What does it take to dismantle systemic racism? On a personal level, it requires a willingness to learn, honest self-reflection, and a dedication to long-term action. In late January of 2021, McIntire staff and faculty members took the first important steps, both individually and as small groups, embarking on a five-week journey in anti-racism and allyship education.
The goals were clear, even if the path ahead was challenging: to study racial inequality, discuss racial injustice, and connect with colleagues across a broad range of differences while exploring oftentimes difficult histories and unfamiliar ideas to build a capacity for open dialogue, while pledging to drive continued changes for racial justice in the community.
With initial encouragement from Dean Nicole Thorne Jenkins, who identified the anti-racism and allyship curriculum and brought it to the attention of Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Rebecca Locke Leonard, groups met weekly through the end of February.
Armed with an extensive collection of material ranging from video clips and implicit bias tests to an extensive library of articles, 26 facilitators of the 16 small groups led participants through a total of more than 80 individual small-group sessions delving into discussions on historical causes of systemic racism, identity and intersectionality, and practical tactics to thwart microaggressions and enact strategies for increasing racial injustice.
For the journey’s final virtual meeting, all of the participants congregated for a closing ceremony celebration, punctuated by the insightful and heartwarming words of McIntire alumna Dia Draper, Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Empathy, Kindness, Curiosity, and Resilience
Draper, a former Senior Associate with PwC, Manager with Deloitte and Associate Director of Diversity Strategy at UVA’s Darden School of Business, has now been with the Tuck School for more than 14 years in various capacities. But as she revealed her own story, she stressed her guiding principles about viewing every person and situation with empathy—key to her approach to anti-racism and allyship efforts.
A self-described “Army brat” raised across cities in the U.S. and in Germany, before settling with her family in Newport News, VA, during middle school, Draper came to UVA in 1991 as a low-income, first-gen college student. Faced with many challenges on Grounds, she credits her parents for raising her with a tendency toward kindness and curiosity, and the good fortune of falling in with a multicultural group of friends who helped her to navigate University life and to ultimately succeed.
That success did not come easily. Draper recalled when her parents couldn’t supply the necessary funds for her tuition during the spring semester of her second year. Her mother sent Draper back to Grounds with a handwritten note for UVA’s Assistant Vice President for Student Financial Services Steve Kimata, explaining the situation, the importance of their daughter’s attendance, and a promise to pay the outstanding bill that May.
“This is one of the things I will never forget,” Draper says. “This guy could have said no. He could have sent me home and turned off my ID card. The likelihood that I would have come back after leaving as a Black female from a low socioeconomic background was pretty low. But he looked at me and asked what I was studying, what I liked about it, and what I wanted to do in the future. He really cared. And he said, ‘Okay, I’ll see you in May.’”
She explains that through experiences such as those she became more resilient, which assisted her when her first application to McIntire was denied. After some supportive guidance from Leonard, Draper reapplied to the Comm School. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said, continuing to detail other important allies in her past. Along with Leonard, she mentioned retired McIntire Professor and former Dean Bill Shenkir, who hired her as a teaching assistant, and detailed how he and his wife looked after her during breaks, supplied her with necessary funds, and served as the first “white ally and champion” who made a difference in her life.
Guided by Values
Draper then turned back to the subject at hand, sharing her philosophies about anti-racism and allyship work, reiterating the importance of approaching the subject with the same values she tries to bring to all aspects of her life: joy, authenticity, and curiosity.
An educator, coach, and consultant, Draper was both supportive of and surprised by the effort that the journey demanded.
“The work you’re doing helps. You may not see it in the moment,” Draper explained, recalling how Commerce School faculty and staff showed a belief in her and other underrepresented students that helped to steer them to and through McIntire, proving to make the experience “worthwhile and a bit less lonely.” Draper then addressed the curriculum: “You all did a lot in a short period of time. And as someone who does this work day in day out and loves it, my head was spinning. So, I commend you on that and encourage you to continue the work.”
Imparting thoughts about anti-racism efforts, she expressed the critical importance of everyone dealing with the subject by living each person’s own personal values, while remaining unafraid to make mistakes and knowing that developing the courage and confidence to ask for forgiveness and recover from those mistakes remains paramount toward reaching the overarching goals of learning, reflecting, and acting.
Draper suggested expansive listening and thinking, unrestricted by the echo chambers created by surrounding oneself with likeminded thinkers and news outlets, to seek out a diversity of views, and to avoid being quick to judge. She also reminded the group that there was no singular “right way to be an ally or activist.” Draper then offered some closing words connecting her Comm School experience with her responsibilities at Tuck and the journey that the participants had started on five weeks earlier.
“I realized that I had garnered a set of skills, talents, and superpowers that made me uniquely suited to do this work. And so, I came back to higher ed, and I realized again, several years ago, that I have the honor and privilege—like all of you—to do for students what [Dean] Becca [Locke Leonard], Professor Kemp, Professor Shenkir, and so many others had done for me,” Draper said.
“Being a Black-identified woman of color, queer, and of size, UVA was not supposed to be the place for me; I was not the kid on the brochure of the Comm School. But who I am has been indelibly touched by that experience. Here I am, a formerly poor kid from Virginia sitting at the leadership table of one of the most influential institutions in America, and equipped with the communication skills, the quantitative skills, the credibility, the courage, and the confidence to do the work that I love, thanks to my time at McIntire and the faculty, staff, and peers like all of you.”
A Rewarding Start
The journey meetings functioned as the first and often eye-opening steps in a lifelong exploration of anti-racism and allyship—with overwhelmingly positive results among Comm School staff and faculty—as did learning from Draper’s own instructive story and history as both a McIntire student and as a higher education colleague at a peer institution.
Reflecting on the training, Associate Dean for Student Services and Academic Operations Danny Steeper said, “I learned a great deal from my faculty colleagues, which added tremendous value to the experience. I also did not know the people in my group well, and that was also a point of rich learning.”
The sentiment was echoed by Professor Roger Martin: “I was glad to have done it and learned a lot. The training was very effective, and I know firsthand that it has already generated a lot of great discussions around the School.”
Professor Christina Black found that the experience was worthwhile in ways that standard diversity training had rarely been, while Assistant Director of Student Life Julia Hilkey, who also served as a facilitator, said she felt empowered by the role and that working with her co-facilitator was “excellent and a great learning experience.”
Leonard was enthused by the more than 100 members of the School coming together each week for the productive dialogues concerning race.
“It was so exciting for me to see people commit to taking individual and collective actions to create a stronger community of racial accountability and inclusive practices,” she said, noting that the meetings also served as a constructive opportunity for new interactions outside of many people’s usual circles. “One group has even decided to keep meeting!”
Leonard was equally pleased to have been able to welcome Draper to address the group in its final session. “Dia was the perfect person to speak at our closing celebration, as she exhibits so much positivism and encourages us to keep moving forward no matter how challenging the journey might be.”