Driving Social Change: Dr. Kimberly Barrett
In late August, Dr. Kimberly Barrett joined Lawrence University in Appleton as Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Dean of the Faculty. Her mission
is to advance the institution’s commitment to diversity
While Lawrence had an interest in improving its diversity and inclusion efforts for some time, protests at the university last year and the changing nature of the world made creating her position a priority.
“There is a trend to create inclusive environments, not just at Lawrence University but every place,” says Barrett. “We are challenged to take up the fight and finish this unfinished work of social justice as it relates to higher education.”
PASSION FOR POSITIVE CHANGE
Barrett was born in Columbia, South Carolina, as the daughter of a drill sergeant and a nurse. “I was fortunate to have a family that was supportive of education and
encouraged me to be assertive and follow my dreams while honoring the rights of others,” she adds.
The 52-year-old has always had a passion for helping to create positive social change. “My activities in school and career choices were guided by my desire to make a difference, to whatever extent my unique talents might allow, and contribute to making life better for others and change the world, at least within my realm of influence, in some way,” she says.
Barrett has more than 25 years’ experience working with college students as well as faculty, governing boards, community members and others to promote learning, student development, social justice and diversity.
Prior to joining Lawrence, Barrett served as Vice President for Multicultural Affairs and Community Engagement at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She’s held several additional administrative positions in higher education, including Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Montevallo (Alabama), Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Development and Diversity at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Vice Provost at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada and the founding director of the Women’s Center at Murray State University in Kentucky, among others.
Every job change and move from one university to the next allowed Barrett to build on her experience and seniority so she could achieve her ultimate goal of making a difference in a big way.
JOINING LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY
While universities across the country have been experiencing protests, with race discrimination and transgender issues among the greatest concerns, more and more institutions are stepping up to address the issues systematically. Barrett explains this includes hiring more faculty and staff that reflect the diversity of the community, in the U.S. and the world.
“Higher education plays a central role in promoting diversity and inclusion. We can help prepare students to live in a diverse, global society, not only in terms of the skills they need in the workplace but to also live happy, fulfilling lives,” says Barrett.
Barrett explains she accepted the position as Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Dean of the Faculty because it was the perfect opportunity to continue her social justice work within higher education at a prestigious liberal arts university. She is challenged with the task of collaborating with faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members and other external constituencies to advance the institution’s commitment to all aspects of diversity and inclusion.
Barrett’s days are full, attending meetings and speaking events both on and off campus. Much of her time is spent listening, in both forums and structured dialogues and through informal means. She is sharing her initial vision for the position with everyone she meets.
“I am in the process of making sure everyone has a voice, particularly as it relates to the work of this new office,” she says. “I have found that there are many people on campus and in the community committed to making Lawrence and Appleton more inclusive.”
The move to Appleton also brought her closer to her son and his wife. “This is the first time in my son’s adult life that I have lived so close. It is proving to be a great improvement in the quality of life for my family,” she adds.
MAKING AN IMPACT
While it’s difficult to see an improvement in social justice overnight, Barrett explains she hopes her role has instilled some optimism and hope in the community.
“I think last year across higher education it was pretty traumatic for those of us who work as administrators to learn the many ways we are still falling short in terms of making sure our campuses are welcoming and meeting the needs of all of our students,” she says. “So, I think what people need is to know here is a path forward. I think I have begun to show the campus community and I will begin to articulate that to the Appleton community that there is a path forward — we can work together and we can make this an inclusive place.”
By working with faculty, Barrett hopes to create more inclusive classrooms. She says the curriculum should also be inclusive from a diverse perspective.
“I hope to institutionalize inclusion so that all employees and students take an equity-minded approach to their work and learning,” Barrett adds. She suggests the way to improve diversity and inclusion will require changing practices — changing the way things are done every day.
“It isn’t adding new programs, it is looking at how do we take an equity-minded approach, an approach that takes into account the history of exclusion in our country and make sure moving forward we are doing things in a different way so it is inclusive. Everyone has a voice and can have their needs met,” she says.
In terms of the public being able to see the positive change, Barrett explains there will be more diversity of employees and students seen on the campus. She also hopes for a more seamless interaction and integration between the campus and community and fewer complains with regards to harassment and discrimination.
“I hope to create a multicultural milieu in which we see all of the world reflected on the Lawrence campus and in the Appleton community,” says Barrett. “I also want to create an environment in which each person affiliated with Lawrence is able to reach their unique potential, unhindered by systemic discrimination or individual acts of hate.”
Barrett explains a change in culture is sometimes subtle, but she believes the university and community will notice a significant improvement in diversity and inclusion within the next few years. w