Looking Inward


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Johnson & Wales commits to build on a legacy and cultivate a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university community.

PROVIDENCE AND CHARLOTTE, like many other historic American cities, have their foundations rooted in a complicated history. Providence was simultaneously a proving ground for religious freedom in early America and one of the wealthiest cities in colonial America because of its position as a key trading post in the global slave trade. Charlotte meanwhile built its name on the antebellum cotton boom.  

However, in the centuries since, both cities have become sites of ambition, justice and progress. They are again at a crossroads, staring at the duality of rapid and exciting economic changes while reflecting on what it will take to create equitable opportunity for all.  

Johnson & Wales University has played a role in supporting that mission as a forward-thinking institution since its 1914 founding by Gertrude Johnson and Mary T. Wales, years before women had secured the right to vote. The university has recently redoubled its commitment to opportunity and understanding with the launch of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative aimed at students, staff and faculty. 

After more than a year of collaboration across stakeholders and campuses, the endeavor signals the next chapter in pursuit of a university that is truly diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Suddenly, that conversation was at the forefront on our campus. Marie Bernardo-Sousa, LP.D., ’92, Providence Campus President

The need for such a campaign came into focus in the wake of last year’s murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The protests and anger that followed swept the nation and sparked a conversation at higher education institutions, including JWU, which propelled colleges and universities to more directly confront questions about racial justice. 

“Suddenly, that conversation was at the forefront on our campus,” says Providence Campus President Marie Bernardo-Sousa, LP.D., ’92. “We wanted to ensure that whoever engaged in that conversation, whether it was our faculty, staff or students, felt they had the appropriate toolkit to support and challenge one another.” 

The first step was to convene listening sessions and public forums to understand the issues and sentiments across the university. A number of students of color stepped forward to say they felt alienated and unsupported, a hard truth that senior leaders took seriously.

In one listening session, a Black student asked: “When you see someone who looks like me walking down the street, do you see a criminal or a person?” It’s a question that cuts to the core of matters of privilege and implicit bias that many institutions are confronting.  

“I think everybody was taken aback by the question,” Bernardo-Sousa recalls. “The conversation that ensued was uncomfortable, at times heartbreaking and at other times uplifting. It was a brave and safe space where students had courage and trust in the process to allow us to have a conversation to unpack. It was incredibly meaningful.”  

A call went out to faculty and staff in Providence: The university was forming a committee called the Inclusion, Diversity, & Equity Action Group (IDEA), seeking staff and faculty volunteers. 

“What I like about IDEA is that you can work in any department and still have a role to play in this work,” says Michael Waugh, director of the Bridge for Diversity, Equity and Social Justice. “It’s about setting a culture and an expectation and spreading work across all units of the university.”

Once they identified the most pressing issues, the IDEA Group split into working groups, including mentoring, programming, and employee recruitment, training and retention. Korina Ramsland Short, director of the JWU Gender Equity Center, volunteered to head the mentoring program, which matches students with peers and counselors who share their identity to help guide them through the university experience. “A peer-to-peer program would support students and ensure a sense of belonging,” she says. “They would have somebody who’s been there and can understand them.” 

The IDEA group also made inroads with community partners in Providence. JWU students are now piloting mentorship programs with the Rhode Island Black Business Association, Rhode Island Coalition for Black Women, and the Young Womxn’s Equity Coalition. The group has also facilitated several professional development seminars for both faculty and staff with Lorenzo Boyd, Ph.D., the former vice president for Diversity & Inclusion at the University of New Haven and a nationally-recognized leader in police-community relations and DEI in higher education.  

“In order for true learning to happen, universities have to make safe spaces for all employees, not just students,” says Boyd. “I appreciated Johnson & Wales’ approach because most universities come to me after a major incident whereas JWU wanted to get ahead of the curve. Also, its upper administration led by example. Usually these webinars are geared toward rank-and-file, but senior leadership — including both campus presidents — participated in the sessions.” 

One concern that students and faculty shared in listening sessions was that of employment. Students credit Johnson & Wales’ admissions and enrollment team for their successful efforts to recruit minority students, with nearly half of the Providence student population and three-quarters of Charlotte’s being non-white. Students claimed, however, that faculty and staff on campus did not mirror the same level of diversity.  

Pheedy Umar ’23, the president of the Black Student Association, points to on-campus counseling as one area for improvement. Despite being such a useful and popular resource, she says there is not enough diversity among counselors to meet student body demands. “I know a lot of Black students who will not go to counseling for that reason.”

Pheedy Umar ’23, President of the Black Student Association

Photo by Mike Cohea

Administration leaders recognize the need to recruit more diverse talent, too. The university has taken meaningful steps to emphasize the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in management training programs. It has worked with hiring managers to identify creative ways to expand outreach during the recruitment process that will help attract more diverse talent for faculty and staff positions. 

