Roundtable Opens the Door for DEI: ‘The Door is Closed, Not Locked’

From left to right, Lucia Soriano, Katherine Maher, Kalli Onai, Mae Ola Dunklin, Jess Roberts and Ashley Feagin sit in the Mudd library. On Thursday, a panel of professors and community members led a discussion concerning advocacy and DEI (Photo courtesy of Trisha Franzen).

On Thursday in the Mudd side of the Stockwell-Mudd library, a roundtable discussion: Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) was held. The five-woman panel consisted of Board of Trustees member Mae Ola Dunklin, Art and Art History Department Chair Ashley Feagin, Katherine Maher ‘19, Social Media and Content Strategist Kalli Onai ‘19 and English Department Professor Jess Roberts. Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Lucia Soriano hosted the panel. 

Dunklin, one of the panelists, is on the Board of Trustees and has been part of the Albion community since 1972. Dunklin began her career in education at Harrington Elementary School teaching second grade. 

“I was recruited to come here, to teach in the education system, because there was no diversity,” Dunklin said. The parents wanted their children to see people that looked like me.” 

When she first started at Harrington Elementary, Dunklin said she had 33 students – all of them white.

In an interview after the discussion, Dunklin said that when she told people she worked at Harrington Elementary, they would say, “‘oh, you work at the country club school.’”

“The reason they called it the country club school is because of the proximity to the college,” Dunklin said. “Most of the students who attended Harrington were college professors’ students.” 

In the same interview, Dunklin reflected on the foundation of her knowledge and advocacy for DEI, something she attributes to her mother. 

“She always stressed that she wanted us to treat all people equal. I know equity and equal are not the same, but I prefer to use equal sometimes because I may be equal and not have the resources that I need,” Dunklin said. “She always taught us, ‘make the most of what you have.’” 

After Dunklin mentioned working at a “country club” school, the discussion shifted to other aspects of DEI. Moving from the personal to the professional context, the panel spoke about the evolving nature of DEI conversations and the challenges of integrating them into various professional settings.

As the current media and content strategist of Albion College, Onai was asked to be a part of the panel. She said that in many ways, her role models helped her to understand DEI.

“Lynn Verduzco-Baker, Dr. Dominick Quinney and Dr. Scott Melzer. If it weren’t for that trio, I don’t think I would have gotten into ethnic studies and sociology and really been able to dive deep into DEI,” Onai said.

Onai added that DEI is “both new and not new.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been a super comfortable conversation in academia or higher education. But there are ways the door has been opened a little more, and there are ways the door has been closed a little more. The door is closed, not locked,” Onai said.

Katherine Maher, who works with the non-profit Orchard Children’s Services, said she didn’t know what DEI work was when she started doing it. Maher said she was eight when war started breaking out in Syria, where her family is from. 

“I was really young when I was trying to explain to my young peers, but also my teachers why this problem that was going on, this devastating issue that was affecting my family wasn’t just this ‘Middle East problem’ that we could talk about because we didn’t really have anything directly to do with it,” Maher said.

Chair of the Art and Art History Department Ashley Feagin Ashley said it is important for “everyone to be involved in this work.”

“We’re not gonna affect change if everyone is not involved, and people are dying. Like, trans folks are dying, black and brown folks are dying, because of the things we are trying to fight against,” Feagin said.

Feagin credits her mentors for doing a lot of important DEI work at Albion College.

 “Lynn Verduzco-Baker and Keena Williams deserve much credit for bringing our college into a social awareness of the lack of equity, inclusion and belonging but also worked to create change,” Feagin said in an email after the event.

Jess Roberts, the creator of the Big Read program and professor of English, said it is important for non-marginalized groups to get involved in DEI work. 

“One (reason) is for folks who look like me (white women) created the policies that produce the inequity. The price of my privilege is the responsibility to dismantle the policies that produce my privilege,” Roberts said.

For Roberts, her passion for dismantling these policies stems from her love of students.

“I think about those kids at Harrington, all those years ago. They were in fourth grade then, and they’re juniors in college now. I love those people, and I love the kids in the building now,” Roberts said. “If I love them, it’s not good enough to say ‘I’m tired.’ It’s not good enough to say ‘I don’t wanna do it anymore.’ It’s not good enough to settle.”

7:08 p.m. Sunday March 24: Clarification was made to Katherine Maher’s experience during the war in Syria.

About Lindsay Ratcliffe 8 Articles
Lindsay Ratcliffe is a sophomore from Flat Rock, MI. She is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major. Lindsay loves journalism because it gives her a chance to write about things she cares about in ways that can really affect people. When she's not writing, you can find her jamming out to music. Contact Lindsay via email at lr10@albion.edu.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for the things you are presenting in discussion through DEI I remember when we used to hear Albion college was only for white folks because you had to be really smart to get in and I’m so glad that there is some diversity now that we didn’t see in the 70s.

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