Bringing cultural awareness to Hope College: Jevon Willis

The following is an interview with Jevon Willis, the Assistant Director for CDI.

How do you feel students of color are supported on campus?
What I’ve been learning in my six months here is that there’s a number of factors that play into what that support looks like. I think students are having varying experiences with that. Ultimately, I think a lot of it has to do to do with their major, which departments they’re studying in and how they’re connected and how involved they within the campus community. To that end, there are some students who are highly supported. I think students who know how to actively self-advocate are the kind of students who find themselves connecting with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), potentially serving in a leadership role with multi-cultural student organizations (or MSOs). But I also I feel like there are students who are not aware, and I think sometimes I’m surprised by that, with a campus this small and with all the resources that are available.

What is your job here at the CDI?
I’m the Assistant Director for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Primarily I spent a lot of time serving as an advisor for the MSOs. I would say a large part of my time in the six months that I’ve been here has really been one-on-one and small group meetings, whether that is literally meeting one-on-one with a student or being connected with some of the focus groups that we do here. I would say a large part of my job is to have a sense of what the experiences of students of color and other underrepresented students are because ultimately, I think it informs us to the kinds of ways that we support or rationalize the programs and events that support the students that come out of this office. We’re working in areas of cultural competency, leadership development, advocacy, academic success and training workshops that connect students, faculty and staff. I think a large part of my role consists of working with a number of different departments and doing a lot of diversity education and awareness related to their areas of responsibility.

In your meetings with students, what have been some general concerns in terms of feeling supported and comfortable on campus?
There is a variety of opinions or experiences, but what seems to be really common is periods of isolation. I think that this feeling of invisibility at times has to do with the inability for certain faculty or staff members to respond in a culturally competent way to different kinds of negative encounters that students experience in the classroom. This at times creates a reality where students almost question, “Did this incident really happen? Did that person really say what I heard them say?” This is especially when there are not other individuals pushing back or responding in a confident way that supports the student in that experience, that acknowledges the bias or the microaggression that took place. I think one of the things that I hear really clearly from these students is the refusal for Hope to be honest about those experiences. I think many of our students feel, if we’re being honest with them and truly capturing their commitment to make Hope better, then those have to be addressed. I also feel like that’s one of the things that I’ve been very impressed with; the student leaders that I get to work with, students of color, their level of commitment and desire to see Hope be its best self. I think that is something that is a tremendous asset to Hope and to our community.

Are there initiatives/groups on campus that are trying to deal with these issues from the faculty point of view?
Sure, I think you can have some meaningful initiatives or strategies, but until faculty or staff see the problem and how they contribute to it, then I don’t think they necessarily see the value in those offered opportunities. That’s part of the disconnecting problem at times. A strategy is only as good as its ability to be to be lived out. I feel like we have the right tools, but again I think commitment around diversity and equality is as individualized as individuals themselves in terms of commitment or even energy.

Do you feel there are ways that white students can help with this problem and make this a better situation?
I don’t think Hope will ever be what it can or should be without white allies. They’re absolutely essential. I think there’s a lot that students can do, and part of that starts with demonstrating a desire to understand. Being able to be on a campus of this size, to be in a community with individuals from so many different backgrounds, I don’t see white students as engaged or interested in conversations around equality and justice as much as I would have anticipated. But I think part of the challenge for students and everyone is it’s one thing to know, and then it’s another thing to do. There are a lot of students, faculty and staff that are in love with the idea of justice, but unfortunately, it’s not a call to action.

How have the situations on campus changed in the recent past?
I get the sense from students that there have been better times and worse times. One of the things that I’ve heard from students from the very beginning has to do with the responses around the election. For many students who are sharing these stories and experiences, that was a time of great fear, where they felt their safety was in jeopardy. But overall, I think things have gotten better. You have the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, my role as an assistant director, the Chief Diversity Officer, which are all important tools. Part of the tension for me with even answering that question is that there are always times when we feel like we’re good, and that good is good enough. Even today and five years from now we can be better, so I’m never satisfied until the Center for Diversity and Inclusion is not needed, because we have reached that utopic place of being able to live this in a way that people of color and those who are underrepresented say they are okay.

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