Embracing the Richness of Diversity at Saint Mary’s

The College Committee on Inclusive Excellence advances pathways to equity and inclusion.

By Kay Carney  /  Photography by James Calcagno

The Saint Mary’s College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE) has been committed for more than 10 years to advancing the goal of achieving inclusive excellence at all levels of the College community. This ongoing effort is supported by the CCIE’s mission to call upon students, faculty, administrators, and staff from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds to come together to grow in knowledge, wisdom, and compassion to become active and effective global citizens.

Efforts such as the aforementioned occur in the most visible of places on campus, and in conference room meetings where strategies are mapped out and honest dialogue ensures that representation is fair and just. Some of the more outward-facing actions of the CCIE have been the notable and sometimes controversial guests that it has sponsored to speak at Saint Mary’s: Ryan Coogler, award-winning director, producer, and screenwriter whose riveting movie Fruitvale Station tells the true story of an armed white police officer who kills a young unarmed black man; and Melissa Harris-Perry, award-winning political commentator, author, and host of the often confrontational Melissa Harris-Perry Show that aired for four years on MSNBC. Harris-Perry recently presented at Saint Mary’s on “Representation: Power, Resistance, and Media in American Politics,” during the College’s 44 Days Honoring Black History co-sponsored by the CCIE.

The College leadership in collaboration with the CCIE advanced efforts to hire a full-time administrator with significant experience in diversity and inclusion. In 2019, Kathy Littles ’94, PhD, joined the Saint Mary’s community as the inaugural associate provost for Faculty Affairs and senior diversity officer. Part of Littles’ responsibilities include serving as co-chair of the CCIE along with Margaret Kasimatis, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. 

Littles shared that she is excited to return to her alma mater to deliver on her passion about the critical importance of diversity and inclusion. “I’ve always been very passionate about this work around diversity, equity, and social justice because I really do think it’s at the core of everybody’s struggle of what it means to be human, what it means to think beyond yourself, and what it means to be in community with other people,” said Littles. Her work takes her far beyond the dictionary definition of diversity and inclusion. It’s an area that people hear a lot about, but don’t necessarily understand all of the varying components and intricacies involved within this sector. “The term diversity and inclusion is tossed around a lot, and people in my industry call it diversity fatigue. But diversity to me is about differences and honoring differences. Differences of ideas, differences beyond the self that contribute to a rich, robust society conversation,” said Littles. “Diversity is about understanding the differences of what it means to be human. Certainly, it is defined by our social categories: race, gender, age, and ideas as well. Bringing people to the table is one thing, but integrating ideas to have conversations where people feel heard and are moved to act is the goal.”

Part of Littles’ job responsibility is faculty affairs. One of her goals is to recruit, support, and retain diverse faculty scholars at Saint Mary’s and to do it in a meaningful way. “I think the retention of faculty is huge. It was brought to my attention that this is an aspect of the job that needs to be addressed, and one of the things that I can put in place is to have open communication, support collaborations with faculty to ensure that they stay, and to see that they are getting the support that they need to be outstanding teachers and scholars,” said Littles.

Another goal that Littles plans to achieve aims to increase and enhance opportunities for faculty professional development and learning that is grounded in inclusive excellence, diversity, and equity. She will achieve this by providing support resources, workshops for faculty, and by offering ongoing support that will assist in their professional development both in and out of the classroom. “I want to foster or help create a campus culture that engages all of us in dialoguing around diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. You can’t move the needle without conversation, collaboration, and then action,” said Littles.

"I think what we are witnessing, both in our community, around the country and around the world is a failure to understand the generational trauma of slavery. America’s inability to come to terms with the historical trauma undermines the true history of blackness and of Black folks in this country.” —Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Senior Diversity Officer Kathy Littles

Littles’ work puts her in the position of being a three-way collaborator, and a leader and a partner with faculty. “I don’t think I can work with faculty without having an ear to what the student needs are and what the staff needs are. I certainly have all three facets coming to see me, and I think they are wonderfully interconnected here at Saint Mary’s,” said Littles.

It’s essential to talk about differences and change and equity, but if people aren’t moved to act to address larger issues of social justice and social change, then it falls flat. Littles shared that diversity practitioners can help others to look at the multiplicity and pluralities of what it means to be human, and how those things are brought to the table in terms of recruitment, retention, conversation, voice, who has access, who doesn’t have access, and more.

Littles’ work as associate provost for Faculty Affairs and senior diversity officer provides her with the opportunity to work toward a vision of what Saint Mary’s will have achieved with its diversity and inclusion efforts in five years. “In five years, Saint Mary’s will be a model for inclusive excellence. Faculty development will have a model mentoring program for faculty throughout their career—this means mentoring and professional development for new, midcareer, and faculty approaching retirement. Chairs and directors will have the resources and support for their own professional development as leaders. We will have ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops, training and resources that include implicit bias training for all search committees. We will have a campus environment where everyone feels heard and engaged, and we’ll have a core understanding and belief of the importance of diversity, equity, and social justice,” affirmed Littles.

Working to achieve her five-year vision does have its challenges when issues of racism, social justice, and inequity are at the forefront of the global and national agenda. It impacts students, faculty, and staff who are members of the College’s Black community, as well as White students, faculty, and colleagues who are committed to being active supporters and accomplices in bringing truth to power with Black Lives Matter and the work for social justice.

The recent murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer in full public view and the recording of the killing resulted in an unprecedented level of protests and social unrest in the United States and abroad. Littles shared that generational trauma that has not been addressed is one of the root causes of racism in America. “I think what we are witnessing—in our community, around the country, and around the world—is a failure to understand the generational trauma of slavery. America’s inability to come to terms with the historical trauma undermines the true history of blackness and of Black folks in this country,” said Littles. She relates this to Black families who have the all-too-familiar conversation with their children about how to respond to the police, with the hope that their loved ones won’t become yet another victim of police brutality because of the color of their skin. “These kitchen table conversations are steeped in racial trauma for all of us,” said Littles. “If you really stop and think about how horrific that is, that families have to have this conversation, it represents a loss of innocence for our children and that, at that moment, our children are no longer free to just be kids.”

Littles further explained how history, from the arrival of Blacks as slaves to current day, is etched into the very fabric of our nation in a painful way. “I think that in a large sense, we have been sold a false narrative about this country and the contributions of Black people to this country, which has minimized our contribution and historically placed us in a position of being considered less than human,” said Littles. “What we witnessed, the murder of Mr. Floyd, has happened in the Black community since we were brought here. The abuse of our bodies, the literal policing of our Black bodies, is very much a part of the fabric in America.”

While there have been protests and social unrest in the past over the systematic killing of Black people by police and neighborhood racists, and the continued profiling of Black men as threats to society, the George Floyd murder penetrated an even deeper nerve—one that has been felt by Whites and other non-Black people of color. In large numbers, Whites are aligning and supporting Black Lives Matter, with many standing on the front lines of demonstrations and protests. “In my conversation with Black elders, they’ve noted that today’s protests are now multicultural. In the ’60s, you would see a sprinkling of White people. But today, many of the protests are majority non-Black folks,” said Littles. “And little children making and carrying signs is a huge shift for us as a country—and the world is watching.”

As the associate provost for Faculty Affairs and senior diversity officer, Littles notes that Saint Mary’s is a microcosm of our nation, and the College community needs to face the issues at hand. “How is Saint Mary’s going to step up as a community? How are we going to model for our students what systemic change looks like? How are we going to model for our Black students in particular and let them know that we hear them and we see them, and that we will take meaningful steps to address their concerns? How are we fulfilling our mission of Catholic, Lasallian liberal arts? It’s just not enough to have the words on the paper. How do we embody this in everything that we do? How we treat one another, our classes, our curriculum—everything,” stated Littles.

Littles is helping Saint Mary’s address these questions, and looks forward to the workshops she will be leading and the conversations that will be guided to help educate, empower, and engage the community in bringing about change.