National publications continually rank UNLV as one of the nation's most ethnically diverse universities. That is no secret. What is less known is that those underrepresented groups struggle to stay enrolled and complete their degrees at the same rate as their peers. That trend is documented at UNLV and across the nation.
Working to reverse that, however, is Mary Whitehead, director of the office of student diversity and social justice (SDSJ). Founded in 2018 in response to student activism, SDSJ extends a hand to students who have traditionally found college isolating, challenging to navigate, or even hostile. The goal is to support those students, nurture a community for them, and navigate barriers in hopes those students complete their studies.
With a summer of social unrest sparked by the police-involved death of George Floyd and the systemic racism that has led to the execution of Black people's bodies, Whitehead and her team's work has gained increased attention. Appreciative of the spotlight, Whitehead emphasizes that an anti-racist and trauma-informed approach is required to see lasting progress.
Tell us about your role and the office of student diversity & social justice itself.
As director, I am responsible for advocating for institutional programs and services that support and retain historically marginalized students through establishing collaborative campus and community partnerships. Our office serves as a resource and an advocate for students from marginalized and underserved communities.
When fully staffed, we will have eight full-time staff members. That includes me, assistant directors of student diversity and social justice, and five program coordinators. The program coordinators oversee their identity-specific programs, including LatinX, Black/African American, Native American, LGBTQ and gender, APIME (Asian Pacific Island and Middle Eastern), and international students. Four graduate assistants handle intercultural programming, which focuses on outreach and education, program assessments, peer mentoring, and social justice education. Coupled with a slew of student staff assisting across the board, we do a lot in our office with a pretty extensive impact.
How did you get into the field of social justice advocacy?
My father was the first person in my life to incorporate social justice into his life. We may not have called it that at the time, but he is my role model. We grew up in Chicago in a very urban area. People called him the "ghetto preacher." To some, that might be a negative connotation, but it wasn't for my father. He was proud to center his ministry on the needs of our community. He taught us to give back to the community, to recognize that everyone has different needs and that they may be struggling, but my father was there for them. He provided services, and I think that was the first time I learned that, beyond the concept of caring for someone, there exist systems and institutions that significantly impact our community. It underscored that no one chooses to struggle, but we can establish resources that aid in shifting circumstances.
What I take away most from my dad is that he showed me the struggles, but he also showed me the possibilities. And you or I can be the catalyst or change agent to impact people's lives. At a very young age, I started giving to others and supporting them, and that is how I got into the field.
What are the misconceptions about your work?
People see this work as though it is a problem to solve. But really, diversity is about learning something new, and we do that every day.
Sometimes, when we talk about these topics, barriers go up, and there is an assumption that someone has to have something taken away for others to have justice, which is not true. That sentiment often comes from people with privilege and power, but I think those are the very people who stand to gain so much from this. I am trying to shift that mentality; this is not something horrible or a problem to solve. It is not about changing the people as much as it is about changing the system.
Secondly, if I could get people to think about the benefit when we have real social justice and liberation — without trauma, without barriers — it is beneficial to the institution. Still, sometimes we get so stuck with our traditions. And the narrative becomes that if we change, that is somehow a problem. But in actuality, you need to change as an institution to grow. The misconception is that changing is somehow bad, hard, or overwhelming. It is not hard if you incorporate these things into your daily life. I want to shift the thinking, so people realize this work is beneficial if you allow us to do it.
What's the most daring thing you've done personally or professionally?
Being Black is daring. My Black body is a form of resistance simply because I exist, and even more specifically, being a Black woman, with the lack of protection we have, is daring.
I took this role knowing that it requires me to put my job or safety at risk to advocate for those at the margin, amplifying their voice and eradicating oppressive systems and practices at the institution. I take my role very seriously, so I do not hold my words, because what would be the point of being in this position if I do not address or challenge areas that don't meet the needs of our students? So, yes, I have to be daring and willing to take some risk because our students matter. Their lives matter.
National events have brought more attention to your area of work this year. How has that changed your job?
There is obviously an increase in demand, which is really exciting and amazing. We have seen an increase in campus partners wanting to work with our office on collaborative initiatives. One of my goals is to connect more to the academic area of the institution. I would love to improve the faculty-student engagement as research shows that a factor impacting student retention is faculty interactions and a sense of belonging. We know that a holistic approach to support our students cannot be built in silos, so at the core of SDSJ's mission is to build coalitions and partnerships within UNLV and Las Vegas. But overall, we see that diversity and social justice have become a priority for people. We hope that colleagues continue to establish practices/policies that support equity and liberation for marginalized communities.
People are increasingly asking how they can support their Black friends and neighbors. How do you answer that question?
Our office put together a comprehensive resource at the peak of this summer's unrest, and that is a great document to reference. However, this may be difficult for people to hear, but you are responsible for doing the work. It is crucial to do work and research before asking for help learning about a particular topic. There are so many departments and online resources on and off campus to promote understanding of these topics. So before you ask a friend about police brutality and how it impacts them, research the historical and current impact on the Black community on your own. Because sometimes, you may be asking people who are living this trauma to relive it to educate you, when you could do some of that work yourself. Now, if you do all that and you are at a place where you want to have a dialogue, ask yourself what you are willing to risk to be an ally or an accomplice. While the intent may not be to harm anyone, the person you are asking could be putting a lot at risk to educate you or give you this information.
As it relates to remote work, what's been the biggest challenge for you professionally?
Our work is community-based, so it requires being in the community to bounce ideas off each other, so just not being there physically is a challenge. Additionally, remote work or education is a challenge for some people because home is not a safe place for everyone. On the flip side, we have a student population that predominantly commutes to campus, and they cannot always make it to campus and be involved in activities. So some of our programs became more accessible to them once we went virtual. So hopefully, when we get to a place where we are back on campus, we can have a hybrid model where we continue to reach both groups.
How do you unwind and unplug?
Radical self-care. I subscribe to the idea that sometimes I will not look at things that disturb me. I like to read science fiction, thrillers, and I am also into anime. People call me a "blerd," which is short for a Black nerd because I love anime so much. And even though that is an escape for me, anime can often cover some important social issues.
Also, I come from a musical family — the talent skipped me for some reason. I did theater in undergrad, so I truly enjoy the arts, from music, dance, creative writing, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic and crafts, industrial design, costume, and fashion design, motion pictures, television, radio, and film. It allows me to escape to a world of my own imagination and explore possibilities. I mean, it takes me back to when I was younger and how my father's positive affirmations encouraged me to be Black, beautiful, and bold — that my Blackness is powerful and loved, that I matter, and I am necessary in this world.
What's one TV show, book, or movie you enjoy that might surprise others?
"Hunter x Hunter'' (a Japanese manga comic series in distribution since 1998) is one of my favorites. I have a subscription to Crunchyroll (an online distributor of anime, manga, and drama comics), and it has every different type of anime imaginable. But my favorite non-anime book is The Alchemist. It is a simple book that tells the story of a journey, and I am a fan when it comes to journeys and finding yourself. I remember getting this book as a gift when I was a graduate assistant in residence life (at Loyola University Chicago) from a resident assistant because we had multiple deep conversations about our various journeys in life. It has a very special place in my heart.
What's something you're excited to do once you're back on campus?
I like being around students. They crack me up sometimes. They are so funny, and they are the highlight of my day. So even though we serve them, when they come into the office, even if it is a serious topic they want to discuss, or if they want to unload about something happening in pop culture, it feels good knowing they trust us. I am looking forward to getting back to being around them.
How do you stay motivated in your role?
Because when we create an inclusive space for our students, we are fostering their success at our institution, and that success can save their lives. I keep that in mind always, and that is what motivates me. There are moments when I have to remind myself that what I do matters, and that it saves lives. There are moments where I may feel hopeless and that this work is never-ending. … So when I come across barriers or resistance, I have to make sure I center joy in my work and celebrate with the community because that is essential. As a social justice practitioner and activist, the impact of this work can cause racial trauma, racial battle fatigue, compassion fatigue, etc., so radical self-care and collective care has been the best approach to developing healthy strategies. Beyond the collective love, my motivation starts within, and I learned quickly that it is crucial to give yourself grace and forgiveness.