The first of four candidates in the running for Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer (CEIO) at Grand Rapids Community College, B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, took the stage on Monday during the first scheduled community forum to discuss her strategy for the position.
Approximately 25 faculty, staff and community members attended the forum to listen to Cobham at the Applied Technology Center. The forum focused on the following prompt provided by GRCC administrators:
In our nation and on our campuses, diversity, equity and inclusion are in the spotlight. Please share what you believe are unique opportunities and challenges that urban community colleges like GRCC face as they strive to embrace these ideals, foster success and serve the greater community. How would you as GRCC’s CEIO address these opportunities and challenges?
GRCC President Bill Pink was in attendance during the community forum to watch Cobham’s presentation. For Pink, the community forum for all four candidates for the CEIO position is an important part of his decision-making process.
“(It’s important) so that our campus and outside community, because these community forums are open to anyone who wants to come, that these forums allow people on and off campus to engage with the candidates and know not only (where) these candidates are coming from in terms of their philosophy around this work, but also to be able to ask questions to better hone in on what that philosophy looks like,” Pink said. “And then also we’re asking everyone who attends to fill out an evaluation. This decision that I make will be informed by our whole community of those folks who choose to give feedback because I will look at those. I want to see what people gather from them along with myself in terms of what I think about the candidates… This is a person who will be in my direct supervision, but this is a person who is going to work with our campus community and external community quite a bit as well, so it’s important to me that this individual is vetted through many different ears.”
Cobham, who has a doctorate of education leadership and policy studies from the University of Indiana among other degrees, started her lecture by providing definitions of the words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” and noted the importance of knowing the similarities of each of the words to aid her in coming up with the challenges and opportunities she would face as GRCC’s CEIO.
“I believe that community colleges meet the needs of diverse students by providing access to an affordable education,” Cobham said. “Moreover, urban community colleges are instinctively connected to the communities in which their students reside. These connections cultivate partnerships, strengthen workforce training and development, promote lifelong learning and provide civic engagement.”
Cobham noted that a challenge of urban community colleges, like GRCC, is the belief that its students and faculty bring a set of “unintentional acts of microaggressions or oppressive attitudes and behaviors to campus.” The opportunity for growth in an institution such as GRCC is to recognize that those community colleges harbor a diverse and underrepresented student body and faculty with different backgrounds.
“As… CEIO, it will be imperative for me to form an alliance among GRCC stakeholders to review, reassess or develop policies, procedures and institutional practices that will serve as effective strategies for addressing campus climate and issues,” Cobham said.
In addition to reviewing campus issues around crime and implementing new policies and procedures, Cobham plans to team up with other organizations to bring about change.
“As (CEIO), I want to engage campus stakeholders in thoughtful dialogue and intentional practices that will complement GRCC’s academic pathways initiative with inclusive pedagogical methods,” Cobham said. “I would work in collaboration with the Center for Teaching Excellence (at GRCC) to address the challenge of shifting instructional paradigm.”
Another challenge Cobham mentioned was to increase infrastructure and financial resources to allow access in equity initiatives with student success to which she offered a solution while at GRCC.
“As the CEIO, I envision two approaches to increasing financial resources to advance equity, student success and community engagement,” Cobham said. “The first, submit grant proposals to local, regional and national organizations that recognize degree completion as benchmarks of an enhanced quality of life. That the two are one and the same. And then also work in partnership with internal and external stakeholders to develop or strengthen initiatives that are mutually beneficial.”
Cobham concluded her lecture by opening the floor for questions from those in attendance. First to ask a question was Pink.
“Based on what you’re seeing in research about us… what are some thoughts that come to mind in terms of this position and other ways that you would envision it for your or the office connecting to the community of Grand Rapids and connecting to West Michigan? What does the community connection look like?” Pink asked.
In her response, Cobham noted her research on the Grand Rapids and West Michigan area showed a change in the community.
“What I’m uncovering is a sort of revitalization others might call it gentrification of downtown Grand Rapids and the opportunities that exist to build partnerships with business leaders, entrepreneurs or community-based initiatives,” Cobham said. “I guess to keep in the forefront of the minds of these developers that the objectives shouldn’t be ‘push out’ but to rebuild and include and what better way for an equity officer from a community college or community college leaders to be involved and at the table during those conversations.”
A question from John VanElst, program manager of workforce training at the Leslie E. Tassell M-TEC Center, questioned Cobham on her plan for the role of CEIO at GRCC with regard to reaching the underserved communities.
“It sounds like you’ve heard some good things about our city of Grand Rapids – which is true, there’s a lot of good things, we get voted one of the best places to live, raise a family, very true – but there’s a couple neighborhoods in the city of Grand Rapids that we’re really focused on as a community college to be a partner,” VanElst said. “About five years ago, Forbes Magazine did an article about Grand Rapids being the second worst place for people of color to advance, so I think you just said regarding some points about the racial and structural inequalities that are happening and they’re happening in Grand Rapids. And so we’re trying to be a part of some of those solutions. How would your office come along and be part of some of those initiatives we have? How do you see yourself playing a role?”
Cobham noted in her response that though she wasn’t too familiar with the area, there is always a plan in place to help the community.
“First thing is I’d bring you on board because you just summed that up excellently,” Cobham said. “And I want to be transparent in my comments because that’s who I am, so if you all invite me to the community, I want you to know who you’re getting. (There’s) no one better than a white male ambassador to say ‘yes we’re doing this great but here’s where we’re falling short and the reason why we need to respond the way we do as an institution.’ The second part of that is, as a part of those revitalization conversations is to say ‘this is great but how do we get into those communities not being served and make sure they can be a part of this?’ I’d have to do more homework on that because this is the second time that I’ve heard that statistic.”