Dr. Alexandria Graves is the interim director of the Office of Diversity Affairs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). She has served as the interim director since July 2015. We recently interviewed Dr. Graves about her work and the issues facing students today.
How do you define diversity?
Diversity is a broad, encompassing term. It addresses so many factors. I think of intersectionality when I think of diversity. Diversity represents various ideas, races, genders, sexual orientations and religious beliefs – the intersection of all of those entities that form an individual. That’s diversity to me and I find that exciting. Historically, when people have thought about diversity, they thought about it in a single sense. Race, gender, but it’s so much more than that. When I think of myself as a diverse individual, I am African American, I’m female, I’m a single mom, I’m Christian, I’m Southern – all of that makes me the unique individual that I am, and that is diversity. That’s the message that we’ve been working in our college and university-wide, but particularly in CALS, to make sure that students know that the Office of Diversity Affairs – and I like to put in there ‘and Inclusion’ – is here for all students, because all students represent diverse aspects of this college.
What are the biggest diversity issues that students, faculty and staff face in your college? How do you see NC State working to fix these issues?
I think awareness is an issue, and that’s something that we are working on. When I say awareness, I’m considering some of what’s going on with the political climate, which doesn’t help because we have a lot of languages that’s polar opposites. But we must have a full understanding of some of the challenges that various groups face. When I speak with students, I encourage them to make sure that when they are listening to someone voice their concerns, that they make sure that they listen for understanding and not simply just to respond back. There’s an awareness that’s necessary for all parties because everyone has a position, a concern, and a say. For example, when I think about some of the exercises that I’ve conducted with student groups, of course we see the differences, but then we work to notice the similarities. How many identities are shared amongst us? If we have two totally different racial groups, we look at how many other identities are shared. Not to dismiss the recognition of the need to use intersectionality to address the plight and the struggle of some social injustices that African American women face, for example, but at the same time to also use this tool to make students, staff and faculty aware. Sometimes we get so caught up in our differences that resentments form and we lose sight of the similarities and how we can form alliances based on those similarities. That’s something that we are trying to push forward, bringing about awareness of some of the common grounds that we have.
As far as programming, this year was the first year that I participated in the orientation for our freshmen. We went through these types of exercises for all of the students. We also have an Agricultural Institute in which I went through these exercises with all of the students. We talked about being aware and recognizing there are some communities that have experienced disadvantages, there are some communities that have privileges, and there are some communities within these communities who have earned a level of privilege. For example, I’ve earned a level of privilege with my education and it is up to us as individuals to decide how we use that privilege. As students step on campus, we start talking about that and engaging the students and encouraging them to interact with one another – keeping in mind that yes, we have differences, but looking at all the similarities as well.
For Native American Heritage Month, we are having a North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar come in to speak about their use of the environment, primarily the Cherokee Native American group, and how their social structure changed over time within North Carolina. Again, that’s bringing awareness and discussing how Indigenous people had an impact on the culture that we experience today. In December, we will have Dr. Omar Ali, who will discuss the many faces of Islam beyond the headlines. We want to go beyond the headlines, and Dr. Ali comes from a background in which I believe one of his parents had a Christian background and the other a Muslim background. So, he has lots of experience in his home life but also through studying that faith. These are the types of things we are trying to do in an effort to help raise awareness and education.
How do you work to create a welcoming, inclusive and diverse environment within your department?
In addition to the activities, I have an open-door policy. Some students have my cell phone number. I teach a freshman advancement seminar course, USC 110, which helps first-year students from typically underrepresented backgrounds acclimate to campus. We talk about some tough issues, and we talk about these things in an effort to be successful. And there are some days where students come in and there’s this glazed look, so for me that means we are not going to talk about the subject for the day. Instead we’re going to have conversations about what’s going on with them. And if I need to meet with these students outside of class, then that’s what I do. If I need to talk to them outside of my hours, then that’s what I do.
We have a program called CALS Cares through our academic programs. It’s for first-year students from any background. We have students from the majority, underrepresented, and so forth – these students have my cell phone number as well and they know my open door policy. We have conversations, and I let my students know that I am and will always be their advocate. That’s the best way I know to make sure that they realize that this is an inclusive environment. All of the students know, regardless of race, gender, ability, whatever type of orientation, that my door is open and that I will always serve as an advocate because I insist on being there. And if issues arise that I can’t handle, it is my job to find someone who can handle it or point that student in the direction to get assistance. So far it’s been a great response. I want this to be a safe place for all students, faculty and staff to come in here and feel confident that I will not breach their confidentiality and that we can talk. But this safe space does not necessarily mean that I will hold their hand; this safe space means that they can come in here and I will listen, encourage and keep their confidentiality, but sometimes it means that I will also share a harsh truth. My ultimate goal is to make sure that I send those who come to this office back out the door ready to handle the real world, because the real world may not be the safest place. They’re safe in here and I want them to be equipped when they leave, so that may mean that I have to be tough behind these doors because I have the deepest care for our students faculty and staff. Anyone who comes through the door, I want them to be successful.
