This is part of an on-going series on diversity.
Dr. Veronica Womack was hosting a meeting at the Maxwell Student Union, dressed impeccably in business attire. During a break, she went across the hall to the restroom—but a big sign over the door warned it was closed.
As she turned away, a group of female students approached. One of them asked Womack if she was done cleaning the bathroom.
“I explained to her that I wasn’t part of the cleaning crew but had actually taught here for many years and was an administrator here. However, I come from a long line of women who did clean bathrooms, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said.
“You could tell she was very taken aback and upset and embarrassed,” Womack said, “but that was an important lesson for her.”
As chief diversity officer for the Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE), it’s Womack’s job to educate faculty, staff and students about multiplicity and tolerance. She wants the campus climate to be friendly and welcoming for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex orientation and gender, disability or socioeconomic status.
“Our society is becoming more and more diverse,” Womack said. “To have cultural competence is to be aware of stereotypes. It means civility and being able to approach difficult conversations or difficult people. It’s important we give students the skills to do that.”
The world isn’t like a structured university setting, where students choose what to participate in and who to hang out with. They will encounter employers, co-workers and clients who are racially and ethnically different and come from a variety of circumstances and traditions, Womack said.
For some, college is the first place they meet people different from themselves— where they’re confronted with their own bias and prejudices. Womack hopes students leave Georgia College more informed and socially competent.
For example, she said students need to understand: Many different people clean bathrooms, not only African-American women.
“We have some of the best in the business here doing that, regardless of gender or color,” Womack said. “They win awards every year, and I’ve never been in one of our buildings that wasn’t immaculately clean. They do fabulous work. I have the greatest respect for people in that profession.”
But African-American women are also administrators, assistant deans and professors at Georgia College. Encountering a diverse faculty, staff and peer population during undergraduate years is essential for students to become socially aware and tolerant. Society is global now. That needs to be visibly reflected on campus, she said, so students are prepared for a global workforce.
“It’s important for our students to experience difference and, in some cases, be pushed beyond their comfort zone. With discomfort comes growth,” Womack said.
“You can’t grow, if you’re going through an experience that’s already familiar and you agree with it. You understand it,” she said. “I hope that’s never the aim of anybody going into higher ed—to leave the exact same way they came in.”
Growing up in Greenville, a small town in Alabama, Womack learned by watching the adults in her life. Her mother worked long hours as a nurse to provide for Womack and her sister and brother. Their father, a railroad worker, died when Womack was 7 years old. He returned home from the Vietnam War and become ill.
It wasn’t an easy life, but a satisfying one—filled with fresh air and playing on farms owned by both sets of grandparents. The families were self-sufficient, raising fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. One grandfather, a Methodist minister, was the first African-American to hold public office in the county. Her siblings and one aunt are educators like Womack. A cousin became an engineer in the U.S. Air Force.
“That’s why I don’t buy the argument that just because people are impoverished, they don’t really care about their kids or they’re not supportive of public education, because I didn’t see that growing up,” she said.
Womack’s upbringing shaped her view of life and what’s important. She attended a predominantly-white institution as an undergraduate and didn’t have an African-American instructor until her Ph.D. years.
“I didn’t know how poor we were, until I went to the University of Alabama,” Womack said. “That’s when I noticed a big difference in lifestyles and what people had in terms of clothing and designer labels. It didn’t bother me, because I had been socialized to not really care about those things. You don’t have to be connected to stuff to be happy.”
“I had a whole lifetime of watching people who had very little,” she said. “But they had dignity, a strong work ethic and, in that community, nobody died alone.”
This composite of who Womack is—transfers every day to her job. Lessons learned as a child, as well as discrimination she’s endured, are ingrained in her work at OIE.
In its third year, OIE is dynamic and bustling, much like its chief.
It’s main function is to focus the institution on diversity and inclusion. First and foremost: OIE was the implementing arm of Dr. Steve Dorman’s Diversity Action Plan, which had four goals—to increase numbers of underrepresented students on campus, hire more faculty from diverse backgrounds, educate campus on matters of inclusivity and make diversity a campuswide effort.
Diversity Leadership Teams are now in every university division to support inclusive excellence. Departments are hiring more underrepresented faculty and attracting minority students with scholarships and research opportunities.
OIE furthers Georgia College’s overall Strategic Plan too, by keeping diversity and inclusion prominent with an ongoing series of training workshops. Topics have included “How to Support an Inclusive Search Process” and “Understanding Triggers and Bias,” as well as “Diversity in the Workplace.”
OIE also hosts a “Making Excellence Inclusive Day” for faculty with nationally-recognized speakers. Next year, the event will expand to a full day and include staff and students. OIE reaches out to the community, as well, with its Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast in January. It focuses on King’s scholastic achievements with essays, poems and artwork by local school children.
OIE has a successful student peer-to-peer education group, Diversity Peer Educators, which has trained thousands of Georgia College students through first-year seminars and Week of Welcome activities. A new faculty education program will include peer-facilitated conversations and seminars about diversity issues in the classroom.
Womack hopes to make diversity part of the annual compliance training and, in the spring, OIE will launch a series of surveys to gauge campus climate on diversity and tolerance.
“This is all partnership. That’s what I really love about what’s happening at Georgia College,” Womack said. “If everybody sees this as part of their work, then we’re creating an infrastructure that will be longstanding.”
“It’s important that Georgia College is prepared for the changing-demographic makeup of our state,” she said. “It is not only the moral thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. Inclusive excellence will play a major role in Georgia College reaching national preeminence.”