Questions for Kimberly Wong, PhD, Graduate Student Ombudsperson
November 15, 2022
Kim Wong is the inaugural ombudsperson for Northeastern’s graduate students. Although she is a licensed counseling psychologist, she does not provide psychological counseling or therapy as part of her role at Northeastern. Kim’s professional experience includes working with university students as a staff psychologist, facilitating group dialogues and workshops, and providing informal mediation, among other settings. Before her arrival, there had not been an ombudsperson specifically focused on grad students. After her tenure of over three years, Kim says that initially much of her time was spent getting word out to graduate students, and faculty and staff who work with students to introduce the Graduate Ombuds Office to the community. She said these introductions are still a necessary part of her job so that the global campus network can know of her role as a resource, especially in a transitional community like a university.
We recently had a conversation about her work, as is detailed below. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
CALYPSO: What interested you in this work; why did you pursue becoming an ombudsperson?
KW: As a former therapist, I learned how to support people when they were at their lowest, or struggling with a challenge they didn’t know how to navigate. It informs the work I do now, it’s something I carry with me.
This role allows me to support students in a unique way, by serving as a confidential, neutral, independent, and informal resource. I was drawn to the idea of being able to help “visitors” navigate concerns on an individual basis when they are struggling, and separately having an opportunity to provide feedback to academic leaders on broad trends affecting the larger graduate community. Although I have no power to make decisions or change policies and procedures, in some ways ombuds can serve as subtle vehicles for change.
Regarding becoming an ombudsperson, as a psychologist, I loved the work but was ready for a new challenge. [In this role] I can help visitors consider their options for change and can also potentially inform change at a systemic level. [In ombuds work] we use words like support and empower; I’m empowering visitors to identify their main concerns and goals, and supporting them in determining how they want to move forward. This is helpful for a lot of visitors to really think about because sometimes they may come in with their own assumptions about what should be most important to them, based on aspects of their social or professional identities, or other factors; But during our conversation, they may realize that what they thought was the issue they came in for may not be what’s actually bothering them. As we talk, and the layers unfold, the core issue can become more clear to them.
CALYPSO: The Graduate Ombuds Office website describes the Northeastern Ombuds for Graduate Students as offering “confidential, impartial, and informal assistance to graduate students who have concerns related to their university experience”. What does that assistance look like? How would you describe your role to people who don’t understand how you work with graduate students?
KW: As the ombuds for graduate students I often support students as they navigate what options might be available to them, or they want to talk through different considerations before making a difficult decision. I also spend a lot of time working with visitors as they prepare for challenging conversations with faculty, staff, or fellow students. Sometimes I can support visitors or groups by facilitating these conversations. As a neutral resource, I never provide advice or take sides in any situation, instead my aim is to help visitors determine the best way forward by themselves by asking thought-provoking questions and putting a spotlight on their own insights, goals, and possible reservations. Additionally, I can help visitors with identifying helpful campus resources or information, and serve as a bridge for informal inquiries and communication.
Sometimes faculty and staff reach out about their own professional relationships with grad students, maybe there’s something impacting their work together or their ability to support a student in progressing academically. I provide consultation and coaching to faculty and staff who are hoping to informally resolve a concern involving some aspect of the graduate experience, either for an individual student, or at a larger systems level.
CALYPSO: How does your background as a Counseling Psychologist contribute to the work you do with students?
KW: Every day, my skillset as a counseling psychologist informs how I do my work; listening, and providing empathy. Being able to help students and visitors determine their options, and what they hope to get from the situation, that’s a big part. Validating and giving voice to the emotional experience; as a counseling psychologist I bring that to the role.
For visitors, what can sometimes feel challenging is the experience that maybe a piece of their humanity has been invalidated in some way by someone they interact with academically or in research. I provide a space to validate their emotional experience, which can be such an important aspect of the decision-making process. I don’t provide therapy, but I support visitors as they figure out how to move forward and explore what options they might want to utilize.
Sometimes there can be a disconnect between a visitor’s academic and personal experiences and needs. The recent pandemic highlighted how an individual’s personal identities and responsibilities can intersect with their work identities and responsibilities. I can help visitors gain insight into what disconnects exist and what the actual problem may be that is impacting their experience at Northeastern. Sometimes what’s not visible impacts the professional relationship more than what’s visible and overt. That’s something that I take with me in my work as an ombudsperson. I might ask, in the conflict what’s not being said in the relationship with a professor or classmate?
CALYPSO: What are themes you encounter; what precipitates many of the visits?
