Earlier this semester, Dean James Ryan announced that Domonic Rollins would be joining the HGSE community as senior diversity and inclusion officer and special assistant to the deans, a new role for the school.
“Domonic brings a unique combination of passion and experience to this critical role,” Ryan wrote in his announcement.
Rollins’ most recent position was as senior education, training, and strategy specialist in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland, where his responsibilities included designing and facilitating diversity and social justice trainings, and helping to craft and implement strategic plans related to equity and diversity education. He also served as an adviser to the chief diversity officer on campus climate and culture.
We spoke with Rollins about what he’s looking forward to at HGSE and his perspective on issues of diversity and inclusion in education.
What is your hope for creating more inclusive learning and working environments at HGSE?
My major hope for creating more inclusive learning and working environments at HGSE is to increase the capacity of community members to engage across difference. While we have great understanding of the circumstances and experiences of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable in our education systems, we know very little about each other, our stories, and how we impact each other every day through interpersonal interactions. For me, engagement is the foundation on which inclusive learning and working environments are built.
What are some aspects about HGSE and the community that most excite you? And what do you think will be the most challenging?
I am most excited about the people who are here. So many folks are committed, interested, and ready to do the work that comes along with making an organization more inclusive. I have felt so welcomed by people, and every day I meet new people who reaffirm my decision to join the community.
Primarily, the commitment demonstrated by the community and key stakeholders drew me to HGSE. Throughout my interview and engagement process, I learned from so many people about the work and initiatives that are happening; that excited me. I was also drawn to HGSE because of how the leaders of HGSE conceptualize diversity and inclusion work. Put simply, it is viewed as integral and the center of education. Further, it excited me that people here wanted to get better at serving, educating, and being with students across many dimensions of difference.
I think it will be most challenging to help the community to understand that making this place more inclusive first starts with looking at ourselves. So much our focus in the academy, especially in education, is on what we can do for others. It is not our tendency to be deeply reflective about ourselves. In my opinion advancing inclusion requires us to heighten our awareness of who we are, how we show up, and how we are received by others. This is heavy lifting for people. This is not our orientation, and some may not agree that it is the best approach for the work.
Why is there a need for diversity and inclusion officers?
There are a lot of reasons there is a need for diversity and inclusion officers, and over time the reasons have changed. One reason is visibility; diversity and inclusion officers signify to internal and external constituents that there is some focus and attention on diversity and inclusion at the institution. It is a marker. A second reason is that diversity and inclusion efforts, at times, need a place to live. While diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, some places over time have struggled with giving it a proper home. This relates to a third reason: accountability. Diversity and inclusion officers are helpful at keeping the institution honest about its values, goals, and vision around being inclusive and diverse; a place where all community members can learn.
I see one of the major changes in education as the shift away from only caring about the representation of diverse students in education spaces, to addressing the question: What are the conditions of the experience for diverse students? Diversity and inclusion has had a unique history whereby we started with getting diverse students, mostly students of color, on college campuses. During the first iteration of the work, these students were relegated to few spaces on campuses, and typically administrators and faculty of color were the only personnel who cared for or tended to these students. Over time, many marginalized people associated with the higher education enterprise said that it wasn’t enough just to be there, there was a desire for a condition of experience that matched (and at times) supersede that of dominant-identified (or, in this case, white) students.
We see a similar progression in broader society concerning race relations when we moved from separate and equal to integration. On many campuses, even post Brown v. Board of Education, there was, and still is, a separate but equal experience.
Now finally, the crucible moment of students taking up the power that is theirs as students, mixed with a shift in institutional values to, actually and properly, serve all students has landed us in a place where the diversity and inclusion officer role can exist; exist as one to support the institution’s desire to do better, and hold the institution accountable at the same time.
How is this career path developing for educators and administrators?
The career path for educators and administrators doing diversity and inclusion work is developing in interesting ways. I can remember early in my career, advisement and caution from mentors around doing diversity work; they cautioned that one can get held or boxed into this kind of work, and it is not viewed broadly as a value-add to the institution, ultimately limiting your chance for further leadership opportunities.
