The Nearly Impossible Job of a Chief Diversity Officer

The Nearly Impossible Job of a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO).

Art by Emmanuel Pratt-Clarke, symbolizing disembodied Chief Diversity Officer,
in the time of the pandemics of 2020

Scenario 1 (based solely on my sanctified imagination as the Black preacher says before going into a completely unbelievable reenactment of a Biblical story where the preacher is so dramatic you actually start to believe that maybe, just maybe he did see Jesus rise up otta da tomb):

Black man is killed ruthlessly by police.

Black community protests.

Black students on campus create demands.

Administration freaks out. (“Oh my God,” The Black people are mad.”)

Administration calls frantic meeting of senior leadership team…

Mainly White men and few White women, and one Black person (the Chief Diversity Officer, the CDO) show up.

Everyone looks at the Black person.

The Black person feels all the eyes on him  …. (often it is a him).

The eyes are a strange combination of pity, horror, fear, sadness.

Their silent thoughts speak volumes:  We are so sorry for your people.

We are so sorry for that one Black man. Just the one that died. How tragic and horrible.

What can we do?

And oh Lord, these Black students….

Can you please make them go away so we can go back to our ivory towers and not be disturbed by ebony anger?

The meeting begins:

The President, usually a White male, begins by clearing his throat, nervously glancing around the room,   Ahhh….as you know, we have a crisis today.

Everybody looks down.

The Black person wants to disappear, scream, pound table.

Black person silently thinking:  Y’all jokers; I told you to pay attention to a million things when you hired me.

But there was no budget; no resources; it was me and the secretary; and I was supposed to be a collaborative partner.

I’ve spent years having “collaborative” conversations with mainly White males that have made, perhaps, small incremental gains, some good programs, a little policy change.  I’ve asked for more.

For what these Black students are demanding now….and you said no.

Meeting unfolds, quiet White folk conversation.  Black person unsure when or what to say.  He is having his own conversation in his mind.  I told you all.  I told you all.  But nobody listened to me.  And now you want me to fix this. 

All of the sudden, the Black person’s name is called.  Hey,  good Black colleague…..can you help us out?

Can you deal with your people please?

Scenario 2 (based solely on my sanctified imagination as the Black preacher says before going into a completely unbelievable reenactment of a Biblical story):

Black man killed ruthlessly by police.

Black community protests.

CEO calls frantic meeting of senior leadership team…(“Oh my God,” The Black people are mad.”)

Mainly White men and few White women, and one Black person – the Chief Diversity Offier, the CDO —  show up.

Everyone looks at the Black person.

The Black person feels all the eyes on him  …. (often it is a him).

The eyes are a strange combination of pity, horror, fear, sadness.

Their silent thoughts speak volumes:  We are so sorry for your people.

We are so sorry for that one Black man.

What can we do?

And oh Lord, the Black community. Wait, are they doing that protest thing again? Wait, no, are they, heaven forbid, RIOTING……. LOOTING…..Is our, wait, are they on First Avenue, and Main Street, (straining neck to see street signs in video), is that our building in the background? Which direction are those people marching? Where are those police who are supposed to keep them in line?

The meeting begins:

The  CEO, usually a White male, begins by clearing his throat, nervously glancing around the room,   Ahhh….as you know, we have a crisis today. What should we be doing as a company now? Are we doing enough? (really asking, we not about to get boycotted, are we? I’m not about to get booted by saying something racist, wait…have I publicly said anything racist recently? I mean that was recorded?)

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/10/greg-glassman-crossfit-ceo-resigns-george-floyd-protest-coronavirus-tweets-conspiracy-theories

https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/canceled-racism/

Everybody looks down or stares at the one Black person.

The Black person wants to disappear, scream, pound table.

Black person silently thinking:  Y’all jokers; I told you to pay attention to a million things when you hired me.

But there was no budget; no resources; it was just me, a part-time graduate assistant, and a work-study student. I was told to work with others and collaborate, and get buy-in.

Black person thinks to self: I’ve spent years having “collaborative” conversations with mainly White males that have made, perhaps, small incremental gains, some good programs, a little policy change.  I’ve asked for more. I was always told to wait, not yet, no money, budget challenges.

Meeting unfolds, quiet White folk conversation.  Black person unsure when or what to say.  He is having his own conversation in his own mind.  I told you all.  I told you all.  But nobody listened to me.  And now you want me to fix this. 

All of the sudden, the Black person’s name is called.  Hey,  good Black colleague…..can you help us out?

What are you hearing from your people?

