Jump to main content

Sharing Uncomfortable Conversations

Tobias Guzman

Tobias Guzmán, Ph.D., UNC’s chief diversity officer and associate vice president for Student Affairs, is a ’94 alumnus. Photo by Woody Myers

December 22, 2020

As UNC considers policy, cultural and systemic changes to address campus climate, conversations bring truth into focus.

On July 15, 2020, in the now familiar pandemic landscape of virtual meetings, a number of UNC and City of Greeley representatives logged on to take part in “Tell Me More,” a panel discussion and “community conversation on race and communities of color.”

The panel gathered in response to the anti-racism movement that was growing across the U.S. and around the world. It offered listeners an opportunity to ask questions and hear perspectives in an effort to develop understanding and bring change.

Representing UNC were Tobias Guzmán, Ph.D., chief diversity officer and associate vice president for Student Affairs; Shawanna Kimbrough-Hayward, director of the Center for Human Enrichment/TRiO Student Support Services; Myria Davis, a graduate student in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling/Therapy and Marcus Garvey Center interim coordinator; and Grant Stephens, a senior Human Services major and UNC football player.

As panelists prepared to share their stories and discuss issues such as bias, privilege, inclusivity and systemic racism, the facilitator asked each to introduce themselves.

As he talked about his personal experiences, Stephens recounted a moment when he wanted to take a break from the events that were consuming news and social media.

“One day I came home from the gym, and this is in the midst of all the protesting, and looting, and rioting that’s taking place. I love spending time with my mom, so I sit down on the couch, and she’s watching the news, and I said ‘Can we just turn on something different? I’m burned out on this.’”

Stephens’ mom, Janice, an English teacher who gifted her son with the power of language, wasn’t moved by his fatigue.

“She told me something that changed me as a man for the rest of my life. She said, ‘Son, don’t ever get tired of seeing the truth, because the day you do, you will grow to accept lies.’”

Stephens shared his mom’s wisdom with the panel in an effort to encourage listeners to find truth and answers in uncomfortable moments. “My mom said, ‘Always fight for people, and don’t ever get so comfortable where you are to think that you couldn’t be the next boy on a T-shirt. You have to fight as if your life is at risk.’ So that’s the thing that I pose as a challenge to Black and white Americans, because it was me in that moment. We need to check our comfort in this country. Accept the uncomfortable conversations.”

In the wake of tension and politically charged events, the need for understanding — of language, bias and historical trauma — is foundational in the learning and awareness stage before it becomes transformational. The climate on a campus, if it fosters threatening/bullying behavior, microagressions and bias, can make success less attainable, or even impossible, for students, faculty and staff most affected by that negative climate. Bringing an equity-minded lens into organizational practices and policy creates accountability, which leads to positive systemic effects and an inclusive climate.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are important factors in every student’s journey at UNC, which are issues that Guzmán and UNC’s administration are incorporating into the university’s strategic plan.

In December 2019, five key elements were identified as priorities for UNC for the next decade. Each reflects equity, and one spelled out specifically the goal of “empowering inclusivity and drawing strength from the diversity of our university and state.”

With the 2030 vision clear, Guzmán was looking forward to further developing equity-related changes when 2020 started.

“Probably 20 years ago the university tried something, and that was probably in name only,” he says. “What’s different now is the dual approach of changing systems and policy, along with climate and culture and having the support of President Andy Feinstein, Provost Mark Anderson and the cabinet to make those changes. I am convinced they are committed.

“You can’t just have programs and events that showcase cultures and ethnicities and not have policy changes,” Guzmán says.

It was work that Guzmán was looking forward to beginning when, in March, the entire campus emptied during the pandemic. That created a completely different campus climate and a host of related concerns. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus through lack of access to health care; their occupations; discrimination; educational, income and wealth gaps; and housing. Students of color were returning home to those concerns and others while still trying to focus on classes remotely. Students in the LGBTQ+ community faced difficulties as they left their UNC support systems, while stay-at-home orders made it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to get help.

“Now we have the components of mental health, isolation, fear and anxiety, all coupled with the pandemic and inequality and identity vulnerability,” Guzmán says.

He and the Division of Student Affairs team checked in regularly with students, and through spring and summer 2020. UNC’s cultural and resource centers worked to develop ways for students to stay connected to their campus communities and offered mental health resources for students struggling with the pandemic’s impacts.

As anti-racism protests began to take place around the country after the death of George Floyd, Guzmán says students who were at home were able to be agents for change within their own communities, and many who remained nearby became involved in the Greeley community.

“Over the summer, I was able to attend several events in Greeley where students were in charge of marches. Their voices were loud, and their message was clear,” Guzmán says.

As students began to return to campus this fall, and the university community worked to regroup and address the 2030 vision plan, Guzmán outlined efforts to institute change and address systemic racism.