KW: A top theme include concerns student may have around communication in an evaluative relationship: professors, faculty, research advisors, staff. Usually what precipitates them reaching out is there is some breakdown in communication, in how they work together and communicate with each other. They reach out because they want to improve the relationship.
In evaluative relationships, there [can be] a misconception that the rift is beyond repair, and that may be the case, but not always. Visitors often note how much respect they have for the relationship, which is part of what can feel so disappointing or frustrating. For some, it can almost be tougher to bring concerns up when you have a close, respectful relationship. Some common questions visitors want to explore are: “how do I bring this up to my advisor, have a conversation around what my needs are; what are potential consequences?” There are also concerns about what happens if the end result is not something the visitor would have wanted, and how to navigate next steps in those situations.
Barriers to academic and career progression are another common theme, and may be related to several concerns: things may not be progressing as they would have hoped or on the timeline they expected; a course grade is lower than expected; research is not going as smoothly as they had planned. Visitors often want to explore how to approach challenging conversations around that these barriers.
Since the pandemic I’ve also noticed a shift in the importance of cultural climate to visitors, whether it be in the classroom, research lab, or at the department, college, or University level. Students are more self-aware when it comes to identity, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging – and they are more willing to disclose experiences of microaggressions, unfair treatment, or concerns about how they may have felt their identities were invalidated or disrespected. Often they want to know what their options are for informally or formally reporting their experience. But even if they don’t want to take any type of action (which is more often the case), I often hear that just the experience of talking about what happened and learning what the options are to address the situation can be empowering in itself.
CALYPSO: What are the challenges of your job?
Some challenges have to do with being a relatively newer resource. Just like any new resource at a large institution there’s a period of transition, the community getting to knowing about you, and what you can offer as a resource. Building relationships takes time. It takes time for people to get to know you and to gain their trust.
Helping people understand what the role is, that it is not to advocate or “fix” things, and that I do not have power to make decisions or institute formal change. There is sometimes a lack of understanding about the independence and neutrality of this role. Sometimes when there are calls for greater involvement, it can be challenging to educate and push back and make sure others are aware of the types of support I can – and cannot – provide.
Occasionally there’s a misconception that I have more power than I have to change a policy or to act as an advocate to create systemic change. There can be a sense of disappointment when visitors realize that that is not my role, but it doesn’t come up frequently.
CALYPSO: What are the rewards of your job?
The rewards are being able to be a part of the process as visitors work toward navigating their situation – even if I am not driving their decision making. I can support and empower visitors who want to improve their graduate experience. It is satisfying, and fulfilling when I’m able to contribute in some small way. Ombuds aren’t “fixers”, but what we can do is help visitors shed light on issues impacting their situation, clarify their goals for moving forward, and think more broadly about potential next steps. Visitors are often grateful to learn there are multiple paths they can take.
As an ombuds I have the ability to see students when they may be feeling their most vulnerable, and help them find their voice as they decide what they want to do. It’s empowering. It’s great to see, to have some small role in helping them on their journey even though I am not actively responsible for it.
CALYPSO: How has the pandemic, if at all, affected the conversations or concerns you are hearing?
Previously, visitors were more likely to separate the professional and the personal. With the pandemic, the lines were blurred and now more visitors feel it’s important to talk about what’s happening outside of Northeastern, as they now realize it can absolutely impact the academic experience.
Now, there are more conversations from visitors asking, how do I share this part of my personal identity that will impact the academic space? I also hear more from visitors related to concerns about the people they work with. There is more of, related to colleagues, How do I have a conversation to share that I am worried about them, that I care? That’s been great to see, this intersection of personal and professional identity, and visitors asking How do we support each other?
CALYPSO: What do you want people to know about your work and/or your office?
KW: I would want to make it clear that the Graduate Ombuds Office is a resource for any graduate-level student within the global campus network, but is also available to faculty and staff across the University who want to consult about an issue involving graduate students. For faculty and staff seeking support around employee dynamics or more general concerns, the Ombuds for faculty and Staff, Diane Levin, is also an amazing and wonderfully supportive resource. In situations where a member of the community is not sure where to go to address a certain issue these respective ombuds offices can also be a great first stop. We can often serve as a bridge to someone who might be able to provide more support, or help to facilitate productive conversation between individuals when there may be barriers in the way.
To contact Dr. Kim Wong please visit: https://graduateombuds.northeastern.edu/contact
CALYPSO Presents a Conversation with Diane Levin, Northeastern Employee Ombudsperson
October 15, 2022
If you are an employee who doesn’t recognize Diane Levin’s name, it could be a good thing depending on your perspective. By all accounts, she is a delight to speak with, according to people who have had the opportunity to speak with or work with her, whether through her official role or in an otherwise professional capacity. However, as Diane herself notes, because of the nature of her work, as an Ombudsperson the discretion and confidentiality required for the job lends itself to working, somewhat obscurely.