Black person, exasperated:  microaggressions, macroaggressions, salary inequity; denied promotional opportunities; lowest rung of organization.

CEO:  let’s get that employee resource organization going; can we give them so more money for their events?  Pizza, chicken, watermelon? And by the way, what are we doing for women? For the LGBTQ community?  We need to be thinking about everyone these days.  Black person, can you make sure to reach out to them, too?

Black person: sigh. Thinks to self: a nearly impossible job.

Scenario 3:  (continuing to use the sanctified imagination)

Black students demand to meet with the President.

President asks Black person to do yeoman’s work of reviewing and responding singlehandledly to pages of demands that are other units’ responsibilities.  Must rely on “collaborative” relationships to get them to describe the systemic racism in their units and their half-hearted if any efforts to address.  Black person dutifully cuts and paste the answers into a master document.

President asks one Black person – CDO, to join the meeting to address the demands.

Black person understands all the demands. They have been his demands, but of course, he couldn’t call them demands, only suggestions, recommendations.

Black students ask for accountability and deadlines.

They look at the president and the Black person.

President looks at Black person. What are your thoughts?

Black person looks down at document.  Thinks to himself: This is a nearly impossible job.

Black person mumbles, big words, with no meaning. Governance for academic curriculum review; police community committee for police role on campus; department heads for faculty microaggressions; equal employment opportunity office and HR for discrimination and harassment; faculty senate for all things everywhere that touch anything.

Meeting ends; students demand another meeting in three days.

Scenario 4:  (continuing to use the sanctified imagination)

Black students demand to meet with Black person.

Black person meets with Black students.

Black person was a Black student. Understands pain, hurt, sorrow, frustration.

Pretends to be helpful, assuage emotions.   Thinks to himself:  This is a nearly impossible job.

Black students leave.  Unhappy and frustrated with Black person.

Black person leaves. Unhappy and frustrated, too.

Scenario 5:  (continuing to use the sanctified imagination)

Black employees demand to meet with Black person.

Black person meets with Black employees.

Black person is a Black employee. Understands pain, hurt, sorrow, frustration.

Pretends to be helpful, assuage emotions.   Thinks to himself:  This is a nearly impossible job.

Meeting ends.

The Black person leaves. Unhappy and frustrated, too.  For he is one of them.

The Black employees stay to talk about the Black person. They are not sure if he is one of them or not. Eventually, they leave.  Unhappy and frustrated, too.

What is going on here? The chief diversity officer position is one of the few positions in an organization where the loyalties are often mixed. Are they administration? Are they the people? They know what it means to face and experience racism and sexism. They know what it means to be ignored, marginalized, overlooked for promotional opportunities.  They know what it means to be paid less than others. They know what it means to experience microaggressions and macroaggressions. They know what it means to not be heard. In corporate America, 60% of CDOs are White– probably White women. (see data below). Only 10% are Black.

https://www.webershandwick.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Chief-Diversity-Officers-Today-report.pdf

On a college campus, it is a continual test of loyalty and negotiation.  It is a test of loyalties for the CDO’s experience more often aligns generally with the students and the requests from the students.  At the same time, they are often powerless to even lead the systemic change.

What side of the fence are they on?  It is impossible to straddle a fence. You can only hang out on top a fence for so long before the discomfort forces you to come down to one side.   And, then you can be isolated on the other side, where the work must be done.

Many CDOs appreciate the protests.  They provide a catalyst and a boost. They make the White students and administration nervous, and thus, desiring to “do something” to make it go away. But the protests are often often unsustainable by students. It is extraordinarily unfair to students.

Some students stage hunger strikes. Some students stage day-long, week-long sit-ins. It is unfathomable to many administrators why the actions and requests and demands are so extreme.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/11/09/the-incidents-that-led-to-the-university-of-missouri-presidents-resignation/

https://www.newsbreak.com/new-york/syracuse/news/0NOuiTfh/notagainsu-a-timeline-of-racist-incidents-at-syracuse-university

It is because the inaction has been so extreme.

But students who lead protests on campus are spending time away from the experience of campus, away from academics, away from the fun of hanging, chillin’ out, been college kids.   The stress of navigating a bureaucratic structure and the racism and “fighting” the system and trying to hold senior leaders accountable is extraordinary.

They are often their own posse.  Sometimes guided from behind the scenes with a faculty or staff member; sometimes those faculty and staff want to remain behind the scenes and not necessarily publicly aligned with “the angry Black students,” because theses faculty are already marginalized in their own departments and programs.

