Alumni lead the way in supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion across clubs and programs

Attendee group photo from the 1stGenYale alumni conference.
In April, the inaugural 1stGenYale alumni conference, “Blazing the Trail: Being the First,” opened new possibilities for how alumni of diverse backgrounds and generations could share their Yale experiences, provide guidance to students, and create a vibrant network. (Photo credit: 1stGenYale)

In February 2016, the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) Board of Governors appointed the Yale Alumni Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to better understand how alumni could be more effective in promoting DEI across all activities. But the task force soon found itself tackling an even bigger goal. The nearly 50-member group, part task force and part advisory group, wanted Yale to take a leading role across all peer institutions — to become, as their 40-plus-page subsequent report details “a beacon of DEI excellence to which other institutions can aspire.”

First, they examined the challenges, surveying nearly 1,000 alumni leaders. Of the 343 alumni who responded — 68% from Yale College, 22% from the graduate and professional schools, and 10% dual degree holders, with representation from all generations — nearly 30% of non-white respondents said they did not participate in alumni activities because they didn’t feel they would meet people who shared their backgrounds and interests. Individual responses pointed to a sense of disconnect at certain club events — a feeling that they did not belong due to their age, gender, or race.

The survey results presented a wake-up call for all of us,” says Ken Inadomi ’76, one of the co-chairs of the task force, and founding chair of the Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance, who was also on the task force’s best practices committee. “We have much to do if we’re to close the gap between our DEI aspirations and reality.”

He, along with co-chair Sheryl Carter Negash ’82, and AYA staff liaisons Jenny Chavira ’89 and Nicholas Roman Lewis ’93, also saw this as an opportunity to provide the kind of blueprint that Yale alumni leaders, and alumni across peer institutions, were looking for.

Whenever you deal with thorny social issues, the world looks for leadership to emerge,” Inadomi says. “Yale has always had that position.” He pointed to Yale’s precedent-setting position on free speech, known as the Woodward Report, adopted in 1974, which served as a model for other universities.

Leading the way

The DEI report lays out clear goals and strategies for addressing challenges around diversity and inclusion. Essentially, these can be broken down into five categories: Yale commits to taking a lead on DEI issues; better engages young alumni and alumni of color; promotes DEI in all levels of AYA leadership by creating a pipeline for identifying promising candidates; builds bridges between alumni and students and older and younger alumni; and supports infrastructure changes, including the hiring of a DEI leader. The report promotes inclusivity in the broadest sense — diverse types of people according to gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual preferences, different abilities, etc.

Task force co-chair Negash, who interviews student candidates as part of the Alumni Schools Committee and was on the founding boards of the Yale Black Alumni Association and YaleWomen, says alumni are very attuned to how the university is responding to growing interest in advancing DEI issues in a meaningful way. “We hoped to start a dialogue,” she says. “How do we make the university stronger and provide equity to members of the Yale community?”

The task force concluded that education about DEI was a first step. So, during 2017, the AYA held three events called DEI Leadership Forums, each led by Cheryl Grills ‘80, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, who specializes in racism, racial stress, and implicit bias. “We’ve found you have to be very specific with the training,” says Lewis. “If you want people to climb Mt. Everest, you need to teach them how to mountain climb.”

Next steps for alumni

To continue efforts to promote inclusion in all alumni groups, Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the AYA, created an Executive Director’s Working Group tasked with putting four recommendations into action: diversifying the alumni leaders pipeline; hosting learning events; organizing events to tackle community issues; and attracting and engaging alumni from diverse backgrounds.

In general, the AYA has difficulty getting people involved when they are younger,” says Negash, pointing out that alumni programming has to speak to them and their experiences. This means representative panels, opportunities for young alumni and older alumni of color to connect, and active recruitment of speakers and leaders from diverse backgrounds, she says.

The report was publicly unveiled in February 2018 at an event at the Yale Club of New York, featuring remarks by Elizabeth Alexander ’84, renowned poet, author, and former chair of Yale’s Department of African American Studies. 

In April, the inaugural 1stGenYale alumni conference, “Blazing the Trail: Being the First,” opened new possibilities for how alumni of diverse backgrounds and generations could share their Yale experiences, provide guidance to students, and create a vibrant network. “The 1stGenYale Conference was a direct success story,” says Lewis. “It was one of the first times this cohort of alumni came back to share their stories.”

A week later, the shared interest group Yale in Hollywood hosted an Inclusion Summit around entertainment and technology in collaboration with the Television Academy and Producer’s Guild of America that focused on how to increase diversity and inclusion across film, music, TV, and game projects and companies. 

Little by little, people are doing good programming that can be replicated,” Negash says.

The Executive Director’s Working Group is putting together additional leadership forums around training opportunities and best practices. They are also supporting an event on May 22 in New York City called “In Conversation: Black Women, Beauty & Perception.”

I want to make sure people feel engaged,” Negash says. “Diversity makes our community very rich.”

Yale evolving

Addressing DEI issues has been central to Salovey’s presidency as he has worked toward a more unified Yale community. “A few years ago, the deans and I discussed how best to approach this work,” Salovey says. “Because each school faces different challenges and opportunities in this area, it was clear that a decentralized structure would be more effective. Embedding responsibility for diversity, equity, and inclusion within Yale’s schools has already led to a series of notable changes across the university.”

Every school at Yale now has a designated professional or group to oversee DEI issues. Examples include diversity officers at Yale’s Schools of Medicine, Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Management; a faculty lead at the School of Architecture; and diversity committees at the Yale Schools of Drama and Public Health.

To facilitate this work, Salovey recently appointed the President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. “The alumni task force’s recent report and recommendations have been helpful to me in considering the university’s direction and actions in this area,” Salovey says. “I am pleased to report that every school has or will soon have a position that serves as a chief diversity officer. With this structure, the President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is necessary to ensure that diversity and inclusion initiatives and programs are reviewed, best practices are shared, and senior university leaders are advised.”

There are many other examples of DEI in action at Yale; here are just a few:

  • Yale College has increased staffing and budgets at the cultural centers and appointed diverse heads and deans of residential colleges;
  • The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has added 15 fellowships for the Dean’s Emerging Scholars Initiative — $3,000 to underrepresented or economically disadvantaged incoming Ph.D. students;
  • Yale Divinity School offers new concentrations in Latinx Christianity and Black Church Studies and named a room after one of Yale’s first African-American students, James Pennington;
  • Yale Law School doubled its African-American non-clinical faculty and admitted the two most diverse classes in its history;
  • School of Management launched a student inclusion survey across all degree programs and is working to increase numbers of qualified applicants from minority groups through Management Leadership for Tomorrow, led by trustee John Rice ’88 B.A.;
  • School of Nursing is looking to increase its pipeline of diverse faculty through its Summer Intensive Program, drawing on diverse scholars from across the country;
  • As part of the $50 million Initiative for Faculty Excellence and Diversity, Yale welcomes approximately 10 Presidential Visiting Fellows each academic year — scholars who contribute to inclusive excellence.   

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911