Before COVID-19 hit SUNY Brockport, the campus was consumed in controversy over the dismissal of the chief diversity officer.
Then the campus shut down for the rest of the academic year. Since then, COVID has monopolized conversations.
“I think the impact of the pandemic was really a shifted focus,” said Damita Davis, the college’s new chief diversity officer. “Not that people weren’t still vested in the work of equity, diversity and inclusion. … We had to pay closer attention to keeping everyone physically safe. And how do we do that while still conducting the business of providing an education. What the pandemic did was interrupt. It did slow the momentum down quite a bit. …”
Davis started her role in July. She succeeded Dr. Lorraine Acker, who was named interim CDO after Cephas Archie was fired in January 2020.
Archie’s dismissal led to student protests and a visit by then-SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson to hear concerns.
Davis earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Rhode Island. During her freshman year, Black students continued the previous year’s protests over racial injustice. She became involved in the women’s center, judicial board and a Black student organization.
Prior to coming to Brockport, Davis was associate director of Programming and Educational Initiatives at Boston College from January 2014 through May 2021. She also worked in the multicultural program at Emmanuel College in Boston. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
As Davis begins her first semester at Brockport, she talked with Minority Reporter about why came to the school and her role as chief diversity officer.
“The position intrigued me when I read the description. One, it was a position that reported directly to the president, which is very important in doing this work. Really having access to top leadership and being able to be in a leadership position at Brockport was very appealing. … What really struck me was how intentional the job description was written, the terminology and the vocabulary that was used in the position. … I felt that Brockport was ready to have someone come in and really do some intentional work around equity, diversity and inclusion that would shift the university culturally to be a more inclusive and welcoming environment.”
What is it like to come in after the controversy in early 2020?
“I can tell there are folks who still have a negative ghost type feeling about what happened. They’re trying to figure me out, am I going to be similar to the previous CDO? How am I going to do things differently? How am I going to help folks move through the hurt that they have experienced … I can tell there are some folks who are still impacted by that in significant ways. So I try to be mindful of knowing that they have a history here that I don’t have. I don’t take things personally when people don’t receive me all warm and fuzzy because I get they went through an experience that I haven’t had.
“Then there’s those who are very excited that I’m here and have very high expectations about what I’m going to do or what I should be doing. And so it’s been a bit of being mindful of those who are still feeling some hurt while also minimizing the expectations of those who are very excited that I’m here. … For the most part, it’s been a very positive experience, um, in terms of engaging and, and meeting people across campus. Definitely, there’s that ghost still lingers of the controversy that happened within the last couple of years and how that is still a fingerprint on a community and really navigating that as carefully and mindfully, and as with as much empathy as I can while doing the work that I was hired to do.”
How do you see your role?
“My role really is to look at our policies, procedures, and our systems that could adversely impact individuals from diverse backgrounds. We’re looking at a policy right now of returning to school after a medical leave of absence, and really looking at that policy to make sure it doesn’t inhibit a student, particularly from an underrepresented population, from returning. Making sure we don’t keep on adding requirements because that’s going to be a deterrent. So really looking at those items with an equity, diversity, inclusion lens institution-wide to make sure that those policies and procedures, when they trickle down, don’t adversely impact members of our community who tend to be marginalized or underrepresented.
“… Particularly at state institutions, public institutions, you want to have policies and procedures that are perceived to be fair across the board. What some folks may say is equitable across the board, no one’s really looked at these policies to say, OK, how does this policy adversely impact DACA students, low income students from low income backgrounds? How does this policy potentially negatively impact female students or female identified students? No one’s really looking at these policies from an equity, diversity and inclusion lens to say, well, what does this mean for this population on our campus?
“… Part of my role as I see it is to serve as a partner and a resource for the members of the Brockport community. I really focus on working collaboratively. I don’t see myself as someone stepping into a department and saying, this is how you need to do your work related to equity, diversity, inclusion. Each area on this campus has the expertise. They have their process and procedures, and I need to be mindful and aware of those processes and really guide them and interact with them in a way that says, how can I help you do this better?”
Brockport had a five-year plan through 2021. How does that continue?
“That’s up to me to convene a group of faculty, staff and students to talk about what that should look like. Particularly because I’m new, I don’t want to arbitrarily make decisions, so really pulling folks into that conversation is going to be important. … My goal is to pull a committee together to meet for the first time in October. And part of that will be again, reviewing the goals that had been in place for the last five years, the goals that are set with our overall institution-wide strategic plan, and also look at any mandates or guidelines that have come down from SUNY. Based on that information, and also any other data we need to pull, let’s start having a conversation about where we want to see this institution in five years. What does SUNY Brockport look like in terms of equity, diversity, inclusion not so much by numbers but have we shifted the culture of this institution so people feel like they can bring their full selves to the academic experience to the work environment.
“I will have my opinions about things and where I think I need to redirect. However, at the same time I’m new, so I need to really listen to and hear what the folks who’ve been here longer than I have, have to say. And how can we try to merge the two? I’ve got to be cognizant of the culture of Brockport and not try to do things that just doesn’t make sense for this environment and for this culture.
“… One of the things I definitely want to make sure that comes out of this next strategic plan is that other departments in across the institution understand that we need to be purposeful in our work, that everyone has a role to play in equity, diversity inclusion, regardless of what their job, uh, responsibilities are, what their job title is, same thing with students.
“How quickly we move through that depends on how we move through those conversations. … My goal is to have a draft by the end of the academic year and do any revisions so that by fall 2022 we have introduced it to the college.”
How do you measure a successful DEI program?
“Brockport has been doing some intentional work around increasing the percentage of students of color on campus. That’s one piece of it. We can increase the numbers across board faculty, staff, students. It’s how do we keep them here?
“It’s really about faculty and staff in particular, how do they engage with folks from diverse backgrounds in a way that supports who they are as an individual … that this person really acknowledges that there’s a difference in how particular populations on this campus operate and how they navigate the world. We can have a huge number of people of color on this campus and if they don’t feel comfortable, if they don’t feel welcomed, if they don’t feel that this institution supports who they are from their cultural lens, it’s a moot point because they’re not going to stay.
“So you really want to set your institution up to be successful, not solely by the numbers, but by the culture and its environment. Happy people is your best marketing tool. … I’m not saying that this is going to be 100%, everyone’s going to be happy all the time. Life doesn’t work that way. Um, but for folks too, I don’t want, but however, for folks to really thrive here, they got to see themselves wanting to be here and being welcomed and supported. And that’s where we need to get to as an institution.”