So, what is the solution here?

At Illinois, I worked with the Black students to help them more “effectively” protest. I encourage them to work with coalition with other students, especially students of color and international students who were also experiencing racism. I encourge them to be clear on their requests _ We need a cultural and community center that doesn’t have asbestos! And I coached them on how to “meet” with administrators.

When I first got to Virginia Tech, it was in January 2016. The country was still raw from Michael Brown, and so many others. There had been demands across college campuses. And they were asking for the same requests my parent’s generation was asking for:

More black students

More Black faculty

Required classes on African-American history

Funding for Black Cultural Centers

When I came to VT, I immediately met with the NAACP Black student organization the NAACP.

I introduced myself. I told them they didn’t have to protest, but they could.  But, they could also tell me what they needed and wanted to be successful and to thrive. I told them I would tell them what I could do, what I couldn’t do, and what I had to learn more about. I would be honest and I was on their side. I wanted what was best for them. But, I also told them, I could not fix racism in America. I could not fix individual racist students; I could not single handledly dismantle 400 years of oppression in America or 150 years of oppression at Virginia Tech. I could not hire ten Black faculty members tomorrow. But, I would work almost nonstop and tirelessly to make a difference for them.

Before I started at Virginia Tech, I had read 2000 pages of diversity reports. I was asked to speak at Advancing Diversity summit in January 2016 even before I started. Watch the presentation on the 20 year history of diversity at Virginia Tech.

https://video.vt.edu/playlist/dedicated/1_bdrr70k7/1_onep8zfs

And what I realized was that it was time to reap.  Seeds had been planted, soil had been tilled, and it was time to reap: Realize Excellence, Actualize Potential.

And only because of the extraordinary commitment of President Sands, Virginia Tech in four years has managed to move the needle in an extraordinary way.

  1. There are more Black students.  The entering class of Black students was 3.8%; this year, we expect 8%. There are also more students of color, more first generation students, and more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2020/05/freshman-class-fall2020.html

BCI (the Black College Institute Pre College Program for high achieving and intellectually curious high school students has made a tremendous difference. The program is entirely supported by the office of the president, with growing corporate interest.

Making the Chair Fit Series with Community Center Directors
  • There is a requirement that all students take a course on equity and identity in the United States that addresses as part of the general education curriculum for all students. https://www.pathways.prov.vt.edu/about/concepts.html
  • There is a mandatory pre-enrollment diversity course for all students or a hold is placed on the account to prevent registration if the course is not completed https://students.vt.edu/onlineprograms.html
  • The Future Faculty Diversity Program supports the identification of Black and URM faculty talent, because everyone says it is so hard to find “qualified women and minorities” even though there are many mediocre and unqualified non-minorities, but i’ve already written about that.

We have done extraordinary things at Virginia Tech in a relatively short amount of time. But still, there is so much more to do.

It is an almost impossible job to expect the CDO to work towards eliminating institutional systemic racism (and sexism) within ivory towers.  People rarely speak about the resources of this individual.  As the volume and magnitude of demands increase, the CDO cannot and will not be able to shoulder the expectations from White leadership; from minority communities; the requests for facilitating conversations; the requests for individual meetings; the requests for updated documents; the requests for “I just need to process my pain with you”; the requests for students on the verge of dropping out, from carrying the weight of the institution on their backs; the exhaustion of faculty of color trying to support Black students and themselves, and White men and White women as the ideal mentor; the service weight of serving on more diversity committees that will create more reports; of creating and administering climate surveys when we know the climate is not good for many and that we have no programs or initatiives in place to support a healthy, welcoming, and affirming campus; of investigators in EEO offices doing investigations that yield little evidence of the magnitude of suffering and micro and macroaggressions of harassment to warrant any disciplinary actions…

The list goes on…..

The nearly impossible job of the CDO.

This Russell Reynolds 2019 report on CDO in higher education says, “In addition to foundational competencies such as setting strategy, executing for results, leading teams and building relationships, best-inclass CDOs are defined by a track record and expertise in the following areas: strategic leadership and change management; persuasion and influence; data saavy-storytelling; external engagement; personal motivation and resilience; domain expertise and understanding of higher ed culture. “

https://www.russellreynolds.com/insights/thought-leadership/the-emergence-of-the-chief-diversity-officer-role-in-higher-education

Wait…only this list of hodgepodge soft skills: where is has experienced racism? Has also experienced sexism, in addition to racism? Has learned how to not “go off” in meetings, while yet and still suffering indignities of marginalization, invisibility, and hyperinvisibility? Understands issues of disability; affirms LGBTQ population and multiple representations of gender identity and gender expression? Can socialize with White people in social settings and still look like they are having a good time?

