CDI leaders reflect on five years at Washington University, discuss plans for future

| News Editor

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion celebrated its fifth anniversary, with a ceremony in Tisch Commons, concluding Washington University’s Day of Dialogue & Action Feb. 19.

Photo by Curran Neenan

Since its foundation in 2014, the CDI has advocated for underrepresented and marginalized groups on campus by facilitating workshops and dialogues, providing resources and hosting events.

The current director and two former directors of the CDI attended the ceremony, using the event as an opportunity to reflect with students on the center’s history as well as its future at the University.

“We are asking these three questions tonight: How did we get here, what does it mean to be here and where do we go from here, which is kind of the perfect segue of the five-year commemoration, right?” CDI Dean Mark Kamimura-Jimenez said. “Thinking about where it’s been and where it is and where we’re going to go.”

The CDI’s first director, Dr. LaTanya Buck, who currently holds an equivalent position at Princeton University, discussed the process through which the CDI initially established its core principles.

“There had never been an infrastructure around diversity and inclusion in terms of a central space,” Buck said. “So the first few years we spent a lot of time…thinking about a strategic plan, strategic goals, directions like: What are we here to do? Who do we serve? What does that look like?”

One major part of this discussion was how the CDI should be available to different demographic groups on campus.

“[This] was a question that came up a lot actually,” Buck said. “Is it for undergraduate students? Is it for graduate students? Is it just for students of color or students who are of certain identities? And at that time, the answer for me was that in many ways it’s both. It’s for…diversity and inclusion is for all students. However, there are times when it is certainly appropriate to target specific student populations or communities around certain efforts based on whatever the needs are.”

During its first year, the CDI was presented with the complex challenge of responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed his death.

“At that time, during that first year, we really had to pivot and really attend to the needs of students and what those needs were on campus…[The center] served as a support-like structure when students needed to engage and to talk and to process,” Buck said. “We actually had opportunities where we invited in some local young people within the community to come to the center and talk to Wash. U. students about their engagement, about their perspective, about their experiences within St. Louis.”

After cementing its core values during its early years, the CDI continued to expand its role on campus under the leadership of Dr. Emelyn dela Pena, who succeeded Buck in 2016. Dela Pena also upgraded the title of the leader of the CDI from executive director to associate vice chancellor, adding to the prestige of the office. Over the next few years, the CDI’s physical office moved from Olin Library to the third floor of the DUC, then to its current location on the second floor of the DUC.

“I think something about the space is important, like where the Center for Diversity and Inclusion is on campus,” Buck said. “And the fact that it has a premier space…is very important so that everyone, all of the student community can see diversity and inclusion as a part of the fabric of the educational experience here.”

In addition, the CDI’s growing staff allowed it to expand the center’s role on campus by adding an Office of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical life and offering training and workshops to various members of the University’s staff and faculty in topics ranging from “culture and communication” to “navigating triggers.”

Looking forward, Kamimura-Jimenez hopes to continue this trend of growth by coming up with new initiatives for the center.

“We’re going to continue the intergroup dialogue program that was developed under Emelyn [dela Pena]’s tenure,” Kamimura said. “But also thinking about new ways that students’ identities need to be supported within the CDI and also thinking about our presence as an innovative space for identity and inclusion.”

However, dela Pena maintains that the most important goal for the CDI should be to continue to remain accessible and approachable for all students, citing her own close connections with many students during her time at the University.

“Even at a level of associate vice chancellor, I had personal relationships with students. I saw them every day that they engaged with me, that they invited me to watch TV with them in the CDI that they would share with me, their plans for after this place,” dela Pena said. “They would share with me their favorite TV shows and get me to start binge-watching stuff on Netflix, and so that kind of relationship building with students really engenders a lot of trust and helps us to do our work better.”

Whatever direction the center decides to take, dela Pena is confident that the CDI’s future is bright.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the 10-year anniversary and all the wonderful things that are going to happen,” she said.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.