The IDEA Group is establishing a network of affinity groups for employees who share a social identity. It has also been doing outreach to various universities and organizations to build relationships and opportunities for recruiting diverse faculty and staff. This summer, a pilot job fair was organized to recruit adjunct faculty of color for the College of Business, with a target of filling two full-time faculty positions.  

According to Student Government Association (SGA) Senate Speaker Sarah Bouffard ’22 increasing the number of faculty and staff members of color will “change the dialogue that’s happening in the classrooms and change the dialogue that students are using when they leave those classrooms.”

There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of emotional conversations. But there’s also a sense of belonging when you’re in it together doing the difficult work — it’s a very special bond. Trudi Lacel, Athletics Director and DEI Committee Leader

The JWU library has also been proactive about DEI efforts. Sarah Campbell, the Reference & Instruction Services librarian, led the charge to create a “LibGuide” on race and history. They note that the guide is a living document, “meaning, like with all anti-racism work, it is never complete, but must be consistently added to and changed within the context of the ongoing fight for racial justice.” In addition to hundreds of library resources for students and staff, the guides offer links to local and national organizations committed to social justice, as well as a pedagogical handbook for faculty to reframe their curriculums to be deliberately and consciously anti-racist.  

One of the first initiatives the Bridge launched in accordance with DEI principles was a faculty program. Arts & Sciences Associate Professor Thomas Gaines, M.Ed. and Marco McWilliams, associate director for education and training, served as the inaugural fellows, with Associate Professor Jessica Sherwood, Ph.D. appointed for 2021-22.  They held a number of workshops geared to understanding bias, identity and privilege in professional settings. They also worked with SGA and the Black Student Alliance to help bring their concerns to university administration.

The Charlotte Campus  also undertook its own programs under the leadership of Athletics Director and DEI Committee Leader Trudi Lacey. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of emotional conversations,” Lacey says. “But there’s also a sense of belonging when you’re in it together doing the difficult work — it’s a very special bond.”  

Creating long-lasting institutional and cultural change anywhere is a tall order. But on a university campus where new students are constantly arriving and graduates are leaving, it’s especially difficult to craft a long-term vision. “Students are action oriented,” Lacey says. “And that’s great. But sometimes you’re like, these are the steps we’re taking to get there. And it just takes longer, but their purview is a four-year experience, not a 10-year one.”  

“I’m not working for the short game,” says Providence Student Government Association President Garrett Koch ’23, who will oversee the implementation of student-focused DEI programs. “The right way to lead as president is to build programs that will leave a lasting legacy. I don’t care if I build a program in the next two years that doesn’t get initiated on year three, as long as it does get initiated. If it’s right, it will last for decades to come until it needs to be fixed again.” The association’s first goal, he says, is creating a place for students to speak openly and be heard: “This program will help us educate our student body and ensure that every person feels that they are equal and gets the same opportunity no matter their skin color, whether they’re binary or non-binary, man or woman.”

Asia Vo ’23, President of Cooking Asia

Photo by Mike Cohea

Asia Vo ’23 is a junior studying culinary arts and the president of Cooking Asia, which shares Asian culture through campus events. “There’s a big push for students to represent their communities, which is fantastic,” she says. Vo is proud of students for speaking up. And she’s glad the university is listening. “You can’t really expect somebody to help unless you tell them what’s going on.” 

This summer, the university released an official statement committing the institution to a set of inclusive and equitable ideals.

It read, in part: “Johnson & Wales University commits to anti-racist work and offers academic and co-curricular opportunities that are welcoming, educational and open spaces of inclusivity and exploration for all students, faculty, staff and alumni.” The statement also enforced JWU’s commitment to embracing  “the broad range of diversity of all members of our community no matter their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, physical ability or how and if they worship. Our community accepts and celebrates diversity in every form — including diversity in thought.”

“I was very surprised to see that kind of language coming from a university,” says SGA Speaker Bouffard. “I thought that was a really good step in the right direction.” 

On top of messaging, the university has commissioned surveys for students, staff and faculty, to ensure that improvements in campus culture can be charted and built upon. Rubrics for student affairs programs have also been devised, allowing each department to track their own progress and set goals. Now that the campaign parameters and project vision have been established, the real work begins: implementing the plans and meeting the goals made so far, and doing so with the input and support of the entire campus population. The DEI Steering Committee is also building out an assessment mechanism to ensure that objectives are met.  

Many of the student advocates will undoubtedly graduate before certain programs come to fruition. “But when they return in five years,” says SGA President Koch, he’d like to hear them say, “‘I’m proud to be a Johnson & Wales alum. I feel safe. I feel included. And I feel I can do anything anybody else can do.’” JWU

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