Emerging from Within: How Chief Diversity Officers Can Use Organizational Sagas to Advance Diversity

As diversity scholars and leaders in higher education, we recognize that the role of chief diversity officers (CDOs) builds upon the efforts of our academic ancestors, the change agents who preceded us and paved the way for our work today.

According to the National Association of Chief Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), there are now more than 600 members in the organization — 35 percent growth in one year. Over 90 new CDO positions were created on college campuses in the past 15 to 18 months and, barring the dissolution of diversity offices at Purdue University and the University of  Tennessee, it is unlikely this trend will change. The role of the CDO is becoming more integral to campus leadership, and yet we often do little to acknowledge those faculty and staff who laid the foundations for such roles. Understanding the work of our diversity forebearers can help us advance diversity efforts in our colleges and universities.

So we ask, what role do CDOs play in the collection of testimonies and oral histories of those who came before us? How can those testimonies and oral histories support diversity initiatives that meet the needs of our ever-changing society? Necessarily, CDOs are responsible for historically marginalized peoples and their stories. If CDOs do not play a central role in capturing the stories of historical change agents on their respective campuses, likely no one will. And if we don’t have these histories, we can’t use them to inform and strengthen our work.

Reimagining Institutional Histories Through Diversity
At Kennesaw State University, we, as CDOs, joined together to reimagine our institutional history through two initiatives. Our model, titled “Emerging from Within,” aimed to document the stories of change agents who transformed the campus culture for women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. Our vision of diversity is intentionally broad, and we recognize the importance of creating an inclusive collegiate experience across social difference.

[Above: Nathalia Jaramillo addresses the audience at the opening of Kennesaw State University’s “Emerging from Within” reception.]

Through a CDO and deputy CDO who acted as institutional historians, video production staff who recorded the interviews, and a professional photographer who captured images of our change agents, we leveraged historical efforts toward justice to engage the broader campus community around how institutional, social, and cultural change works. “Emerging from Within” focused on the life histories of our change agents, as we wanted to understand the beliefs and teachings that anchored their strong identities and subsequent advocacy.

We asked our participants to recollect the early days of their tenure at the university, when they were often the first staff or faculty member of color in their respective divisions, or when they became allies to and advocates for historically marginalized groups. They candidly revealed both the support and opposition they experienced in their efforts to advance the campus toward inclusivity. They discussed their legacy and the hope they maintained for the future of a university to which they committed so much time and effort.

The project sought to create a parallel historical archive — to the traditional celebrations of presidents and institutional governing bodies — that captured the stories and memories of those who challenged the university to grapple with its own exclusions, faults, and limitations.

Portraiture and Oral Histories
At a spring 2013 planning meeting during a weeklong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Kennesaw State, we brought to the group’s attention the university’s exclusive focus on able-bodied, heterosexual white male administrators, faculty, and staff. The university president shared our dismay and asked that we work on creating an event called “The Evolution of Inclusion,” which would spotlight key historical figures who had moved the institution forward on a series of diversity fronts.

Jerome Ratchford (right) and Carol Pope (left) unveil their portraits at the “Emerging from Within” reception.
Jerome Ratchford (right) and Carol Pope (left) unveil their portraits at the “Emerging from Within” reception.

Evaluations from the event suggested it was a huge success and were used to guide the expansion of the panel into the two-year study of diversity leaders at the university, “Emerging from Within.” We conducted and recorded video interviews that chronicled their compelling stories, and we commissioned portraits of each participant. Every aspect of the initiative was strategic. We wanted our community to understand the transformation of the university culture, as well as the culture at large. The portraits served to parallel and complement the conventional portraits found at colleges and universities that often depict leadership as relatively homogeneous in regard to race, ethnicity, and gender.

In spring 2016, we held a reception called “Emerging from Within: The Kennesaw State Diversity Collection.” It marked the first contribution to what will be an ever-expanding archive of interviews and images that document diversity and inclusion at Kennesaw State. After the reception, the portraits were displayed in the lobby of one of the main buildings on campus, and QR codes were used to direct people to the interviews, which were placed online. The portraits have since been on display at our alumni house to showcase the diverse historical figures who have championed diversity at Kennesaw State.

Author Burton R. Clark’s notion of organizational saga captures the idea of collective understandings of unique accomplishments within an organization and how they are reflected in organizational practices and values. We believe it’s necessary for CDOs to become archivists and for best practices to be contextualized within the unique cultures and histories of each institution. Through capturing the experiences and challenges of those who come before us, we also create platforms for our work and, in the process, build new traditions. We believe that celebrating our diversity forebearers — and acknowledging that the bridges we build were done so on their backs — should be a central responsibility of CDOs and should underwrite an institution’s diversity vision and mission.●

Erik Malewski, PhD, is the chief diversity officer at Kennesaw State University. Nathalia Jaramillo, PhD, is the deputy chief diversity officer at the university. Kennesaw State University is an INSIGHT Into Diversity Diversity Champion and a 2015 and 2016 HEED Award recipient.