Diane’s background is a natural fit for this role as she is a dispute resolution professional with over 25 years of experience, having earned her J.D. from Suffolk University Law School, with a background in negotiation, conflict resolution, and as an instructor in disciplines including mediation, dispute resolution, negotiation, et al. She has been Northeastern’s ombudsperson for employees since 2017.
Diane’s description of her role as Northeastern University’s is that she offers “confidential and informal assistance to faculty, administrators, and staff who have issues relating to or affecting their work, providing them with a safe place to express concerns, identify options for addressing them, and regain agency to resolve issues.” We recently met to discuss Diane’s work here at Northeastern to provide an opportunity for people to learn about her work, and to discuss trends that she has observed, including those related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CALYPSO: You describe your work as helping people identify options for addressing concerns and “regain agency” to resolve issues. What does it mean to regain agency?
DL: Often when people find themselves in a situation where they feel they have no choices, they may doubt themselves, and not know what to do. Often people want a say in things that affect them to reclaim their sense of power and human dignity. These are the themes that people give voice to [during the course of conversations]; I help people regain their autonomy, point them to pathways and supportive resources, and to recover a sense of hope. It’s hard to be in a place of powerlessness and fear. COVID has also presented unique challenges, heightened people’s sense of anxiety and affected people’s sense of wellbeing. To help people regain a sense of agency, capability, if I can do one thing to help people reclaim that, then I feel like I’m doing my job.
CALYPSO: Is there anything that surprised you in your work here at Northeastern?
DL: A delightful discovery was learning about Northeastern’s culture. I’ve worked with organizations of all shapes and sizes in the dispute resolution field. Northeastern is like no other. It has an entrepreneurial spirit and draws people with that spirit who are passionate. So many people reach out [to me] because of their commitment to Northeastern. Faculty and staff bring their commitment to the university’s goals, to students, and the well-being of colleagues. Almost universally people reach out to my office because they really care and are invested in the university’s success. That has been extraordinary to see. People really care about each other here.
CALYPSO: What are the challenges of your job?
DL: Neutrality and confidentiality are my stock in trade. When people reach out they often want my opinion, to confirm [with me], that they are heading in the right direction; as humans that’s normal. But it’s not my role to [confirm that]. I have to tell people that my opinion doesn’t matter; what matters is their goals and their path. I don’t want to influence someone’s decision so that people can be the chief architect of their own solution. I have to remember that my job is to empower human beings.
CALYPSO: What is rewarding about your job?
DL: I just love helping people. I’ve been blessed to do work that is meaningful, that sustains and fulfills me. It’s the most wonderful work imaginable. I get to help an organization succeed. I get to help people in times of difficulty and challenge and to support people on the forefront of working with students. Working to support faculty, researchers, staff members, to help them be successful means it helps Northeastern be successful.
I feel grateful for people who have the courage to come talk to me. It can be a big leap of faith. It may be a big step for people to take, but it may bring to light issues that may be holding the university back in some way. I can collect and anonymize feedback and pass this on so that people can be better positioned to respond and do something with that feedback. People [who reach out] may help others by helping identify a pattern. I am grateful when people are willing to take that step to help me do my job so I can help them do theirs.
CALYPSO: Talk about trends you’re seeing that are related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
DL: There are universal concerns broadly held. The last fiscal year there were more concerns about the health of the organization and leadership performance, than at any other time, particularly the university climate–in fact 57% of office visitors reported such concerns during that time. People talked about the challenges faced: Covid disruption to operations, access to childcare – marginalized communities had [greater] challenges of access to resources, for example, with school closings, not having access to childcare and worries about the impact on their career. People talked about losing family members, which affected morale. Workloads increased, staffing wasn’t adequate, and employees of color experienced these challenges most acutely.
People were looking for leaders to be role models and influencers in the campus climate. They wanted leadership to turn their attention to the work-related stress that people deal with.
Approximately 48.8% of office visitors during the 2022 fiscal year reported challenges within their relationships with supervisors, and 21%of those reported diversity–related concerns such as microaggressions within units and wanted to know how their supervisors could address issues. Office visitors asked that the university do more to better prepare people to lead diverse teams, foster a climate of trust, inclusion and belonging.
Covid strained relationships, but for office visitors the murder of George Floyd served as a call to action, giving employees a lens and vocabulary to talk about their experiences, expectations and what they needed to see in response from university leaders. People talked about standards and values. DEI came up as a theme because we talk about commitment to fostering DEI values. Faculty and staff visitors want to see more people live up to it. They want to see more from the institution to foster this sense of inclusion and belonging.
CALYPSO: What can ODEI do to equip people with the foundation to support diverse teams?
DL: Psychological safety came up as a theme, and this depends on an environment where people feel included, like they belong. Usually, supervisory relationships are pain points. Regarding ODEI, people often don’t know where to turn, what are the resources available. They may be more aware of ODEI than other resources, but they may not know how to leverage the resources the office affords.
CALYPSO: Who does an ombuds talk to when they can’t share day-to-day normal work frustrations or even triumphs with colleagues?
DL: Like any profession with an ethical duty of confidentiality you can engage in peer conversation. I am grateful for a colleague like Kim [Kim Wong, PhD, is the ombudsperson for graduate students]. We meet regularly to discuss practices, and we engage in peer consultation. We have ombuds colleagues, including at Harvard, MIT, BU; we get together, have conferences. We anonymize whatever we might be discussing. Kim is a wonderful practitioner and teacher and I learn from every conversation with her.
CALYPSO: What do you want people to know?
DL: Don’t worry alone. This office was created to give you a confidential place to turn for anything that is affecting you at the university. It’s hard to ask for help, I know that myself. It can be scary to say, I can’t deal with this on my own. In doing so, it may not only help you, but it may help others struggling with issues and concerns, and you may be helping others, and help them realize they’re not alone in their search for solutions.
This goes back to the question of “agency”. Coming forward can break through that sense of isolation people face when they are dealing with their challenge at work. Work is important, it represents who we are, our identities, puts food on the table; so much of it is bound up in who we are as human beings. Ombuds are here to help people to restore dignity and honor to work.
Contact information for Diane Levin, J.D. can be found at: Contact | Ombuds Office at Northeastern University
Interview with the CIE-SJRC Director, Naomi Boase
September 8, 2022
Naomi Boase, Director for the Center for Intercultural Engagement, and the Social Justice Resource Center (CIE-SJRC), found her way into higher education after working at the border of Syria and Jordan. She started working at the Center in July 2019, hails from Grand Rapids, MI, and received her undergraduate degree from Taylor University in International Studies, specifically Middle East Studies. She subsequently received her Master of Science degree in Violence, Conflict and Development, from SOAS, University of London.
In addition to her educational experience, Naomi brought to the CIE-SJRC her knowledge and lived experience working with a multiplicity of different cultures and in conflict-laden areas in the Middle Eastern region (including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan), now known as SWANA, short for South West Asian and North African region. The description of SWANA, Naomi explained during our conversation, decentralizes the West as defining the East. In learning about Naomi’s her work experience, it is evident the wealth of experience, knowledge and understanding of intercultural relations she brings to her role as Director of CIE-SJRC.
When I first met with Naomi to learn more about CIE-SJRC, I asked her about her interest in moving into higher education, and from there we discussed her work her at the Center, and how her experiences inform her work at Northeastern and CIE-SJRC.
Ed. Note: Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: When we met, I asked you about your interest in moving into higher education, one of the things you mentioned that factored into your interest in this environment, is how you saw, after 9/11 people from the Middle East were marginalized. You wanted to help people, in a learning environment, understand more about marginalization. Could you say a little more about that?
A: My marginalization experience was that I grew up in an Evangelical Christian culture and attended a conservative Christian university where [at that time in my personal journey] I felt I couldn’t fully be myself as a queer person. Due to my own marginalization, I recognized another type of marginalization, the one that was being experienced by people from the Middle East, and it made me want to explore how whole groups of people become marginalized in society. I think having an experience of being marginalized can also allow us to access empathy for each other.
9/11 was a moment in US history that led me to a want [a deeper] understanding of what happened that day. I had studied how violence impacts all communities, and wanted to understand that more, for myself, and to offer whatever understanding I came to, to others. A community of learning, higher education, is a place I wanted to share these experiences.
Q: In DEI work, identity matters. What would you say are some of your intersectional identities?
The first thing I would say is I’m on a journey, and we all are. Some of my social identities are I am queer and married to a woman. My coming out process was ongoing starting with a few people and eventually coming out more publicly; but given that I am cis and less visibly queer in our heteronormative culture there is always going to be someone to come out to. I also grew up with a Christian identity, today I consider myself to have Christian heritage while leaning into a queer spirituality. I’m also continually on my own ethnic journey. I am English, Irish and Japanese. My maternal grandmother is Japanese – my mother and grandmother were born in Yokohama and immigrated to the United States. I am still doing a racial exploration of being white and Asian. I’m currently learning more about what it was like for my mother and my grandmother to be Japanese in the US post WWII. And there are my southern white roots; I am asking questions about that heritage, how those lineages make up who I am and how they impact my lived experience in a multitude of ways.
