Published: Friday, March 2, 2018
On the Cusp provides members of the SMU community an online space for personal essays specific to social justice, diversity, and inclusion. An inclusive environment is one that remains in an apex as there is no end point. Content will encourage readers to reflect on what it takes to build a Beloved Community. If you have an idea for a story, reach out to Che Abram CAbram@samuelmerritt.edu. This is our first article written by Che Abram, Associate Director of Diversity.
Tears descended my cheeks and the air stalled on its way out of my nostrils. My eyes scanned the paper shaking in my hands while massive amounts of disbelief surmounted the elation I should have been feeling. I was officially becoming the associate director of diversity. It was a position I longed for, but a question echoed through my mind: “Does the position really want me as much as I want it?”
During the fall of 2014, I began my new job under the premise that my role was as an educator, advisor, and resource; not an activist. I was expected to model inclusive behaviors, language, and culture. In the meantime, America’s first family was Black and a steady rise of racist incidents on college campuses was specifically targeting Black people. I struggled with the notion that I still had to cower in far-off corners, repeatedly swallowing hurt, to discuss my feelings about systemic racial injustice.
I entered higher education diversity work at a social and political crossroad within the United States. Black Lives Matter transitioned from a hashtag to a call to action to confront the longstanding discrimination faced by Black Americans. Samuel Merritt University (SMU) students exhibited their activism by holding a simultaneous die-in on all three campuses. Other students across the country shifted from petitions to protests to demand an end to racism and increased funding for diversity efforts on their college campuses.
My department encouraged students to participate in organizations such as the Do No Harm Coalition. Diversity offices like mine evolved from focusing on administrative tasks into providing transformational leadership. In response, SMU implemented University of California San Francisco’s HEALS Model training for all administrators, faculty, staff, and students that provided participants with tools to navigate challenging conversations. All of these activities were in direct response to the most contentious issue this country loves to ignore: race relations, specifically, the treatment of Black-identified people.
Witnessing heinous racist events in 2017 like the violent White nationalist rally Charlottesville left me feeling like I was at my own crossroad between being an associate director of diversity and a Black-identified woman. I grew more and more incensed with the notion that I must set aside my racial identity to be successful in my career. It ignored the reality that owning and honoring my identity is one of the primary reasons for the success I have enjoyed throughout my career in higher education.
I recalled an experience that helped to propel me into diversity recruitment. I was working with a group of Black middle school students, several of whom had family members who did not complete high school. They asked me questions like: “Is college really as hard as they say it is? Why does it take so long?” Looking back, I don’t believe they ever would have had the courage to ask me those questions if I did not look like them. My answers were eloquent enough to get them thinking and relatable to their lives so they could apply my advice in school each day. In each position I have held since then, whether it be a formal job or sitting on a committee, I carry those children with me. Each advisee I met with queried me with authentic questions they rarely felt comfortable enough to ask anyone else. Eventually we built a rapport that led to referrals, community partnerships, presentations, and even an award or two. Had I truly set my race aside, my current career would not have been possible.
With each instance of adversity that I have overcome, diversity training I implement or facilitate, student of color I motivate or matriculate, I am defying the proverbial separation of church and state. The more I explore my conflicts surrounding social injustice and respectfully engage alternative vantage points, the crossroad makes way to a roadmap. Valuing, validating, and supporting these intersections are what ultimately leads to critical discourse and Beloved Community. In this moment, I realize my role as a diversity professional chose me long before I knew I wanted it.
Ché L. Abram is the associate director of diversity at Samuel Merritt University. A native and continued resident of Oakland, California, she has spent over 15 years working in higher education. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and Master of Business Administration in Management and Leadership from Holy Names University.