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An Interview With Pam Phayme, Director of Diversity at Barnard

December 1, 2010

Listen To The Interview: Interview With Pam Phayme

Jordan Alam: Ok, so this is an interview with Pamela Phayme, the Director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives at Barnard College and we’re going to start off with her describing her role a little bit more, about what it means to be the Director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives.

Pamela Phayme: Ok, hello. My name is Pam Phayme, I’m the Director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives here at Barnard. When I think about my role on the campus, I kind of think about it in three main components. So, first I spearhead a lot of cultural activities, social justice programming, programming that focuses on multiculturalism for the campus, so whether that’s taking the lead on various heritage month celebrations to co-chairing committees that explore different areas of diversity. The queer central committee with administrators, faculty members, and students. Producing leadership retreats. Diversity dialogue lunches. Programming is definitely something that’s a pretty large component of my position. The second component is advising cultural clubs and organizations or really just working with students on exploring various leadership opportunities. So, what does it look like to be a leader on Barnard’s campus, what are opportunities to explore leadership in areas of interest.  And then the third kind of large area of my job includes facilitating various diversity training sessions that explore different areas of social justice for different undergraduate student groups. So I’ve worked with RAs and Orientation Leaders and all different other types of students to help them kind of jell as teams and also think about ways that they can be inclusive in either their recruitment efforts or their work with other students.

JA: Thank you for that. What do you think the significance of having the Office of Diversity Initiatives is and how do you go about creating diversity acceptance through those components that you were talking about in your role at Barnard?

PP: I think the significance of having an office on a campus, whether it’s an Office of Diversity Initiatives, an Office of Multicultural Affairs, I think what that shows on behalf of the institution is a commitment to the issues. Commitment to issues of diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice, really creating an environment on campus where it’s ok to kind of explore these issues and kind of delve into some more difficult topics. I think it’s especially significant in today’s era just because our world is changing. College students, the skills that they need in order to be successful in their lives after they graduate from our institutions, they need a completely different skill set than something that they might have needed 50 years ago or 60 years ago, so when I look at the impact of having this type of office or a space for these types of programs and conversations to flow on behalf of the institution it shows a real commitment to making sure that the institution is producing the type of graduates who will be prepared to be successful in the workplace, whether it’s — well, in the workplace or just kind of in our global society at large — I mean whether a student chooses to pursue a career after graduation, perhaps, you know, consider some other educational option, whether they want to go and do volunteer work. No matter where you go, you’re always going to be encountering people that are different from you, and it’s going to be really critical that you are self-aware to know what you’re bringing to the table but also too that you know how to interact and be accepting –  I don’t even want to say be tolerant because to me tolerance is just like: ok, I can tolerate but I don’t have any desire to engage you. I can tolerate you but I don’t necessarily feel the need to include you. So it’s not just about tolerance, it’s more about self-acceptance and inclusion.

JA: And, you were talking a little bit about acceptance. How does Barnard define diversity acceptance, and also larger colleges, how do they define or measure that sort of idea?

PP: Ok, that’s actually a really great question and it’s a difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons. One, when we think about issues of diversity just in general, I think it’s a natural inclination for people to say, you know, to kind of have some general anxieties around ok, when we’re talking about diversity, who are we talking about? What does that mean? How are we qualifying that particular term? So it’s always just important just to acknowledge that even the word diversity can be pretty loaded for some people. It’s like, ok, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know whether that includes me, et cetera. So I think, as a field, or as student affairs professionals and what you’ll find that a lot of colleges and universities doing is that you have to craft a definition of diversity that is going to work well for your campus and what that needs to look like for your particular students. So whether diversity is being able to help students explore what it means to be good community members, for colleges and institutions that are a part of whatever larger environment that they live in. Whether it’s about being inclusive and being able to hear different voices and hear different, have different people at the table for institutions that are preparing students to go right into the business world, et cetera. So I think the definition of diversity is one that’s very broad and I think that sometimes that can be really challenging for folks. Because it’s like, ok, we have this big diversity umbrella up but either we don’t know what’s underneath the umbrella or we know what’s there but we don’t necessarily want to talk about those things. We don’t want to have a conversation about race and ethnicity, we don’t want to have a specific conversation about sexual orientation, about class, about geographic differences, about our experiences and how that has come to shape who we are. So, it can be a challenge, I think, across the board, in terms of creating a definition. For diversity at Barnard, I know that one thing that senior level of administrations really want to do is make sure that when we look at issues of diversity that we’re looking at it from the broadest perspective possible. So that it’s not a silo conversation. So, ok, we’re talking about race and ethnicity over here, and sexual orientation over here, political affiliation over here. To me, diversity is all about intersectionality. And it’s about the places where we as individuals, or we as collective bodies of people, where we overlap. It’s about kind of finding that common ground between people. But it’s also, it goes deeper than just kind of looking for the common ground. It’s about saying, ok yes, I acknowledge that you’re different from me and I have a difference from you, and that’s ok. And we can engage in a meaningful conversation about that — and we don’t necessarily have to agree, but I’m willing to kind of come to the table and listen to what you have to say and hear where you’re coming from.