Q: Tell us a bit about your work in the SWANA region.
A: My work in the region involved managing psycho-social projects. In practical terms this would be managing programming around trauma support and caregiver development. We worked with people living in Zaatari Camp long-term. I managed projects working with youth that helped them process their relationships with each other and with adults. I worked on community support, lots of sports programming (ensuring the kids had fun activities, like getting to engage with each other by playing soccer, for example) with Syrian staff. It was important that the people local to the communities led the programming, so the people doing the work were from the community while I managed donor relations and logistics.
Q: Can you think of a specific experience that had a significant impact on you during your time in the region?
A: There are several, to mention a few.
While I was in Jordan, there was a time when people from countries within the region weren’t allowed entry into the US, some of whom had secured access to enter the US then had to immediately return to the country they had just left. – that was simultaneously heartbreaking and enraging. I saw people traumatized, and that led me to reflect on different lived experiences and the idea of identity. I interrogated my own identities – how I saw myself and how I was perceived. I learned how to have authentic, ethical relationships with people who are different from me and who have lived a very different story of historical marginalization – of violence and war.
I learned what it felt like to hold that, and recognize the courage of the people around me, and I learned to recognize how I needed to [be aware] of my identities as a woman who is mostly white, who had power in that camp. I really learned about intercultural engagement. I learned how to show up for others, as well as to be cared for by another community and be celebrated by the community, and to celebrate the Syrian community, their music and dance. It was a deeper way to understand how to connect with other humans, through soccer, dancing, and the tears, and to witness a centering of their experience in Aid work. Sometimes Aid workers or donors end up being centered rather than the humanity of those [trying to] survive.
Q: Tell me more what about you mean, what would be an example.
A: I learned how to engage and how not to engage with local populations. There were many meetings of [the Aid organization] where there was zero representation of the refugees; there were no Syrian people present. You should have multiple people at the table from the community within which you’re working. My supervisor showed me how to have authentic relationships – we did house visits and check in with people like you might in any other community neighborhood[She] learned how to center the human being in front of her rather than the system. When you get to know people and have a relationship with them you automatically center the person. The more you know a person, see them as a contributor to their community, the more you see their humanity.
The Syrians I worked with, in the words of Audre Lorde, do not lead single issue lives. My Syrian colleagues are refugees. They are also women, doctors, dentists, teachers, caregivers, daughters, children, queer etc. We gave each other the gift of witnessing each other’s lives. That is only possible with humble and authentic engagement. I’ve carried that with me.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work at CIE? What is a challenge, or what do you hope to change or make improvements on?
A: I love student engagement – spending time with students, creating funny memories, sometimes sorrowful, intimate memories. I love one-on-ones, the connections built with staff and students are important. The life that students bring to campus is energizing.
I would like to build more restorative practices into our work, to center restoration. It is important to name mistakes made and harm caused. If someone just stays in their shame about a mistake, it will be harder to move forward, rather than seeing harm and changing the behavior. We can have communities that encourage and affirm in those process [of learning to change]. I hope people experience that at this center; we need to understand that we can change behavior and accept conflict as a means to grow and change.
We can ask: how can people make a mistake and learn, accept, and move on? Let’s notice the shame and then move past it and look at acceptance of conflict to see it as a growth opportunity. This can help us move toward love and care away from animosity and hate.
Q: What do you think that people should know or understand about CIE-SJRC, that they don’t know or understand well?
The space is for everyone. Some people are unsure if the space is for specific students, it’s for everyone who wants to build community. There are genuine moments of beautiful community building, it doesn’t have to be just one way. That’s a message we’re trying to be clearer about. Centering the historically marginalized doesn’t mean those without that experience aren’t welcome it just means we build belonging by centering the historically marginalized. All are welcome.
Q: What is something people should know about you? What have I not asked, or talked about that you would want to say/share?
I am reading The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, by Grace Lee Boggs, and Scott Kurashige. It is an important book that can help us embody the future we want. A quote of Ms. Boggs is, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”
I try to encourage students and staff, if you don’t know what someone is talking about, and don’t feel you have the context, listen harder. Deep listening goes a long way when it comes to having authentic relationships with people. We need to listen without judgement.
Presenting: A CALYPSO Interview with Melissa Berry-Woods and Roben Torosyan
July 15, 2022
In the last issue of CALYPSO, we introduced a workshop: Partnering Students and Educators on Antiracist Accountability. The workshop is facilitated by Melissa Berry-Woods, Ph.D., Associate Teaching Professor of English and Director of Student Diversity and Success in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Roben Torosyan, Ph.D., Senior Associate Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research(CATLR).