In this post, I write about what it means to be a Black woman in the academy:

In particular, I say, “Lately, the question on my spirit and mind is: “What does it mean to be a Black woman in America, broadly, but the Academy, specifically?”  This esteemed and privileged “academy” of higher education is a space and place in America created for and initially reserved for the wealthy and the White and the male.

In so many places, still at Virginia Tech, in the Academy, I am the only Black woman in the room.  In these spaces and places, often receptions, events, cocktail hours, large gatherings, and places of celebration, I often feel compelled to engage in conversations and reflections with myself.  They go something like this:

“Girl, whatcha doing here?  Girl, don’t cha be by yourself; Girl, find yourself somebody to talk to; You sure you ain’t see no other person of color?  Girl, don’t be caught lookin’ like you ain’t got no friends; Girl, don’t ya stand by the food all the time; Girl, don’t keep hanging around the drink table; Girl, look like you belong, Girl, Girl, Girl.”

And, so me and Girl, we get ourselves together, and we mingle, network, and socialize. Yet me and Girl know that we in a space and place not meant for us, and where we are essentially invisible or hypervisible.  I know that this experience is not limited to the academy and it is not limited to me.  This experience is almost an every day experience for so many women of color in America.

But in today’s America, we have to pull up our britches, as the old folks would say, and go out into battle, and execute the nearly impossible role of the CDO today.

There are solutions, though not nearly as exciting as the sancitified preacher’s imagination:

  1. Do not offer the CDO position (and do not accept a CDO position) without providing the office and the position with resources to be able to have political and social capital, impact, and influence. Resource the office.  I started with a secretary and an associate director 4 years ago, but had a commitment to resources that I knew were essential to transform the institution. Over four years, the team has grown to be able to have a meaningful and significant focus on five areas: education, faculty/staff diversity – recruitment and retention, student success; operations (data and technology, budget/finance); and advancement.   We can and are making a difference.

2. White allies in leadership are needed like never before.  Instead of staring at the Black person in a meeting or looking down, speak up.  Take initiative in doing something radical in your own leadership role.  Be willing to step out on to nothing and know that you will land ok, even if your words, language, aren’t quite correct.  You will learn and you will get better. We need White men and White women to talk amongst yourselves, learn independently and collectively and then put a plan in place. One of my friends sent me a text today that said, “So important to have a White woman on your team that is fierce and antiracist.” I have been blessed to be part of a team with incredible White colleagues who can have difficult and unfinished conversations about race.

3. We need allies from other communities of color and the LGBTQ community and the international community. We are all in this work together to reorient ideas and ideologies about Whiteness and White superiority and perceived inferiority of others.

4. We need majority students and majority employees who are curious and care to step outside the comfort zone and “talk to them.”  The other..the different one, so they don’t feel different.  Kindness goes along way.

Listen to a recent podcast on diversity and inclusion where I speak about the power of extraordinary kindness

5. We need presidents and CEOs to be able to have the words to talk about diversity and inclusion and to support the CDO, to not put the CDO on the spot, to not put them in front to receive the blows, to champion and support and lead diversity efforts.

President Sands and I have had many public conversations (and private conversations) about diversity. We had a town hall in 2018:

https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2018/05/univrel-inclusivevttownhall.html

And a few weeks ago, we had another conversation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htnO4hEurOU

I know that there are very few presidents and CEOs that are willing, able, and competent to have these conversations. What is unique about Virginia Tech is that I think we are better positioned than many institutions to refine, address, and transform.

5. And, we need to love on our CDOs.  They need it.

Disclaimer: I’ve never held the title of Chief Diversity Officer in my 15 years of this work. My title at Virginia Tech is Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Diversity. The sanctified imagination scenarios are based solely on third party accounts from hundreds of dear friends who serve as CDOs.

5 thoughts on “The Nearly Impossible Job of a Chief Diversity Officer”

  1. Wow, just wow! Just reading this article makes me feel empowered, knowing that change can happen in a deliberate, well-planned, methodical way as one works with allies who are themselves truly committed to racial and ethnic equity.
    Thank you!
    SM

  2. Thank you, Dr. Pratt-Clarke! We are so lucky to have your leadership at Virginia Tech. I sincerely appreciate your perspective and thoughts as I continue to work towards becoming a better ally for POC and URM students at our university.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *