Leaders must be the first to learn and demonstrate what diversity and inclusion should look like. They should mandate and participate in diversity training on a regular basis. Often times people are frustrated by singular diversity programs because they do not have enough depth, or they can be overwhelming. Regular professional development and discussions on diversity and inclusion are the best way to help shift perspectives.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Abdullah the Vice President of Student Affairs at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia.
He’s worked in higher education for more than 20 years and most of his work has been related to diversity and inclusion. He has worked at a number of institutions, including Auburn University, The University of Minnesota and The Ohio State University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Absolutely! Thank you for the opportunity to share with you and your audience. My path seemed straight to me as I travelled it; but hindsight has shown me that my journey was anything but ordinary. I’m a first-generation college graduate and I grew up the 4th oldest of 20 kids from a blended family. Having so many siblings really helped prepare me for diversity work — learning how to engage with so many personalities was critical in my development even if I didn’t know it at the time.
I grew up in Northeast Ohio in Akron and Canton. Canton is the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I grew up playing football in the shadow of the Hall of Fame. I played football in college at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio and it was there that I began to realize just how much I didn’t know about the world. I was exposed to a much wider range of people and cultures than I had previously known, and my time at Wittenberg was just the beginning of my formal education about diversity and inclusion.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have always loved to read. This summer has been somewhat prolific due to the pandemic, and I’ve recently finished ‘How to be an Antiracist’ and ‘Stamped From the Beginning’ both by Ibram X. Kendi. ‘The Color of Law’ by Richard Rothstein,’ White Fragility’ by Robin D’Angelo and ‘The Water Dancer’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of these books speak to our current moment in time and give it some context.
My favorite childhood book was ‘My Side of the Mountain’ by Jean Craighead George. I loved this book for so many reasons; I could relate to the main character because he was from a large family and decided to run away to find his own peace. I also won this book as a prize for my winning essay on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in third grade, so that book was extra special to me.
As an adult, one of the most meaningful books that I read was Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘The Warmth of Other Suns.’ This book was wonderfully written and captures the experiences of Black people leaving the southern part of the U.S. for other parts with the expectation of more freedom to live, work and provide for their families. I was living in Georgia and working in Alabama at the time, so the settings of the book resonated with me differently than they would have if I had not experienced those places. I was also in the process of completing my PhD and had begun to experience some fatigue with the process. I bought the book directly from the author when she was visiting our campus and it became my mental break from my research and my reading material during my trip to Malawi in Southern Africa to teach local educators about Multicultural Competence from a U.S. perspective. Being in Africa and reading that book gave me a much greater appreciation for the PhD journey that I was travelling and the sacrifices that so many before me had made just so I could be in that position.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A quote that I live by is one from James Baldwin, he said “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This quote is especially important when doing diversity and inclusion work. This work is hard, and it can be challenging, but it is so necessary, and this quote reminds me regularly of that. It also brings to mind Frederick Douglas’ words, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” We all must struggle together to overcome the challenges of exclusion and marginalization.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a lifestyle — and there can be defining moments in leadership — but leadership is always knowing that there is a solution even if you aren’t the one who always offers the solution. Leaders have to be willing to do all that they ask their staff to do, otherwise it will be hard to get people to follow you. Great leaders set the stage for effective solutions and recognize those solutions when they see them.