JA: Thanks for that. Obviously, Barnard is a women’s college next to Columbia, which is a co-ed school, and they have probably different approaches to the same ideas of diversity because of that gender difference. So what do you think are the differences between working in a women’s college as opposed to a co-ed university and, especially since we’re a private institution, how does that affect the idea of diversity and diversity acceptance?

PP: Ok. I am going to kind of break the question down just a little bit. First, one of the benefits of working in a private institution, particularly when it comes to issues of diversity and multiculturalism, is that sometimes you are not necessarily boxed in or limited to regulations that are put forth, whether it’s by public funding sources, state funding sources, et cetera. So I think that private schools have the ability to create more leeway and have the ability to create their own definitions of what that looks like now. Also with that privilege, to have the opportunity to do that, it also comes with a lot of responsibility. So because there may not necessarily be a federal or a state source kind of looking in and saying ok, this is what, this is what diversity needs to look like at this particular place, this is the amount of funds that you need to put towards those particular efforts, it gives a lot of agency back to the institution. And with it, it comes with a lot of responsibility. So kind of just making sure that we’re able to use our resources effectively, resources being financial and also human capital. And really creating a space where we’re able to invest in our students, and give them the type of quality opportunities that they need in order to take what they learn at Barnard and have it translate very well outside of the environment. In terms of differences between a single sex and a co-ed institution, I think, especially recently, with a lot of the conversations kind of talking about post-racialism, where we are as an American society, that there is a lot of conversation around ok, why are, why is the single sex institution still needed? And is it still relevant? Kind of given that women now make up 60% of the student body, you know, across various higher ed education institutions. But, I think that the privilege of working at a single sex institution, there’s an acknowledgement that yes, while we have made several strides as women and in women’s education, that there are still significant strides and steps to take. And there’s a lot of benefit and value in investing, there’s a lot benefit and value in investing in women. You educate a woman, you educate an entire community. The importance of women having agency, women having a voice, women having power. And, even for me, working at a single sex institution, has been so extremely empowering. Just being able to see members of a senior administration who look like me. Like, I’ve worked at an institution before where the entire senior leadership was made up of white men. And you donn’t realize, or I didn’t realize in the moment, the message that that sent to me was that ok, there’s a certain level to which you can attain, but past this it’s not for you, it’s not open to you. I didn’t even have someone to say, well hmm, you know, I have something in common with this particular person, so maybe I can attain to where that is. And I think, for me, when I first started working at Barnard, I found — I’ll never forget it — it was like the first two weeks that I had gotten there, I went to a committee meeting in the alumnae center that was, you know, consisted of like a lot of senior level administrators, and I’m sitting at a table with all women. You know, like everyone in the room was alum and there were a few women of color also present. And I think for me, that was the moment where I was like wow, ok, if I choose to make this happen for me, I can do it. Because I’m in a place where I’m seeing that it’s possible. You didn’t realize how, I didn’t realize how limiting it was, even psychologically, until I was kind of out of the environment into another one. So I feel really privileged to have an opportunity work in a single sex institution. I believe in, you know, the power of women’s education, I believe in investing in girls’ and women’s experiences. So, but you know, the learning is a two-way street. Just like, you know, I hope that my office and the work that I do at Barnard can have an impact on my students, I know that every day I learn something new from them, every day I’m impressed with the ways that they’re growing, the ways that they’re challenging themselves, and the way that they’re able to kind of explore what’s outside the box.

JA: Thanks. Final question, in your opinion, how does Barnard shape up in comparison to other liberal arts colleges, now that we’ve been talking a little bit about comparisons in how they treat diversity and how they treat people of color in the community. So, how does it shape up in comparison to other liberal arts colleges that you know of when it comes to creating a safe community for diversity?

Voice in the background: It rocks!

PP: (laughs) I think that Barnard’s doing, I think that Barnard’s doing a solid job. From my perspective, I know that these are issues and conversations that my colleagues are very committed to. And that’s not necessarily — And I say that statement very purposely, just because I have colleagues and I have friends that work in other institutions that aren’t as open to having the conversation about diversity. And you know, they kind of talk a good game — like ok, our students need to be globally aware, you know, they need to be, you know, aware of their diversity — but there’s no resources put to making that happen, whether it be financial — there’s no office, there’s no, you know, one person kind of making sure these initiatives kind of happen, et cetera. So in that regard, I think that Barnard’s doing a good job. But you know, one thing that you never want to do is just kind of rest on your laurels and just get complacent. So you can be doing a good job but you have to constantly think ok, what do we need to do in order to be better? What do we need in order to effectively reach more students? What do we need to do to make this conversation more real for students? Because it easy to kind of go there and you’re just like right on the edge, and it’s like ok, I talked about it, and now I’m done. But making sure that it’s a conversation that doesn’t just happen in my office, that it’s a conversation that students talk about in their classrooms, that it’s a conversation that happens in the residence halls, in the dining halls, that regardless of where you go on this campus, it’s not the charge of one person or the task of one particular office to make inclusion happen. It has to be organic and it has to come from the community.

JA: Alright, thank you so much for your interview. That was, again, Pamela Phayme, the Director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives at Barnard College.

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2 Responses to An Interview With Pam Phayme, Director of Diversity at Barnard

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  2. [...] whether that’s taking the lead on various heritage month celebrations to co-chairing …Continue Reading var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_localize = { Share: "Share", Save: "Save", Subscribe: [...]

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