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'Different and Daring Because of Diversity'

UNLV’s new Chief Diversity Officer Barbee Oakes on building cultural intelligence and opening the pipeline for advancement.

Campus News  |  Sep 25, 2017  |  By Juliet Casey
Barbee Oakes, chief diversity officer in hallway.

Barbee Oakes, Chief Diversity Officer (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

Producing graduates empowered to thrive in the ever-changing, hyper-competitive global marketplace of the 21st century hinges on creating an institutional infrastructure that enables them to develop global perspectives, enhances their cultural intelligence, and improves their cross-cultural communication skills.

When it comes to doing all three at UNLV, Barbee Oakes is uniquely qualified. As the new chief diversity officer (her first day was Sept. 1), she is ready to transform the nation’s most diverse campus for undergraduates into a model of inclusion and equity.

Step into her office, and it is easy to see what informs her perspective.

Visitors are welcomed by a sweeping mosaic of framed family moments, memorable ceremonies, embroideries, awards, and diplomas. In one photo, Oakes beams in a group shot with former First Lady Michelle Obama. In another, she is flanked by several women, including U.S. Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter.

“Diversity is all about the mix,” said Oakes. “As you increase diversity, you have to be intentional in order to foster inclusion or to make the mix work. Here at UNLV, we have to get better at understanding different attitudes, values, and behaviors in order to build the cultural intelligence of our people. This is crucial because I see UNLV as a microcosm of what America is going to look like in the next couple of decades.”

Now that UNLV has reached the top spot on U.S. News & World Report’s listing of most diverse campuses for undergraduates, Oakes sees an opportunity.

Oakes brings nearly three decades of experience as a champion for diversity and inclusion at Wake Forest University to the job of leading UNLV’s Office of Diversity Initiatives. She became Wake Forest’s first chief diversity officer and served as assistant provost for diversity and inclusion. Her pioneering leadership won her several national awards and recognition, including being named in 2012 as one of 25 Women Making a Difference in Higher Education by Diverse Issues in Higher Education Magazine.

“At UNLV, we’re going to have to be different and daring because of our diversity,” she said. “My platform for UNLV is, first, building cultural intelligence through courses, workshops and experiential learning opportunities for faculty, staff and students; and, second, leveraging opportunities for promotion and success by creating pipeline programs.”

With a similar agenda, Wake Forest launched a number of programs and opportunities for students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Oakes was the lead author of the university’s first strategic plan for diversity and inclusion, among the most expansive such plans published at the time, according to Wake Forest Provost Rogan Kersh.

Oakes brought in visiting professors and took students abroad.

These interactions led to lasting relationships that continue to flourish and contribute to the ever-increasing “cultural intelligence” it takes for successful inclusion amid rich diversity, Oakes said.

For instance, as part of the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in January 2016, Shabazz and her sister Ilyasah Shabazz visited Wake Forest University as part of a panel discussion about their family’s relationship with the Kings during and after the Civil Rights Movement. The event led to Ambassador Shabazz inviting Oakes to join a global women’s delegation in Belize the following September. There, Shabazz introduced her to government and corporate leaders, and community activists. Oakes said it was a great opportunity to see firsthand how initiatives driven by inclusion and equity transform the prospects of individuals and their families, especially for those marginalized by society.

“Ambassador Shabazz works on a myriad of leadership initiatives for women in Belize,” Oakes said. “For example, many of the imprisoned women committed nonviolent offenses, but they have limited employment opportunities after incarceration because they lack job skills. Ms. Shabazz created computer labs and coordinates classes for the women’s prison. I want to expand international service learning programs to include places like Belize; especially for first-generation students who seek to broaden their understanding of global citizenship.”

Additionally, UNLV could benefit from visiting-scholar programs she hopes to develop. These would include bringing high-profile professors-in-residence from diverse identities to teach. Professors-in-residence enhance the cultural intelligence of a diverse student body, showing them how to truly engage in dialogue, how to communicate through conflict, and look beyond factors such as race and ethnicity, she said.

“People feel connected when they believe that they matter. Then, they also give, they help, they create. Just having diversity on campus doesn’t mean individuals feel valued or that they know how to communicate and form relationships across differences,” Oakes said. “We have to build trust and understanding. That’s going to take a lot of work – daring – and involves changing institutional policies to provide the tools and resources to help everyone feel that they belong here.”

At UNLV, where more than half the undergraduate students report being part of an ethnic or racial minority, and where more than 30 percent of them represent the first generation in their family to pursue a college degree, The Intersection might be a natural starting point for Oakes’ plans to promote student inclusion.

The Intersection, an academic multicultural resource center, opened this past spring in the Student Union. It’s an initiative from the executive vice president and provost aimed at improving student success and graduation rates, and building a sense of belonging on campus.

Harriet Barlow, executive director of The Intersection, was among the members of a search committee that brought Oakes to UNLV.
“I’m happy she’s here,” Barlow said, adding that in the short time Oakes has been on campus, she has helped with student discussions about anticipated changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Barlow said she anticipates Oakes will be key to fostering more conversations on campus that promote inclusion and equity, particularly through training.

Oakes said she is impressed with The Intersection, adding that its mission for inclusion on campus is “right on target.” She aims to collaborate with various units to solidify diversity as a fundamental institutional value that transforms UNLV’s campus culture and by extension the broader community. ‘What’s the F.U.S.S.@UNLV?’ is the network Oakes plans to construct to highlight strategies that "Foster Undergraduate Student Success."

“Aside from the diverse representation of our campus, UNLV’s greatest advantage is that we have an administration willing to take bold steps and engage with students, faculty, staff, and even alumni, who are critical to extending our ideals of diversity and inclusion into the world,” she said.

As a graduate student, Oakes was the only black woman in her doctoral program, exercise physiology and nutrition. “There simply weren’t pipelines for people like me to enter the field,” Oakes said. “There were also very few role models of color to show us the way.”

She found one of her roles models in the first black female professor at Wake Forest, who told her, “If no one else has ever done it, you can be the first!”

This had a profound impact on her professional trajectory, she said. As Oakes advanced up the rungs of academia, she continually broke barriers as the first African-American woman in a variety of posts. “When I moved into administration,” she said, “I immediately launched pipeline initiatives for people from underrepresented groups. Students and faculty of color, first-generation students, LGBTQ students, those from low-income families — they all need support and advising to help them enlarge their vision for what’s possible for their lives. Their accomplishment is going to be vital to our success as a university, and as part of a global community.”