Today, I don’t think my mentors could have predicted that the need for educators and administrators who understand and can do diversity and inclusion work well would have increased. It’s hard to predict how opportunities will evolve; though I cannot see them lessening. In my experience, there are few people who have the capacity to do this work in a multi-pronged approach understanding not only the dynamics, but also the institutional culture enough to effectively make change.
What are some of the major issues behind diversity and education, and campus climate, facing institutions today and how do you plan to tackle these at HGSE?
One of the major issues behind diversity and education today is that a disproportionate number of educational institutions have welcomed diverse students without really considering the conditions of their experience. By this I mean, institutions have said: “You can come here, but everything will be the same as it was hundreds of years ago, when you couldn’t come here.” You see, the hard work for educational institutions is to acknowledge that many of them were not designed or intended for the diverse students, faculty, and staff that they now seek to include and serve. Because of this there are still an infinite number of structures, cultures, and ways of being that do not include diverse people. For many, this is hard to understand, because of how deeply embedded and attached they are to the current status and existence of educational institutions.
The major way I plan to tackle this issue at HGSE is by focusing on deeply cultivating our community. One thing I was struck by when I arrived was our use of the word “community.” I believe if we truly desire and aspire to be a community — a place where everyone truly belongs — we must engage in the hard work of understanding the experiences of all our community members and addressing the inequities and inequalities that lie in those experiences. I also plan to tackle this problem by raising the question: “How are we with one another?” This is a simple, yet profound question that unearths what the interpersonal experiences are across all members of the organization, that in the aggregate make up climate. For some, this question may only suggest that basic niceties or cordiality; however, for me this question aspires to get at the deeply embedded social identity dynamics that constitute much of our engagement. These dynamics must be learned and investigated to rupture the status quo.
Can you share a bit about your past experience in education and how you got into this field?
Like many people working in higher education, I got my start through deep involvement as an undergraduate student. I presided over major student organizations, served on boards, and recruited students. With so much involvement, mentors and coaches advised me that I might want to think about a career in higher education, particularly student affairs administration. Upon graduating, I did not adhere to their advice, and I took a job working at Target Corporation working as an analyst; I lasted only nine months in that role. That experience taught me that life is just as much about knowing what you want to do, as it is knowing what you don’t want to do. Then I quickly made the turn toward a master’s of education program focusing on higher education and student affairs administration. The rest is history. I have found such an incredible home in higher education for my passion, talents, and desire to shape the future.
I suppose here, I should also note that my formative years in K–12 public education in Baltimore city significantly shaped me and informed my desire to become an educator. Like many who grow up in urban centers, navigating the educational system can be a significant challenge. I recall as an elementary school student transitioning to middle school an intense search process to try to find a middle school that I could attend that would set me up for educational success; it was not going to be my zone middle school. Feverishly, I similarly remember the application process for a magnet public high school. Both my mom and I knew that was my only shot at educational success. I share this because my formidable years in public education impacted how I think and consider the educative experience for students, especially the most marginalized students.
What does social justice in education mean to you?
Social justice education is one that focuses on developing an understanding of identity, power, privilege, systems of oppression, historical experiences, marginalization, and intersectionality to advance equity in society. Social justice to me is about dismantling the status quo and creating new structures and systems which account for the lived experiences and historical legacy for groups of people. Social justice education builds on the understanding of diverse people but analyzing where social and organization power lies with a goal of redistributing power. I believe we all should think about and figure out the ways we can enact social justice education in our everyday work.
Favorite book and favorite musical artist?
I enjoyed No Mud No Lotus, a book on mindfulness. It helped me to really think about how I spend my time, how to be more present in life. I’ll see John Legend in concert any day of the week and RENT is my favorite musical.
When you’re not working, you’re…?
These days I am napping! I’d like to be playing volleyball, or checking out theater. I like to run leisurely (not competitively) when I can.
Favorite place you’ve traveled?
Lisbon, Portugal. The city felt so lived in, unique, and alive at the same time.
A massive salad with all my favorite fixings. I am working hard to make leafy greens a staple of my diet.