Faculty & Staff News

Q&A: Center for Diversity and Inclusion director strives for respect

Niya Blair is the director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. | Courtesy of Niya Blair

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion aims to increase belonging among staff and students.

Every year the department hosts mandatory diversity workshops for student leaders around campus and has public diversity workshops almost every week.

In an interview with The Cougar, director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion Niya Blair weighed in on the notion of tolerance and what she feels it really means.

The Cougar: How do you define tolerance?

Niya Blair: I think of it as temporary. Temporary like giving someone a pass to think the way that they think or to be around them or to understand them, very temporary or circumstantial, without depth.

TC: What is wrong with just tolerating somebody?

Blair: When you just tolerate it’s like, “I’m just going to deal with you for this moment.” For me, it doesn’t have any type of understanding or respect to who the person is. That’s why I tell people to move from not thinking about “I’m going to tolerate you,” but “I’m going to respect you and because I can respect you and still have a difference of opinion.”

I mean, who really wants to be tolerated? To me it’s a negative connotation and it’s very temporary.

We had a speaker, Dominique Jackson, here the other day for our Fall Speaker Series. I liked one of the things she said about tolerance. It is guided in privilege and power, and so I’m privileged to say I’ll tolerate you for a minute but then I can go back to how I was thinking about you or the situation that we may be talking about.

TC: What should we strive for with diversity and inclusion?

Blair: We should strive for respect and understanding.

TC: How do you try to teach that with UH students?

Blair: One, through our campaign that we’re releasing as a department. Last year, we talked about “you belong” and helping people understand that who they are, all of their identities, belong. Now we’re focusing on “I belong, you belong, we belong.”

When you say “I belong, all of my identities, all of my perspectives, how I think about things.” You belong is how all of your identities, all your perspectives, how you think about things could be totally opposite from what I think. It ends with “we belong,” and those differences can coexist.

We talk about diversity, we talk about we appreciate diversity. We’re the second most diverse, and that means we’re the second most different campus, so how do we be in a space with those differences and coexist and learn from each other from those differences?

TC: Have you found students receptive of your initiatives?

Blair: Yeah, I think they are. I’m sure not everyone is because that’s just not the world we live in, and that’s OK. I think for the most part people are. I think that there are also still people looking to be heard and validated, and we have to create spaces for everyone.

It’s not like a “We are the World” or “Kumbaya” moment. I think that when we don’t have those kumbaya moments, those are beautiful if we’re able to respect each other and learn from each other. I think that those moments are great as well.

TC: What led you to want to preach inclusion?

Blair: I don’t feel like I preach it, I feel like I live it. I live it, I think I’m passionate about it, I feel like it’s bigger than me. I would say it’s a calling of mine. It can be difficult and taxing to talk about inclusion and diversity, and I just talk about it, live it and show them how we can illustrate it.

It all stemmed from my undergraduate experience in college. (I) was in a minority service office, and the people who worked there really supported me. I’ve morphed in my career and grown and learned about different aspects of diversity and what inclusion means and what it looks like.

I think it’s something bigger. I think that no matter what environment you’re in, be it a collegiate environment, corporate environment, community environment, it’s something we all have to figure out how to contribute to and embrace in some way.

TC: UH is one of the most diverse campuses in the United States. Does that also mean we are one of the most inclusive?

Blair: Diversity and inclusion are two different things. Sometimes we use those words interchangeably. I will say there’s no data on how inclusive we are. Except we did a campus climate survey where students did feel like they had a sense of belonging here on our campus.

I think that there is always room to grow, there is no destination point in terms of being inclusive. So we have to continuously strive to make sure every environment, every classroom, every student organization and every department is inclusive.

That doesn’t just happen because we’re diverse. It takes continuous effort on every person’s part, be it a student, be it a staff person, be it a faculty member or administrator.

TC: What do you suggest students who feel discriminated against do?

Blair: Do not be silent. Sometimes people will talk about things in different spaces with their friends, and so reaching out to different offices like the Center for Diversity and Inclusion is always a good option.

Sometimes it is discrimination, sometimes it’s just misunderstanding, sometimes a miscommunication. Being able to articulate that and figure out how to move forward, what systems are in place here, particularly on our campus, that can help you move forward.

If anyone ever feels like that might be the case for them, please reach out to the Center of Diversity and Inclusion, reach out to me personally, reach out to our Equal Opportunity Services office or our Dean of Students office. There are a lot of different departments that are willing and want to support students if they have that experience.

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