Berry-Woods and Torosyan met when Berry-Woods, who is African American, attended a CATLR workshop on anti-racist accountability that Torosyan, who is white, also attended. They engaged each other in virtual conversations after the sessions and as they talked, they connected as educators around their passion for doing antiracist work. Finding that they could blend their passion and work as educators, and potentially reach more people because of their individual perspectives and identities, they set about creating a workshop that they would co-lead, on the topic of becoming an antiracist.
We present here, a conversation with Drs. Berry-Woods (MBW) and Torosyan (RT). The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your work about?
MBW: It is antiracist accountability. We are thinking about our community in terms of staff, faculty, and students and how the conversations become richer when we help each other, for example, how to have a dialog around difficult conversations. How do we prepare ourselves for that which inevitably will happen? Also, how do we sustain this so that it’s not a one-off thing, but rather a lifelong practice? How do we make it actionable? Antiracist work is to call out, dismantle, and confront all aspects of racist policy and systems, that keep people from moving forward equitably.
RT: I love that Melissa started partnering with students. I am interested in how students and faculty work together to make things happen in the classroom. We included students in the workshop to speak about their experiences in the classroom. It’s about getting fellow staff and educators to get real and own up to their own “not model” selves in front of students.
Tell us about your proposal to present to the POD Network in Seattle.
RT: POD Network started as a professional development and organizational development network in higher education. Now it has transformed into primarily a faculty development organization. In teaching centers, like CATLR, you’re working with co-curricular educators. POD Network is about the development of the whole educational experience. I am confident that we will be selected to present at the conference as our diversity focus is within the network’s highest goal.
What makes you good partners for this work?
MBW: It feels very natural. Roben and I are in love with learning, and that comes across. We love what we do. It makes it easy to get along with someone like that. It takes humility to know you have something to learn from someone else.
RT: Melissa will casually say these things, and she will nail down mutually exclusive things that are distinctive, cumulatively exhaustive. I become more articulate and profound when we are together. Melissa listens to me into insights. It’s the way she listens. A lot of this is good luck, it’s a personality style match. I’ve worked with someone who was a terrible match, it didn’t work and was challenging.
MBW: I want to interject that the race dynamic matters, it’s intentional. He is this white male leaning into antiracist education. He’s one of the braver people I’ve ever known that is doing this work. There are people saying they are into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work, but you don’t see them digging deeply; it takes people putting their whole selves to this. By bringing ODEI and CATLR together, we’re helping our offices grow. We’re expanding to leadership. Now we are bringing in the DEI leads, and we are developing a workshop on “Difficult Conversations” they are going to have to have.
How do you address resistance – unspoken or otherwise – with people who may be recalcitrant about their identity and beliefs.
MBW: First, our invitations make it clear that this is the group for people who don’t need to be convinced. We realized that people were less prepared for this group than we thought. There is no one for you to hide behind. The deeper we get into this work; the more people realize how deeply their implicit bias grows.
Second, we give people a chance to do personal reflection which they can share anonymously. We listen so we can respond organically, so we can see how they respond. When things get uncomfortable, we look at, do they come next time? Do they shut off their camera? If we’re talking about race and you’re not getting a little upset, then there’s something wrong.
People will say, I lived in an all-white town, I wasn’t exposed to racism/racist beliefs. They say that, and we can certainly live in innocuous homogenous ways, but you’re not inoculated from the world, your town still has a perspective. There is still a certain amount of influence if you have access to pop culture; I remind people, you watch TV, and listen to the radio.
RT: I’m learning from Melissa right now when she says people’s closed reaction is supposed to happen; everyone’s reaction, whatever their style is, is supposed to happen.
Where are you taking this, what is the end goal?
MBW: I’ve had so many ideas since we started. Like the continuing. I’d like to take this on the road. I want to expand how we invite voices. We need to get Native American, Latina, Jewish voices in here. We need to expand how people show up as racialized individuals. We, as different groups, tend to compete in the oppression Olympics, instead of really learning about the core power structures.
RT: We must keep this going, take it on the road.
Berry-Woods and Torosyan presented their work at CATLR’s Conference for Advancing Evidence-Based Learning (CAEBL) and they have submitted a proposal to present together at POD Network (Professional Development and Organizational Development) at their 47th annual conference in Seattle. The POD Network is an organization focused on educational development. Members include directors and staff from teaching and learning centers, chief academic officers and other faculty leadership, plus graduate students.
The educators will be continuing this work. Anyone who would be interested in seeking more information about the next series of workshops can reach out to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest.
