This Spring semester, the department’s Working Group on Equity and Inclusion hosted a virtual roundtable featuring six alumni from the Ph.D. program who all engage in diversity, equity and inclusion work in their scholarship, teaching and service. The panel featured Jessica Dixon-McKnight (Assistant Professor at Winthrop University), Bonnie Lucero (Associate Professor at the University of Houston), Julie Reed (Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University), Devyn Spence Benson (Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College), Carlton Wilson (Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at North Carolina Central University), and Brandon Winford (Associate Professor at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville). The event took place on March 23, and was open to all students, faculty and staff in the UNC History department.
The roundtable provided an open space for panelists to talk about their experiences as Black, Indigenous and other People of Color in academia. A common theme was the need to find a supportive community, which proved critical in helping them navigate the difficulties of the academy, whether as graduate students or professional historians. These positive relationships to family members, friends and mentors helped them combat the sense of loneliness and isolation they felt throughout their studies. In particular, Julie Reed highlighted the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at UNC where she found a supportive community consisting not only of professors such as Theda Perdue and Kathleen DuVal, but also of First Nations graduate students in other departments.
Panelists also commented on the importance of having a strong sense of self. Winford remarked on the need to separate one’s identity from work because “academia forces you to set aside who you are to meet some expectation.” Along a similar vein, Benson reminded the audience, predominantly composed of graduate students, that meritocracy is often illusory and that many factors outside their control go into decisions regarding hiring, grants and awards. All panelists encouraged current graduate students to not doubt the worth of their work and their own selves as they continue their journeys in the history profession.
The roundtable was organized by the department’s Working Group on Equity and Inclusion, which includes professors Genna Rae McNeil, Malinda Maynor Lowery, Susan Pennybacker and Miguel La Serna, graduate students Patricia Dawson, Cristian Walk and Laura Woods, and staff member Jennifer Parker. Following the event, I interviewed Professor Miguel La Serna, who moderated of the roundtable. La Serna expressed his gratitude to the panelists for their willingness to come back and speak candidly to the Carolina community because these are “the conversations that we really need to be having right now. They’re difficult to have, but they ultimately become really enlightening.” Additionally, the alumni roundtable was a step in building a greater community and a greater support network for underrepresented people who come from diverse backgrounds in the History department.
The Working Group on Equity and Inclusion resulted from the initiative of several faculty who wanted to start a meaningful dialogue about issues of equity, diversity and inclusion and anti-racism within the History department, curriculum and degree programs. Prior to the formation of the Working Group in the Fall 2020, the responsibility and burden of this work had fallen upon graduate students and several faculty members on an ad hoc basis. The establishment of this Working Group represents the department’s direct recognition of the fact that the work to identify and dismantle structural issues requires more deliberate, organized and concerted efforts. The Working Group has issued multiple statements responding to real world events and developments, and for most of this academic year, it has focused on identifying areas for growth and improvement in the department. These findings, obtained through the collection of data on the department and university level and through the peer-reviewed research, will inform strategic plans, both short-term and long-term, to start making strides in these areas.