In Conversation

Kimberly Goff-Crews: On fostering a community proud of its differences

Goff-Crews discusses her new role leading the Belonging at Yale initiative, and Yale’s progress on diversity and inclusion efforts.
Kim Goff-Crews

Kim Goff-Crews (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

As part of her expanded role leading the Belonging at Yale initiative, Kimberly Goff-Crews has been meeting with university leaders — including the deans of Yale College, the Graduate School, and the professional schools — as well as with staff members, students, and alumni representatives to gain an understanding of the issues that are most important to them in creating a campus climate where everyone feels respected and valued. She has also been meeting with leaders at universities and companies nationwide to learn best practices with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Goff-Crews spoke with YaleNews about the progress to date.

What’s new about your role in the Belonging at Yale initiative?

When people think DEI, they mostly think about student experiences. In my expanded role, I will be addressing DEI campus-wide, focusing on the experiences of students, faculty and staff members, and alumni. These groups have their own interests and concerns, but they are also interconnected. Recognizing those connections, my role will be to ensure that all of our DEI efforts are aligned with our goal of creating a campus climate where everyone feels they belong and are valued.

How do you define “belonging”?

A sense of belonging is different for everyone. But I think each of us feels it when we are respected, heard, and supported. Can I fully be the person I am in this environment? Can I be my authentic self and have you accept me for who I am? Belonging, I think, is when we can answer “yes” to those questions.

How do you think Yale is doing with respect to achieving that?

I think we are doing well in understanding that we all need to evolve in order to achieve it. Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion are taking place at every school and in pretty much every department and unit. There is a deep commitment to that goal among the senior leadership, and that means we are in a good place. This is not a one-and-done kind of situation. It is a long process. We are creating a new paradigm for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus. It includes addressing how we respond to complaints of discrimination or harassment, but more broadly we are creating a culture across the campus that makes this sense of belonging possible. That requires focus day in and day out, but it also requires everyone to participate in some way.

What progress has been made?

We have responded to many of the recommendations that Dr. Ben Reese made in his 2019 report (PDF), including the expansion of my role and the hiring later this year of an associate vice president for diversity, equity, and belonging.

We have introduced targeted training for deans’ designees [administrators in each school who serve as a resource for students about discrimination or harassment]. We have also streamlined student processes to address discrimination or harassment concerns. Students who believe that a student, faculty member, or staff member has engaged in discrimination or harassment may report actions to either a dean’s designee or to the Office of Institutional Equity and Access.

I want our Belonging at Yale efforts to touch as much on diversity of viewpoint as on diversity of background, age, race, or sexual identity, for example. In speaking to me about their challenges last year, some students shared that they found it difficult to have conversations with each other if they don’t agree with the predominant viewpoint, such as a political opinion. We want to foster an environment at Yale where students can genuinely disagree with each other. I asked Yale College Dean Marvin Chun to sit down with faculty members and students to talk about ways we can have intentional conversations about sensitive or controversial topics. Dean Chun will chair a Yale College committee to advise on programs that will support students in having those conversations across differences. I am really excited about that project. I think cultivating that skill among our students is important for them as they move from Yale into the workplace and as leaders — and is especially important in the political moment we are in.

Will there be a continuation of the grant program?

Yes. Grants for DEI and Belonging at Yale supported 16 student and faculty projects last year, and this year we have expanded the suite of grants for projects. Grants for faculty and student projects will be coordinated by the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, and the Office of the Secretary and Vice President for University Life.

Additionally, there will be a small-grant program for staff members’ belonging projects, which Deborah Stanley-McCauley [associate vice president for employee engagement and workplace culture] is in the process of putting together.

Many of the grants support projects that involve collaborations among people across the university.

Have alumni been engaged in this process?

Yes. In 2016 alumni created a task force on DEI, which developed an important report called “Leadership in the Face of Change” (PDF). That report from November 2017 really helped us as we developed the Belonging at Yale framework starting the next year. Along with Weili Cheng, the alumni association’s executive director, I am in touch with alumni who care deeply about these issues so I can hear about their interests and recommendations.

In March, alumni organized a conference on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion through social change. The conference featured distinguished Yale alumni and thought leaders, as well as professors, students, and even parents. Their conversations over those two days were often quite personal.

The alumni association’s Executive Director’s Working Group has organized educational webinars on DEI concepts, and developed a communications plan to engage alumni from diverse backgrounds, who can feel left out. They also surveyed current alumni leaders on how to foster diversity within the up-and-coming alumni leadership.

How do other committees and groups contribute to the conversation about DEI and belonging?

I have been working with the university cabinet, made up of the deans and vice presidents, on our strategy. From May 2018 to August of this year, I convened a working group to develop the initial framework for what became Belonging at Yale. The President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which Gary Desir [the Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine and chair of internal medicine] chaired, helped us align the work focused on students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

I will continue meeting many of these committees, including the Student Advisory Group on Diversity, which was created last year so we could learn about student perspectives and solicit advice and feedback. Weili Cheng and Richard Bribiescas, vice provost for faculty development and diversity, also meet with alumni and faculty groups. Our campus cultural centers and staff affinity groups also contribute to these conversations, leadership, and efforts.

What are your longer-term goals?

The issues we are addressing on our own campus with respect to DEI are also of concern in the national and even global sphere. In industry, higher education, and our communities as a whole, we are asking pretty big questions: How do you create community? How do you create a sense of belonging? While race is often at the forefront of these discussions, when we talk about diversity we must consider so much more: our gender and religious identities, socio-economic status, political viewpoints, life experiences, and so on. I hope to further explore how we can navigate those differences on our campus. Our diverse backgrounds, outlooks, and opinions are what make us the rich and innovative community we are at Yale, and ensuring a free exchange of ideas here is one of our core values as an institution. Belonging at Yale efforts, when they’re really thoughtful and effective, can fuel that.

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