Women of Color in the Academy Sixth Annual Conference
The Women of Color in the Academy (WOCIA) conference promotes timely academic career progression, including movement into leadership positions, and creates opportunities to network, forge collaborations, and form a community for women of color academics throughout the greater Boston area. The inaugural conference was held in 2017 with the support of a Faculty Innovation Grant awarded from Northeastern’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to Professors Nicole N. Aljoe and Barbara Guthrie. Every year, with coordination support from Northeastern’s ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development, and a conference planning committee comprised of women of color faculty, staff, and postdoctoral scholars plans and executes the conference. This year, conference co-chairs Régine Jean-Charles, Director of Africana Studies, Dean’s Professor of Culture and Social Justice, and Professor of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Toyoko Orimoto, Associate Professor of Physics, College of Science, led a 27-member planning committee. The 2022 WOCIA conference was made possible by the nucleating ideas and oversight of the Boston-wide Women of Color in the Academy steering committee, the tireless and thorough effort of the planning committee, and the generous sponsorship of Northeastern University offices and colleges (ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, College of Professional Studies, College of Science, D’Amore McKim School of Business, Khoury College of Computer Sciences, School of Law), Tufts University, Boston College, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, The Partnership Inc., New England Higher Education Consortium (HERC), and Regis College.
The 6th Annual Women of Color in the Academy Conference was held virtually on April 29, 2022. 215 women of color academics and their allies attended. The conference theme, Return to Love: Honoring the Legacy of bell hooks, celebrated the life and work of the late bell hooks, a prolific writer, thought leader, brilliant scholar, and academic who challenged society to be better. A recurring theme in her work was the beauty of women of color and the value of their voices. The call to love, as hooks saw it, transcends romantic love to encompass self-love, love of sisterhood, love of others, love of teaching, love as an ethic, and much more. Conference speakers embraced and embodied the conference theme in its many meanings throughout the day.
Mary Jo Ondrechen, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Science opened the conference with an invocation and land acknowledgements. She was followed by moving welcome messages from conference co-chair Régine Jean-Charles, our Provost, David Madigan, and the Mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu. The morning keynote featured an address by President and CEO of Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, Aisha Francis-Samuels. Dr. Francis-Samuels highlighted her own personal academic journey and the importance of tracking and reflecting upon one’s academic lineage. For the first time this year, the conference planning committee made a call for workshop proposals and received nearly 20 incredible responses. The committee selected half of the submissions to form two concurrent workshop sessions. Workshop topics ranged from cultivating leadership and building connections to telling one’s story and creating engaged pedagogy. During the lunch hour, Carmen Sceppa, Dean of Bouvé College of Health Sciences, moderated a Dean’s Panel featuring panelists Wendi Williams, Dean, School of Education, Mills College, Amy Z. Zeng, Dean, and Professor, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University, and Jean Zu, Dean, Schaefer School of Engineering and Science, Stevens Institute of Technology. The panelists shared information about their rise to leadership and insights into navigating one’s leadership trajectory. The afternoon keynote speaker, Leigh Patel, Professor of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, was introduced by Corliss Thompson, Associate Teaching Professor in the College of Professional Studies. Dr. Patel gave an inspirational and stimulating speech that artfully wove her personal and academic trajectory with inspirational quotes and teachings from bell hooks. Conference co-chair, Toyoko Orimoto, closed the conference with moving remarks about her professional journey and the ability of the WOCIA conference to provide an opportunity for women of color to bring their whole selves and feel nurtured and nourished in the academy.
While conference speakers and workshop leaders provide the content of the conference, the beauty and impact of the conference comes from the participants. In the last three years, the virtual convening has broadened the reach of the conference. This year’s conference included women from 46 institutions, including many Universities across New England with some as far-reaching as the University of California at Berkeley, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Arizona, and University of the Virgin Islands. This year, for the first time, the conference utilized the Zoom Events Conference platform. Participants raved about the ease of use of the Zoom Events online platform and the ability to preview workshops before attending. Feedback from conference participants was overwhelmingly positive and spoke of a wonderful day shared with colleagues and friends that will provide cherished memories.
“The speakers were amazing! They were so honest and shared so generously. It was truly inspiring.”
“I enjoyed everything. It was great to be in community with other women of color and I appreciated the extended discussion groups that followed the breakout sessions.”
“… one of the best conferences I have been to. And it was virtual!”
35 conference attendees continued the conference connection by participating in a post-conference writing retreat facilitated by Dr. Angelique Davis on May 11, 2022. The Boston-wide WOCIA steering committee will continue to plan events throughout the year to support further engagement and we are already looking forward to an in-person conference next year. More information about this years’ and past WOCIA conferences can be found on our website https://woc.northeastern.edu/.
