Twana Walker is a savvy higher education professional. As a candidate for a position in the College of Business and Economics three years ago, she did her homework on the Lehigh website.
“Part of the reason that I accepted the position was because I was aware of the Faculty and Staff of Color Network,” she recently recalled. “Almost immediately upon my arrival on campus, I was invited to an event.”
Now director of advising for CBE, Twana felt it was important to give back. “I wanted everyone else to have the same experience of feeling that Lehigh was a welcoming and inclusive environment for employees of color, and really for everyone,” she said. “It was a phenomenal experience for me and I wanted to pass that on to others as well.”
Twana got her chance when she was asked to be one of three tri-chairs for the FSCN this year, along with Lehigh veterans assistant director of ESL Clara Buie and director of advancement information processing Karen Sims.
The FSCN began as a conversation among colleagues including Leon Washington, Henry Odi, Jennifer Swann and Lydia Benjamin. They and others were looking for ways to connect members of Lehigh’s faculty and staff of color who perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise met.
“Prior to the network, I did not feel as connected as I would have liked with colleagues that I identified with of on campus,” Clara noted. “When we started getting together and meeting, I felt much more connected.”
A Network That Breaks Down Barriers
Karen says that prior to the network, the university’s annual Martin Luther King commemoration was one of the few opportunities to meet colleagues of color. As the network has grown, the opportunities for programming and activities have also increased. Now the network sponsors a fall semester welcoming event for all new faculty and staff as well as a year-end celebration. Other events have included a tailgate party, co-hosted by the alumni group BALANCE and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, during the Lehigh Lafayette football game and a family potluck at UMOJA House.
Members of the FSCN make themselves available to new employees to help them acclimate to Lehigh and to the community if they are transplanted from other areas. Something as simple as finding a grocery store that features ethnic food items or a hairdresser or barber can help make new residents feel at home.
“New employees may confront things that they may not consider deal breakers when they’re interviewing for a job, but when they arrive there may be things they need help with,” Clara explained. “We want new employees to know that there are people they can come to and ask without any embarrassment or hesitation.”
For Karen, being one of the few women of color in her stem when she first arrived eight years ago posed a different sort of challenge. “For me, it was about finding my Lehigh identity, knowing it was okay for me to be myself” she said. “Part of my professional success has been because of the relationships that I have developed as part of the network.”
Connecting with students is something the tri-chairs consider important. Twana sees the bigger picture of student enrollment and retention. “A student of color who is considering applying can see ways that students, faculty and staff of color are finding one another and building inclusivity beyond D-Life Weekend,” she said. “It helps with our candidate pools for hiring staff and faculty as well. “
“The UMOJA potluck was amazing,” Clara said. “Seeing the smiles on students’ faces and being able to share my cultural dish with my colleagues was priceless.”
A New Structure For Greater Inclusivity
Recognizing that the network needs to represent a wide variety of employees, the FSCN recently restructured to be more inclusive. In addition to the tri-chairs, who are currently all exempt staff members, the network benefits from the insights and input of a group of faculty advisors that includes Weimin Huang and Monica Miller. In addition, the network’s steering committee, which meets monthly, includes both exempt and non-exempt staff members. The network also benefits from the support of the Academic Outreach Office.
The energy and ideas from this new structure have yielded plans for a brown bag professional development series this spring. The network also plans to work more with other diversity networks in the area, including those at LVAIC member institutions and corporations like PPL.
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