks on board.”
Once Henderson arrived at Emory last summer, her first priority as a cabinet-level hire was to meet with colleagues and potential allies like Amanda James, the university's assistant dean of diversity, inclusion and engagement. Once she was oriented, one of her goals was to jump start initiatives that had only been lumbering along. "One of the things at work we're doing now–I love this–is at Emory's College of Arts and Sciences. Tomorrow they're going to have a conversation about having a race-and-ethnicity requirement for all students. Now, they've been doing this work for about six years. It sped up all of a sudden. I won't say I had anything to do with that. But what I will say is that I've had conversations with colleagues to say, Where is the logjam? What are people reticent around? How can we work around that?"
Any good teacher knows how the right question can lead to thoughtful discussion, she said. “It's amazing what happens when you ask questions: Why do we do things this way? Has this gotten the result that you want?”
Many of those questions should be open-ended, as they might lead to answers and possibilities that Henderson couldn't have imagined, she said. At a recent lunch-and-learn session for her team, Henderson screened the film Just Mercy. She asked her team to observe the film's subject, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), the activist and lawyer who fought for more than 30 years to get wrongly incarcerated prisoners off death row. Henderson then asked her team to brainstorm how they could learn from his example. The point wasn't to land on any one answer. “When you build a team, you have to cultivate the mind of your team leaders,” Henderson said. “Give them room to innovate and create. Give them a room without boundaries.”
Henderson realizes that she can't expect to engage every single person in her journey on behalf of the school. However, she can maintain perspective so that her efforts are constructive.
“We know that fear is usually the one barrier that prevents people from engaging in the process: What am I going to lose if you enact diversity, equity and inclusion?” she said. “My role–as visionary and accountability partner, change agent and community member–is to minimize that as much as possible.”
Henderson said she sorts out her audience to see who is most willing to listen. “I believe that on the spectrum, you have 30% of folks who get it. Sixty-five percent are in the middle, who may want to get involved, are not sure how to get involved; they're afraid of what it might cost them. The other 5%,” she said, pausing. “I don't believe people are inherently evil. Somebody has to teach you how to be that; some environment has been cultivated for you to think that's OK.”
Henderson thinks it’s unproductive to spend too much effort on the holdouts. “When we do diversity, equity and inclusion, we tend to focus on a lot on the 5% to 7%. But that 5% to 7%, I let them be. I'm more interested in the other 90% to 95%, because that's where I believe the movement will be.”
In 2014, when the University of Delaware first approached Henderson with the vice provost of diversity position, she hesitated to say yes. She didn't know whether she wanted to leave the classroom. “I think the classroom is the most revolutionary space in the academy,” she says.
Now Henderson understands that her current work is an extension of what she has already done. From her vantage point, she still observes how Generation Z, having recently surpassed millennials as the largest and youngest population cohort, is keenly interested in the issues she is concerned with. In her current position, she can gently remind colleagues that these conversations aren't new to American history, that Atlanta was once the “cradle of the civil-rights movement,” how inclusion “has been an issue since the Declaration of Independence.” She can build connections and offer context for the sake of the future generation of workers, as she always has: “It would be negligible to graduate students from an elite institution who don't know how to work across boundaries, traditions and cultures outside themselves.”
“I believe teaching in the classroom is diversity and inclusion,” Henderson says. “It definitely is part of cultural literacy. It's about helping our students understand their space and place — the knowledge of what it means to be African-American in this country, what it means to be themselves, Americans in this country. Narratives are important to demonstrate our commonality and our humanity.”
Christina Lee is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and podcast host.