Q&A with Dr. Mona Minkara
April 27, 2022
Dr. Mona Minkara attended Wellesley College where she double majored in Chemistry and Middle Eastern Studies. While she had an interest in Middle Eastern Studies, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. Fast forward to today and Dr. Minkara is now an Assistant Professor in Northeastern’s Department of Bioengineering, and an Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology where she heads the Computational Modeling for Bio Interface Engineering (COMBINE) Lab. Dr. Minkara uses computational modeling to study pulmonary surfactants, which are made up of lipids and proteins. Some of these proteins are immunoproteins, and are part of the first line of defense in immunological processes, helping to fight off viruses and bacteria. Also, pulmonary surfactants help us to expand and contract our alveoli, which helps us to breathe.
Last October Dr. Minkara completed a zero-gravity flight, for which she was selected by AstroAccess, along with 11 others with mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities. The mission of AstroAccess is to advance disability inclusion in space exploration. According to AstroAccess, “The AstroAccess Ambassadors experience weightlessness and carry out lunar gravity, Martian gravity, and zero gravity observations and experiments.” The goal of these exercises is to learn about accessibility design in spacecrafts so that “everyone, regardless of disability can live, work, and thrive in space.” Dr. Minkara talked about the opportunity to complete the flight, saying of the AstroAccess project that “takes into account our voices” – the voices of the disability community.
In addition to her participation on the AstroAccess flight, Dr. Minkara has a YouTube travel series, Planes Trains & Canes, that shows her navigating international travel in five major cities including Boston, Tokyo, and London to highlight public transportation and accessibility.
Her research and work promoting disability inclusion notwithstanding, Dr. Minkara graciously made time to answer some questions for Calypso’s inaugural Issue. (The interview has been edited and condensed for editorial clarity.)
Q: In Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, we often talk about intersectional identities. We can accept that everyone has intersectional identities. What do you define as your identities that you want people to be aware of as you navigate in your daily life?
A: I am blind, a woman, Muslim, short, an adventurist, and a knowledge catalyst – it’s important to take in knowledge and share it. I am a storyteller. I am the child of Lebanese immigrants, bilingual. I am a huge candy lover. These are some of my surface identities. There is something deeper to us, though, that we don’t carry around on our sleeves, that are a deeper part of our souls that people don’t get around to discussing.
Q: You are a scientist that happens to be blind. I have seen conversations in social media where there are people who want to put the person first (ex., a scientist who happens to be blind), and I’ve seen where others want the opposite. I see online that you refer to yourself as a blind scientist. Tell me about the choice of that order of identification.
A: It grammatically sounds better, it’s an efficient way of describing myself, but I’m not prioritizing blindness over my science. I’m a scientist who is blind. I also would say I didn’t choose to be blind–I don’t have the choice to become sighted, but, I chose to be a scientist. I would say I am a blind female scientist, and I am proudly both.
Q: What would be three takeaways you would want to let the average person, creating [informational] materials of any kind, to know about accessibility as they put out information for consumer consumption?
- There should be captions for accessibility for videos.
- PDFs should be readable when using tools for screen reading.
- We need to not be okay with anything that’s not accessible. We should consider things fully complete when they are fully accessible.
Q: Who can you think of within the Northeastern community that should receive mention, or that is doing good work related to disability, equity and inclusion deserving of recognition?
A: I have to say that my dean, (College of Engineering’s Dean, Dr. Gregory Abowd), has been supportive. There is something to be said about getting your leader’s support. He gets it. It makes a world of a difference for me.
Q: In an episode Planes, Trains and Canes, you have an interesting exchange with a Transport Authority employee in England that has you saying, their policy is taking away your choice, and the employee saying that there isn’t a choice so they’re not taking away your choice.
A: This got so much discussion. I don’t necessarily want to teach, I want people to follow along, come to their own conclusions. [For the series] I wanted to talk about disabilities in a positive, fun light; the topic is usually discussed in somber tones. There is a comedic element. I naturally find things funny. The travel series provides a unique lens [on topics related to disabilities].
Q: What are you working on next, whether personally, professionally, or adventure-wise, what should we stay tuned for?
A: (Laughs) Oh, so many things.
*Note: Here are two resources where readers can learn more about access in communications and accessibility standards:
- ADA.gov – Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design (https://www.ada.gov/2010ADAstandards_index.htm), which is under the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (provides information on PDFs on screens, HTML, Print)
- There is also the World Wide Web Consortium’s, or W3C, Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) that developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for web-based documents.