I’ll point to an example when I had to demonstrate leadership. I had a unit that was very dysfunctional. The staff didn’t get along and it ultimately impacted how they served the students. I had to make the difficult decision of removing the leadership of that unit and replacing a majority of the staff. It was not a popular decision, but it was a necessary decision to make sure the students thrived. Our metrics improved across the board after that change and the number of students we served increased substantially.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Self-care is essential to this work. It is stressful, it can be lonely, and it can be frustrating. I have become a runner over the past few years and it has been very significant to improving my health and relieving stress and anxiety. Back when I was travelling and facilitating trainings and attending conferences, I would wake up early and run in the area or on the treadmill at the hotel. This has been very therapeutic for me. More recently, I started gardening and discovered that I have a green thumb. My family and I cleared and planted a garden and the harvest has been plentiful. At one point this summer, we were eating something from our garden daily. I enjoyed weeding and clearing the garden and watering it regularly and pruning the leaves, so that’s my new thing in addition to running.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
We are in a unique moment in time. There has always been push back against oppression and exclusion from society, but many of those stories of pushing back against discrimination have been overlooked and suppressed so many people do not know this history. We are in the information age and there is much more communication about the injustices that are plaguing people of color and particularly Black people in the United States. Be it smartphones with cameras or social media or email petitions, there are thousands of platforms to share racially charged incidents to help all Americans and the world to see discrimination and injustice in real time. The challenge that has existed historically is that people who have been oppressed have not had the same kind of public relations that the people doing the oppression have had. In many cases, the transgressions that have taken people’s lives or violated people’s civil rights have been so egregious that it was hard for people who didn’t witness or experience this to believe that it even happened. The default has been to believe the authorities or believe the people who look like them. Since 1992 when the Rodney King beating was captured on video, the process of understanding state violence has changed. Spin doctors are finding it harder and harder to convince people to believe them versus what people see with their own eyes. This new first-hand perspective or witnessing of oppression seems to have caused many to revisit their previous views on race and equality in the United States.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I’ve been working in diversity and inclusion for the past 20 years and have been involved in recruiting diverse students, researching theory and practices related to diversity and inclusion, teaching courses on diversity and inclusion, and facilitating training related to diversity and inclusion. My research has primarily focused on Multicultural Competence and the experiences of diversity professionals. I began this work as an undergraduate student, recruiting minority students and continued that in my early professional roles. In graduate school at Ohio State, I worked in the Multicultural Center and studied theories related to multicultural development. I also studied abroad, and those experiences expanded my world view.
I came to this work accidently — I had two options for work study jobs at Wittenberg, one was in the cafeteria and the other was in admissions. I had just left a kitchen job at the end of high school and I wanted a different challenge. One of my mentors, Chris Thompson, hired me to work with him recruiting minority students and the rest as they say is history. From that time, I began to learn more about the theory and practice related to diversity and inclusion.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There are a number of reasons why an organization should have a diverse executive team. McKinsey and Company conducted research on the benefits of diversity in corporate America. They found that teams that were more diverse were more creative. Teams that were homogenous often did not question their ways of thinking or ideas that were presented, but diverse teams spent much more time questioning their ways of thinking and debating product ideas and were seen as much more creative. This same report also highlighted the fact that businesses with more women in leadership roles were much more profitable and brought their investors more returns than those companies that did not have women in their leadership.
Diverse executive teams can also open new markets by sharing imaginative ways that products are being used by anticipating product adoption patterns that others may have overlooked. Now more than ever these diverse perspectives are needed.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
This is a great question. It is essential for leaders to lead and systems to shift in order for us to have real change. We will not have an inclusive, representative and equitable society until those in all levels of society commit to being actively involved in learning and changing processes and habits and laws that promote exclusion. Here are five recommendations for us to move forward together now.
- Leaders must be the first to learn and demonstrate what diversity and inclusion should look like. They should mandate and participate in diversity training on a regular basis. Often times people are frustrated by singular diversity programs because they do not have enough depth, or they can be overwhelming. Regular professional development and discussions on diversity and inclusion are the best way to help shift perspectives.
- We must address historical legal biases that have contributed to segregation and discrimination. There have been a large number of policies and laws that have contributed to inequities in the U.S. and beyond. Confronting this history can help us all better understand what has brought us to this point.
- We need to have an ongoing national conversation about race that is honest and transparent. Following the end of Apartheid, South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to explore their racial history and hear from victims of racial atrocities. The U.S. has never established a similar group and doing so could take us a long way toward confronting the nation’s racist past.
- Another step toward creating an equitable society is reimagining our public schools. We need to equitably fund schools and provide them with effective teachers who are paid an advantageous salary and who care about the kids that they are teaching. This shift can go a long way towards making sure that young people are taught by those who want to see students evolve out of their current conditions and go on to greater opportunities for college and careers.
- Finally, the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Authority have to make Black WWII Veteran whole by restoring their GI Bill benefits. Redlining (the practice of limiting where African Americans could live and buy homes) prevented Black GI’s from taking advantage of the housing benefits of the GI Bill that were administered by the FHA. Further VA discrimination prevented Black veterans from using their education benefits for college or trade schools. These failings outlined in Richard Rothstein’s book ‘The Color of Law’ show just how much governmental discrimination has contributed to our current climate.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m certainly optimistic that we will get through this moment. Our history has shown us that we bounce back after uprisings like we are experiencing now. This moment feels unprecedented, but our collective responses will make us better if we can be honest with each other.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I would love to have breakfast with Venture Capitalists Robert F. Smith and Arlan Hamilton, or even music artist Antwan Patton, professionally known as Big Boi, who has a range of diversified business interests.