Describe how you function and communicate effectively and respectfully within the context of varying beliefs, behaviors and backgrounds.
I’d say in part, it always comes back to treating people the way I would want to be treated and respecting people the way I want to be respected. I like for people to respect my beliefs not put my beliefs down, so I like to treat people in that same way. That’s how it all started, and I didn’t even realize that that was the meaning of being inclusive. I also feel like that’s just being a decent person. Sometimes people use the phrase, “We have to be tolerant of others.” I don’t quite like that phrase. Do we want to be just tolerant? When I say, “Oh I guess I can tolerate him,” that’s not the most positive phrase by any means.
Since I’ve been in this position, I’ve learned so much. I’ve taken various courses and I’ve learned a lot about what’s potentially offensive that I didn’t even realize before. I’m a bit more knowledgeable, but I will come out right and say to someone that I’m interacting with, of a different faith or sexual orientation or to someone who uses a different set of pronouns, “I may mess up with my vocabulary, please correct me and please don’t take offense. I’m still learning and I’m trying to use the appropriate language.” And I say this because I’ve used a certain set of language for so long but never in an attempt to be offensive, just out of ignorance, and some language is still evolving. And that’s typically my approach.
I hold to the fact that I believe that people should be respected for who they are – a unique individual who’s made up of all those identities. And there are some people who might feel as though they don’t agree, that according to their faith or religion that a certain aspect of someone else’s life is wrong, but in this work setting, in this school setting, we have to come to the point where our focus should be on the academics, completing the project or whatever our task at hand may be. So those various things that are against our religion or personal beliefs, they really shouldn’t come into play. What’s most important is being able to work together for an ultimate goal. Otherwise, no one would ever get any work done. If we really thought about it, we could find something “wrong” with everybody, with all of our co-workers or peers or just anyone, but the bottom line is, people should stop for a moment and think: “Do I want to be judged? Am I perfect?” Stop and really think about that, because I guarantee you the answer is “no” and “no.” Ultimately, I believe that we should respect each other as individuals, and if we don’t know something or we don’t quite understand, ask respectfully. I know for myself, I would rather someone ask, and then I might share my perspective and then we move on.
Why is diversity important to the learning and professional environment?
Say for example we have a table and twelve people are sitting around the table and we are trying to solve some issues or get to the root of a problem. If everyone around the table is exactly the same, from the same background, etc., it’s much more difficult, because we’re all thinking the same way. When you have diverse individuals and people from various backgrounds around the table bringing in different thoughts and perspectives, it contributes to innovation. Our motto is “Think and Do” and in an effort to “do,” we have to be able to think creatively and innovatively. And to think that way, we have to have different perspectives. A lot of times our life’s path or background has an influence on the way we see things, the way we approach an issue, the way we answer questions, the way we interpret a passage in literature and things of that nature. So it’s very important from that regard.
What have you gained from working in this position?
So much more perspective. I’ve always considered myself knowledgeable about the challenges that many people face. I considered myself aware. I wasn’t aware. I’ve always been a proponent of equity, and since I’ve been in this position I’ve learned so much. I recognize that there’s room to grow to make sure that support and resources are provided to all of our students in an equitable manner. And support and resources aren’t always in the form of money. I’ve also learned that we have some strong students on this campus and our students are amazing. I am encouraged by our students because when challenges arise and things occur, our students don’t go and tuck themselves away, they speak up and let their voices be heard. Our students conduct themselves in the intelligent and scholarly manner that one would expect of a student at NC State University, and that makes me proud.
What are your hobbies and interests?
I have two kids. I have a fourteen-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son – two ends of the spectrum. A lot of my outside activities revolve around them; I’m a volleyball mom. I would like to decorate more. Sometimes I just like to go for a walk and on a nice day enjoy the fresh air, and then sometimes I just like to sit and people watch. This work is great. It’s full of passion – I put so much in that sometimes I need to decompress so that sitting and people watching and relaxing can be the best hobby ever, to just watch nature.
Dr. Alex Graves was interviewed by Austin Butler, ’18, communications intern in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.