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A collective effort for change

The U’s Inaugural vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion gets to work building bridges across campus.

When Mary Ann Villarreal joined the U community on July 1, 2019, she spoke about “working in partnership across campus with a focus on equity and inclusion that reaches across the entire institution.” In January 2020, six months into her role as the U’s inaugural vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), she took an important step toward that goal by inviting campus partners to a training with Kevin Fong.

“I have worked with Kevin for several years and I trusted that he would be the right person to read the strengths and talents of my team and our partners and help us to gel better,” said Villarreal.

Fong is the founder and president of Elemental Partners. He is a nationally recognized cultural translator, facilitator and trainer in racial healing, executive development and organizational design. His mission is to “clarify purpose, align principles and integrate systems to cultivate health and prosperity in organizations and communities.”

Villarreal said when she first arrived on campus, she could feel a certain level of exhaustion in the people and departments doing work around equity, diversity and inclusion.

“We have a number of people doing pockets of excellence around this work, but often they are doing it alone or in small groups,” said Villarreal. “So, I think the exhaustion certainly wasn’t for lack of commitment, but for lack of connection.”

Jewel Poss (left), administrative assistant for the vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Lori McDonald (center), vice president for student affairs and Bryan Hubain (right), associate vice president for student development and inclusion in the office of the vice president for student affairs.

Jewel Poss (left), administrative assistant for the vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Lori McDonald (center), vice president for Student Affairs and Bryan Hubain (right), associate vice president for Student Development and Inclusion in the office of the vice president for Student Affairs.

In thinking about how she could use her new role for both capacity building and collective community building, Villarreal said she kept coming back to what Fong describes as building the “EDI and healing muscle.”

“As I thought about who our campus partners are, I realized we essentially had three categories of people: The ones we (EDI) didn’t have strong relationships with but we needed one, people who might’ve had a strained relationship with EDI and then there were the people we’ve had a historical relationship with but now it’s a new division so, what does that look like,” said Villarreal.

Fong visited the U for two days. The first day, he met only with the EDI team. The second day included EDI and more than 20 others engaging in social justice work across campus and the Salt Lake community including U of U Health, the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, University Communications, the president’s office, Salt Lake Community College and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office.

“This training was incredibly valuable for our campus community,” said Cassie Slattery, who worked in the Office of the President. “I got to know several colleagues and partners and discuss how we may be able to collaborate in the future. Fong’s lessons in building bridges certainly remind us that we are stronger when we work together as ‘One U.’”

Villarreal said she knows she alone does not have the capacity to make the change needed on campus. She views Fong’s visit as an opportunity to hit a reset button and think about opportunities to build bridges.

“We are all engaged in efforts of change but in the silos of our locations,” said Villarreal. “For me, this was an opportunity for us to begin weaving this work through the fabric of who we are as an institution. This is the start of conversations about how we all work together.”

Villarreal has already planned the next opportunity for EDI and its campus partners to come together and develop a vision for the work ahead. She has invited Betty Overton and John Burkhardt from the University of Michigan to meet with focus groups at the U this month to engage those on campus who need to own the equity, diversity and inclusion vision into the culture and practices of the broader U community and ultimately the surrounding community.

Burkhardt and Overton have extensive experience developing and funding new programs, and deepening institutional commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. Over the course of their careers, they have established and grown initiatives that have led to the institutionalization of centers and national programs on the forefront of national conversations responding to the changing landscape of EDI.

The U established an associate vice president to oversee diverse academic programs in 1983; a year later that position was refocused to have broad responsibility for campus diversity efforts. The appointment of Villarreal elevated the position and office as part of the president’s cabinet.