Supporting Diversity Practitioners in Difficult Times

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The spring of 2016 was an incredibly difficult time to be an LGBTQ center director in North Carolina. The season began with the passage of House Bill (HB) 2, North Carolina’s law that limits the rights of transgender people in regard to public accommodations, and it ended three months later with the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. While many people have written about these events and their aftermath, not much has been said about their impact on diversity professionals working in higher education.

These events led me to reflect on my experiences and my role as director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., as well as compile some advice on how to practice allyship in such difficult times.

North Carolina’s HB2 was passed in a special legislative session on March 23 and signed into law that evening by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. The bill, which eliminated the rights of local municipalities to pass their own nondiscrimination policies, specifically targeted North Carolina’s transgender population, making it a crime for people to use public restrooms that don’t match the gender indicated on their birth certificate. With the passage of HB2, North Carolina suddenly became ground zero in a national debate over transgender rights in America.

Here at Wake Forest, we had just wrapped up an ambitious fall schedule of events, which included hosting actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox on campus, an event which drew more than 2,000 people, as well as holding our first-ever LGBTQ alumni conference, a major undertaking that reaped rich rewards but demanded a huge amount of work. By the spring, we were ready for a quiet semester focused on strategic planning and ensuring the sustainability of the LGBTQ Center.

Instead, April and May were filled with supporting community activism, fielding endless calls from media outlets, comforting scared and angry students, and organizing educational events about HB2 and its effects. As June rolled around, we were ready for a time of rest, but what we faced instead was a horrifying attack on the LGBTQ community, and specifically, on queer people of color.

The Orlando shooting challenged me as a diversity professional in a way that nothing else has. As I spent the following days organizing and attending vigils, comforting friends and co-workers, and trying to provide support for our far-flung community of students, I deeply appreciated the acts of solidarity and allyship from colleagues across the university. From that experience, I developed some recommendations on what colleagues and allies can do to best support diversity practitioners during difficult times:

Remember that your campus diversity officers may be suffering too. In the aftermath of HB2, our university chaplains reached out to schedule an event in the LGBTQ Center, specifically for center staff. They planned it for a time when students were away, showed up with tea and cookies, and gave us time and space to vent and cry. During a time spent caring for so many other people’s feelings, this was a gift.

Avoid the temptation to replicate the 24-hour news cycle. In the days after the Orlando shooting, well-meaning friends and colleagues would stop by to rehash the latest bits of information they had heard on CNN. This obsession with the spectacle of the event began to feel toxic and certainly distracted all of us from the lives and humanity of the people who were killed that night. It also took time and energy away from providing care to those in our campus community who desperately needed it.

Help form strategic partnerships. As soon as I heard the details of the Orlando shooting, I knew that both our LGBTQ and our Muslim communities would be full of sadness and fear, as would our Latino students. Together with our dean of students, our university counseling center, and the Chaplain’s Office, the LGBTQ Center drafted a statement to send out to students that decried the tragedy in Orlando, affirmed the value of our LGBTQ students, and offered explicit support for our Muslim students in the face of the Islamophobia we anticipated across the country. Unifying our voices allowed us to draft a message that reached more students and spoke to the intersections of their identities.

Do your own work. This is my single most important piece of advice, and it’s not as simple as checking a box. The people who were the best allies this past spring were the colleagues who had already made an effort to integrate LGBTQ content into their work; who were already using gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of identity as critical lenses in their strategic planning processes; and who had already built relationships with me, my staff, and the students we serve. Of course, this is the goal of a capacity-building approach to diversity and inclusion work overall: Units across the university have the tools to integrate diversity work, both in terms of content and as a critical lens, in their everyday functions. Doing this before there’s a crisis means that you will be a trusted ally and part of the solution when the unexpected happens.

Showing up as an ally when something terrible happens is part of how we provide care to all members of our campus communities in the wake of a crisis. I hope that none of us experiences a season like the spring of 2016 again. If we do, having prepared and knowledgeable allies makes a crucial difference in our ability to respond well.●

Angela Mazaris, PhD, is the founding director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.