Plattsburgh State is currently holding public forums where candidates for the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion speak to students and faculty.
This title will be taking the place of Chief Diversity Officer at PSUC. The campus has decided to promote it to cabinet level, meaning the individual will be involved with presidential meetings.
The first Candidate James Felton III is the current Chief Diversity Officer at SUNY Cortland and has 23 years of experience as a “change agent.” He became passionate about social justice through his grandmother, a social worker who from an early age in Felton’s life encouraged him to read. His values were reaffirmed as he came of age at a collegiate institution where he was one of 23 African American students out of 1,200.
“This is all I know, and that’s why I feel I’m uniquely qualified for Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” Felton said.
If offered the position, Felton hopes to bring the best diversity practices with him to implement at SUNY Plattsburgh. Through his experience as a community outreach and academic chief diversity officer, Felton has bridged the gap between campuses and their surrounding, less diverse communities. At SUNY Cortland, Felton is trying to establish a diversity subcommittee for the Canton County Chamber of Commerce, which would bring more representation to businesses and hopefully encourage college students to make connections.
“I think part of this work is connecting what’s happening on campus with the local and individual community,” Felton said. “This area is ripe with opportunity to do that.”
Felton would like to implement the principle of capacity building among faculty and students, which means instilling within everyone in the campus community the ability to facilitate change and display the best practices of diversity.
“In a global economy, we’re really looking for everyone to develop a set of skills and the capacity to go out and change the world,” Felton said.
Transformational Intergroup Dialogue is a method of social therapy and community building that embraces conflict between people who don’t write understand each other’s differences. Felton has facilitated extended talks in diverse environments such as a Pagan temple on topics such as gender transition. He’s also dealt with the aftermath of the drawing of racial slurs on public campus spaces.
“It’s not enough to manage conflict, you actually have to engage it,” Felton said.
The forum included members of the audience, mostly faculty and staff, asking questions involving how, if hired, Felton plans to address the volume of changes that people on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus wish to see at a rapid pace.
“I’m not a person who shoots from the hip,” Felton said. I definitely have a more systemic approach and try to get as much information before making a decision.”
Felton also recognizes the importance of including more diversity in staffing, students, and courses. He is the co-chair of PRODI-G, a program that allows SUNY campuses across the board to apply for a grant in attempts to hire 1,000 people from underrepresented backgrounds, at SUNY Cortland.
“There may be certain programs or departments on campus where if we’re looking at representational or numerical diversity, we might see some visible gaps,” Felton said. “Once you begin to measure those gaps, then you can develop a plan of action.”
Felton stated that the Capital position of Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a relatively new position, and as such, pays respect to those who have recognized the issue of inequality and took steps to minimize it before the position existed; the “trailblazers” and “foot soldiers.”
“There’s always been a campus mom, dad, uncle, aunt who have been there, who have been supportive and who have been advocates,” Felton said. “I think it’s very important to honor and respect those people as well as learn their stories.”
‘Brave Spaces,’ or spaces to feel confident in communicating with people from all social backgrounds, is also something Felton sees as crucial to an environment that embraces inclusion.
“We have to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zones,” Felton said. “The ‘Brave Space’ component comes in when we challenge ourselves to engage with those who are different from us.”
The second Candidate Mary Bonderoff is currently the Chief Diversity Officer at SUNY Morrisville. During the forum, Bonderoff talked about the importance of using climate surveys on a college campus. They inform the faculty of the concerns student have with the campus. Bonderoff shared an incident that occurred while she worked at SUNY Oneonta.
The president was out of the office, there was a sit-in. After a physical assault was reported in the downtown area, the interim president made a list of all the African American students for the University Police. Bonderoff said a campus cannot move on from a racial incident without going first going through a healing process.
“What’s important is to actually have conversations,” Bonderoff said. “ I already know how I would frame a town hall. Using intergroup dialogue principles, you can engage people in conversations, so they feel they can share their pain, stories, thoughts and how they experienced it.”
Bonderoff thinks having strong connections with students and faculty are a key component to her position. She described the students whom she has had the opportunity to get to know as a gift.
Bonderoff is the mother of three sons and considers them a huge accomplishment. She shared a story about how one of her sons educated his classmates on why having a gay-straight alliance within a school is important.
Bonderoff understands her race has an impact in her connections with the students of a college campus.
“As a white woman, It’s important for me to know and understand what [my race does],” Bonderoff said.
There will be two more candidates visiting campus next week on April 8 and April 11.