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Summer 2017

Domonic Rollins

Photo by Jill Anderson

What’s Universal?

New diversity and inclusion officer tackles hard questions around topics like race, gender, and feeling excluded

Not long after Domonic Rollins started at the Ed School in the fall as the first diversity and inclusion officer, he held a series of get-to-know-you workshops for managers and staff. It was his way of saying hello to the community and also a way to get a pulse on what people were thinking around topics like race, gender, and inclusion — the very topics he was tasked to work on. At one of the meetings, a woman asked which constituency they should be focused on: student needs? staff concerns? faculty?

It was a good question, one that Rollins knew the answer — all of the above — wasn’t going to be easy to tackle. But looking back on that meeting, he says a good way to start is to ask another question: What is universal?

“By asking ‘what is universal,’ we begin to see what is shared across constituent groups,” he says. “If I ask what is universal for women at HGSE, I may learn that regardless of whether women are faculty, staff, or students, they are not represented in leadership or feel like their issues are not represented. If this were true, I would then have a focal point around a concern of inclusion for women that accounts for students, staff, and faculty.”

With people of color, he says, “if it were universal that people of color at HGSE felt like there were not opportunities for them regardless of role, we would then work with this and explore what this means. Attending to some of the common forms of exclusion will point to the ways or spaces to do the initial work.”

Rollins, who recently finished his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland on how black male administrators navigate racism in higher education, says he also wants to help everyone better understand not only one another, but also themselves.

“So much of our focus in the academy, especially in education, is on what we can do for others,” he says. “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.”

His own awareness started in high school, when he served as a student rep on the Baltimore City Board of Education.

“This experience was one that made me acutely aware of some of the educational injustices I was experiencing. I learned about how schools were funded, what college preparation curriculum was offered, and how decisions get made,” he says. “It was this experience that helped to give me the lens to see inequities and to be able to ask questions.”

He continued to ask questions when he later applied to the University of Maryland and wasn’t directly admitted into the business school.

“I asked, ‘How do you expect students coming from schools like mine to be able to do those things?’ My school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, was a magnet high school, and I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class,” he says. “Yet the business school at the University of Maryland was a different league. And I was raising the question about expectations on the basis of my preparation suggesting that I did the best I could do with what I had. At a young age, I started asking questions about the system. Quickly, I was shifting where people would locate the problem. The problem isn’t with the student, necessarily; it’s with the system.”

Rollins says he “eventually managed to carve out spaces that felt like they were for me. I’m the kind of person who will go in and make it better.” It’s part of his personality, for sure, but also intentional.

“I try to structure my life by doing things I love to do,” he says, including recently getting a tattoo of a tree on his shoulder. “The branches say passion, love, and purpose; the trunk, identity; and the roots, authenticity. It’s what it’s like for me,” he says. “I don’t know life otherwise.”