“To transform a system and structures, the ‘people work’ has to happen first,” he says. “And the people work is really the education, the exposure, the awareness and the relationship building. Simultaneously, we have to create policy and revise existing policy to be able to drive the change you hope to see.” he says. He worked with the campus community to identify six main focus areas:

  • 1. Campuswide Professional Development

    Guzmán says the campus community — especially since George Floyd’s death — has expressed a strong interest in knowing more about how to be anti-racist.

    “They want to know, what is implicit bias? And how many times does implicit bias happen on a daily basis? And they want to understand about microaggressions that happen every day to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), and women, and LGBTQ+ community on our campus. That kind of campuswide education, which is personal and professional development, is absolutely necessary.”

  • 2. Recruitment of Faculty and Staff of Color and Other Underrepresented Identities

    “I don’t buy the idea that ‘nobody wants to come to Greeley,’ or that ‘Black or Latinx scholars would not want to work at UNC.’ I believe we have to try harder, do better and change how we recruit potential faculty and staff. There is power in shoulder-tapping among communities of color and underrepresented identities, and we don’t do that. We’ve got to figure out the best strategies for UNC to be able to recruit faculty and staff of color and other underrepresented identities,” Guzmán says.

  • 3. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Standards

    “I don’t think it should just be left to having the DEI office being focused on this work. We should have meaningful metrics in each of our evaluations to strengthen DEI work and efforts across campus. And that is for everybody on campus,” Guzmán says. “Using the mantra ‘what gets measured, gets done’ is simple, and we all have ways we can accomplish this.”

    Guzmán cited examples like writing grants that provide funding for research that focuses on equity, inclusion and diversity; mentoring a McNair scholar and supporting them in their research; developing effective teaching strategies for the educational advancement of students from groups underrepresented in higher education; or establishing joint initiatives with state or national organizations with an emphasis on equity and inclusion.

  • 4. DEI Outreach and Communication

    Shining a light on the work being done at UNC enriches understanding. “We have scholars — undergraduates, graduates and faculty — who do incredible research and creative works. We can share that story and communicate so much toward our DEI efforts,” Guzmán says.

  • 5. Information Governance

    Often, when data is gathered, it is presented as an aggregate — information about student demographics as a whole. But deeper exploration of that data can help the university understand student needs and address issues related to retention and student success. “We need to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative information or data to assess lived experiences of students,” Guzmán says. “I can hand you a dataset that says we’re at a 70% retention rate, but if we just look at the 70% aggregate, we may miss the fact that we’re actually losing a larger percentage of our BIPOC students. So, the question that I ask is who are those students? What do they look like? Where do they come from? We need to know that so we can take the appropriate action and intervene accordingly.”

  • 5. Identify Bullying or Threatening Behavior

    Creating a climate where all students can be successful is about changing the culture so that barriers to learning are lifted.

    “It’s about how we treat each other,” Guzmán says. “The root of bullying and threatening behavior is an imbalance of power. Behavior can manifest in verbal abuse, or behavior that is humiliating, intimidating and creates a toxic or hostile workplace. I know we’re not unique in this. We’ve got to work on this on our campus because it contributes to an unhealthy climate and creates an impression, idea or mood of systemic devaluing of our students, faculty and staff.”

The July panel with the City of Greeley was one of several action steps Guzmán and university and community leaders hope to continue in the coming year, to foster those “uncomfortable conversations” that address the need for systemic change.

As Shawanna Kimbrough-Hayward, director of the Center for Human Enrichment/TRiO Student Support Services, spoke at the Greeley/UNC panel, she expressed the importance of listening.

“When people of color speak about the experiences they have, believe them. These are lived experiences. There’s no need to make up a story of abuse. Believe what people of color tell you — that’s how you can learn. Then use your privilege and stand beside us and walk through this world with us.

“I would truly, truly hope that through these dialogues — and it cannot be a one-and-done conversation — there must be clear actions put in place to make meaningful change in the Greeley community. I am tired of hearing ‘We’re going to talk about it,’ and there is no action. At this point, there needs to be action behind everything we do to bring about change in our community,” she says.

And that action, says Grant Stephens, may start with something as simple as listening to a one-hour panel discussion on race.

“There are going to be many racist people in America. We can’t control that,” he says. “But how do we counter that? How do we fight that, how do we use our voice to make the world a better place? You can start by just saying to some of your buddies, I know (this panel) may not sound like the coolest thing ever, but let’s just see. It takes like an hour out of our day. Let’s just listen and hear the conversation, and maybe we can make a better climate. That’s the one thing you can do right now. That can make the world a better place.” UNC

By Debbie Pitner Moors

“Tell Me More” panel:  Watch
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion