Q&A: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Robert Q. Berry

By Laura Hoxworth

Berry, the recently appointed Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, shares his goals and vision for the new office.

Robert Q. Berry, the Samuel Braley Professor of Mathematics Education, has been a faculty member and leader at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development for 15 years. Formerly a middle school math teacher, Berry also served as the 2019-20 President of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), where he led critical discussions about topics like equitable teaching practices and culturally relevant pedagogy.

In August, Berry accepted a new leadership role at the School: Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Just a couple of months into this position, Berry has already created a professional learning series, launched a website, and hired a full-time program manager. Among all this, he found a few moments to share what he’s been working on so far, his thoughts on what inclusion means, and his vision for the new office.

Q: Why were you interested in taking on this position?

A: Issues around diversity, equity and inclusion--with a particular focus on race--have been central to much of the work I’ve done as a researcher, as a teacher, and in the service work that I’ve done. My dissertation work focused on Black boys who have been successful in mathematics. Then I moved into issues of access – who has access to advanced studies of mathematics?

But when I step away from the mathematics piece, my work has always been about connecting with people. How do we humanize the spaces we’re in?

I know that sounds unusual to some of my colleagues in mathematics, but I ended up in this space because of my connections and support and the shoulders of people I stand on. For me, it’s all about building connections with people. Given the recent history in Charlottesville, that is so much more important now than ever. If you see it as a barrier, then I think it becomes an excuse. If we can do different work, it becomes an opportunity for us to build connections with people.

Q: What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you?

A: Diversity is about counting, right? It's about representation. Race, ethnicity, language, age, ability status – plus the ones we might not be able to see or hear.

Equity is about fairness. Equality is about sameness, but equity is about fairness. It’s essential to question whether we’re equitable regardless of our visible or invisible identities.

I think the harder part is inclusion. Inclusion means having a sense of belonging and connectedness. It is possible to have diversity without inclusion, but that is not enough. We have to create spaces where people can bring their authentic selves. There’s a metaphor that [Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion at the University of Michigan] Robert Sellers uses that I really like: Diversity means that everyone is invited to the party. Equity means that everyone is contributing to the playlist. Inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.

Q: Why is it important, in your opinion, for the School to have its own DEI office?

A: Faculty and staff at the School are in a place where we want to connect, but we need some resources, we need some expertise and we need people who can devote their thinking to this space.

One thing I'm appreciating now is that I'm able to see what's happening at the school level in a way I didn't before. I’m kind of seeing the landscape across the School – Kinesiology has diverse speakers in their speaker series; counselor education just hosted a summit on anti-racism; there’s a group of students organizing a program called C.A.R.E., or Conversations About Race and Equity. And so on. We have all of these pieces in different places, so how can we elevate them? I'm very cautious and mindful about adding on, so part of my role is to elevate and support existing work, and then see where there might be gaps or opportunities.

There’s also the policy work. For example, I’m co-chairing the task force on faculty review, and bringing a DEI lens to that work. I can be the person who has that devoted space to do that kind of policy work in a way that faculty who serve on these committees often are not able to do.

Q: What are the main goals that your office will be working toward?

A: We have four goals: To create and sustain an inclusive and equitable school environment; to recruit, retain, and advance a diverse school community; to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the School’s core academic mission; and to enhance school-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion accountability, effectiveness, and collaboration.

Some of the things our office will be involved with include faculty and staff development – things like instructional supports, professional learning, and mentoring support. There’s also student recruitment and development – thinking about what does diversity look like in our student body? What does inclusion look like? We will also work on evaluation and accountability, which includes producing an annual report.

Then, there’s a leadership and strategy piece. In the School, that looks like providing thought leadership and counsel, connecting with student leaders, working with the Diversity Action Committee to build internal training expertise – to “train the trainers.” Within the larger University, that means working with Ben Allen at the Equity Center around outreach and communication and supporting [UVA Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Partnerships] Kevin McDonald in his accountability work by developing an inclusive excellence action plan.

Q: What are some of the first steps you’ve taken in these past few weeks?

A: With COVID, I don’t want to say it’s a silver lining, but what it has done is create the space for me to meet with groups of students, faculty, alums, people I may not have been able to meet with just yet if we were in person. I think, as a community, we all are giving each other grace in a way that perhaps we didn't do previously, and I think that will translate as we move forward.

In many of these conversations, I'm asking questions that encourage people to be reflective about who they are and the work they do. As students and researchers focused on education and human development, one thing that we all do is acknowledge an issue or problem that we began to work from. That's where we start with DEI work – with the acknowledgement. What do we acknowledge? I am going to be overt sometimes, too – you know, microagressions are an issue. We need to deal with that. But I think we have to do both.

In early October, we launched our School-wide monthly Professional Learning Series, which is a way of guiding the school through open dialogue on how to become a more inclusive community. Each month will have a different topic in four parts: Read, Watch & Listen, Write, and Engage. We will have topics that may be uncomfortable, but we have to engage in them if we want to have meaningful change in our space. My hope is that, over time, our website becomes a library of resources.

Q: What is your long-term vision for the office?

A: I want our office to be a resource-rich, energetic space where people feel welcome and warm. I want it to be the place where we may not have all the expertise, but we can be the interventionists that can provide support at the departmental, programmatic, and individual levels. I want this to be the place where people can grow and learn and connect and build networks.

Building community is a significant part of my vision as Associate Dean—to create spaces where all members of our community are welcomed and have a voice. DEI work doesn’t always have to be serious or political. It can be play – and when I say play, I mean those informal times where people get to know each other, connect with each other, whether it’s at a social event or just an informal gathering among faculty, staff and students. We learn a lot about each other in those conversations. So yes, I want to do the serious work, but it doesn’t always have to be a workshop. It can be the work that connects us and our humanity.

I hope people are open for us to grow as an office as well. I can imagine that we might stumble in some places, but I hope people will understand our willingness to learn and call us out if we do something that might not be right. I'm always open for critique that's instructive and constructive, and I want to model that openness. DEI is lifelong work.

For more information or to get involved, contact Robert Berry. More resources are available to faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends on the DEI Collective website.