On February 22, Dr. Benjamin Reese, President of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and Vice President for Institutional Equity at Duke University and Duke University Health System, and his daughter, Lauren Reese (COL ‘12), shared their reflections on the complexities of race in higher education as part of the Doyle Film & Culture Series. This event—”A Lunch Conversation on Higher Education & Race“—was co-hosted by the Office of the President, Center for Social Justice (CSJ), Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action (IDEAA), and CNDLS as part of the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Initiative, and reached more than 100 faculty, students, and staff from across the university.
Dr. Reese opened the event with initial reflections on his experiences being involved in activism at a young age. His work in higher education began early on with his time as a student at Bronx Community College. Since then, he has become even more involved in higher education through his current roles at Duke University and NADOHE, and strives to impart his knowledge on the many complexities of the issues of race in higher education. Lauren continued the opening conversation by crediting her parents for her passion for diversity education, as well as her early exposure to diversity and inclusion work. During her college search, it was important for her to find a university community that would support her desire to stay connected to this type of work, and it was Hoya Saxa Weekend—and the “diverse and brilliant group of people” she met there—that solidified her decision to attend Georgetown. Reflecting on other meaningful experiences that set the tone for her engagement with diversity and inclusion issues, Lauren pinpointed YLEAD (Young Leaders in Education about Diversity), which is a pre-orientation program for incoming first year students that offers a space to discuss issues related to diversity, with critical elements of sustained interpersonal dialogue and reflection. For Lauren, both Hoya Saxa Weekend and YLEAD provided a “window into the experiences” of her peers.
Lauren’s engagement with diversity issues on campus didn’t just happen in the co-curricular space at Georgetown, and she also shared the impact of her classroom experiences and coursework. In one such instance, her involvement with the academic working group as a part of the Initiative on Diversity and Inclusiveness provided Lauren with a place to apply the knowledge gained in her sociology courses in support of her extracurricular efforts to impact institutional social change on campus. With a nod to the revolutionary text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, saying it “changed her life” and led her to “believe in the power of classroom pedagogy,” she called for a transformation of the pedagogy of diversity and inclusion, and shared the importance of self-assessment and self-reflection to create sustainable change.
Dr. Rosemary Kilkenny, Georgetown’s Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity, moderated the conversation, asking the two to share thoughts and reflections on activist movements across the country. Dr. Reese focused his response on a perceived shift in the “sophistication” of activism, noting “it’s not about getting through the door anymore; it’s about thinking about deconstructing institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia.” For Dr. Reese, it’s encouraging to see students engaging in activism, but there’s still much work to be done, and he emphasized the role that higher education can play in”closing the gap,” noting that”the opportunity we have in higher education is to prepare young people in shaping the future of the nation.”
When asked what suggestions she might offer to engage more faculty in this type of work, Lauren shared the need to connect inclusion and diversity discussions to all disciplines rather than just the most obvious. She emphasized the shared responsibility of both institutional leadership and individual disciplines in addressing these issues, as well as the powerful and influential role that graduate students and peers can play in the process. Continuing this thread, Dr. Reese offered two strategies that Duke uses to help engage more faculty in diversity work. The first is a series of closed, intimate conversations that take place over dinner with hand-picked attendees from across the university. To encourage a “deep and authentic dialogue about issues they hadn’t before spoken about in mixed company,” photos, recordings, and any efforts to divulge the names of attendees are prohibited. The second strategy involves incorporating bias workshops into departmental meetings, which faculty are required to attend. In these meetings, traditional departmental business is addressed alongside a supplemental diversity conversation that takes place during the last 90 minutes.
Other strategies shared by Dr. Reese and Lauren to support diversity and inclusion work included making invisible individuals “visible”—and honoring them. Dr. Reese shared Duke’s tradition of hosting the Samuel DuBois Cook Annual Dinner, which asks departments to purchase tables and invite staff, students, groundskeepers, and housekeepers as attendees to fill the tables. The event honors individuals who contribute to the legacy of Cook, the first African-American faculty member at Duke. Additionally, Dr. Reese called for a change in the preparation for Presidents, Provosts, and Chancellors of institutions of higher education, as well as a stronger effort to engage students “from the inside” and involve them in institutional leadership.
The focus on intersectionalities of diversity and the need to find solutions that balance many complex identities, agendas, and priorities made it clear that this work is challenging and ongoing. While institutional and process changes can be difficult to achieve, they are still an opportunity for—and demand—further progress. CNDLS and the Doyle Engaging Difference Program are pleased to have been able to support such a dynamic and engaging pair who speak so passionately and openly on topics core to diversity conversations happening across the nation and on Georgetown’s campus. To learn more about past Doyle Film & Culture Series sponsored events, please visit our website.