Assuming his position mere weeks before the University of Redlands campuses closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Senior Diversity and Inclusion Officer Christopher Jones, J.D., has had to acquaint himself with much of the University community virtually. Mika Elizabeth Ono and Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog talked to him about his impressions of Redlands, how his past experiences contribute to his work, and plans for implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures at the U of R.
Bulldog Blog: You have been through a lot of interesting transitions recently—from moving across the country to participating in the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders in California. What are your first impressions of Redlands?
Christopher Jones: My first day was February 3, and that was about six weeks before we locked down. In my listening tour during my first few months, I had a chance to talk to several groups of faculty, staff, and students in order to get an impression of the campus. Unfortunately, most of those conversations were from behind the camera. I will say what has been different at the University of Redlands in particular is the desire and willingness to have somebody in this position. The campus is open to the pursuit of equity, inclusion, and justice. Part of the reason I came to Redlands was because I saw that willingness. In my previous position at Wayne State, I was part of the committee that conducted the search for a chief diversity officer, which was a process different than what I participated in as a candidate for this position, and highlighted the differences and the similarities between the institutions—one a large public institution and the other a small private institution.
BB: Are diversity and inclusion issues different in different places?
Jones: The answer to your question is “yes,” but a qualified “yes.” There are a couple of influential factors. One is the size and shape of the demographics of the student body. California is different from Kansas, which is different from Ohio. California is unusual because there is no affirmative action like in many other regions of the country. Because of this, DEI work might look a little different. When you're talking about a predominantly white institution (PWI), people of color are often not a part of the power structure. So, the question becomes how to integrate people of color into the structure within the context of a university’s educational mission.
BB: Have you identified any of the biggest needs for the U of R yet? Or is that part of the process as you move forward?
Jones: It’s part of the process. Part of what I see as the most important thing—and this is the reason for the Diversity Town Hall that we're having at the end of September—is the need for a diversity strategic plan. There are a lot of people doing a lot of work, and I’m here to help form the foundation, or as I like to say, “put the muscle on the skeleton.” In doing that, we’ll be able to institutionalize programs so they don’t dissolve when someone leaves. That’s one of my biggest priorities—to create a system that everyone can rely on.
BB: Was there something or someone in particular that inspired you to get into law, civil rights, and equal opportunity work?
Jones: Yes. As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, there was a movement called the Black Action Movement (BAM). The third iteration of the movement occurred during my sophomore year and was a response to a couple of incidents on campus. I was involved with the Black student union at that time and would later become the president of that group. That was where my activism began.
I was also a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student, so I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in the military. My commander told me to start thinking about possibilities for professional school—medical school, law school, or a business program. My activism made me start thinking about law school. During my senior year, I would meet once a month with Dr. Charles Moody, who later became U of M’s emeritus vice provost. He was a key influence in my attending Howard University School of Law.
In my first year at Howard, we had a mentorship program. The mentor assigned to me as a first-year student was a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C., named Robert L. Bell. He gave me my first job as a clerk after my first year of law school and has been the most influential person in my career.
BB: How do your personal experiences with discrimination influence your approach to your work?
Jones: A few experiences have been important to my foundation as a person. One day when I was a young boy, I was visiting extended family in South-Central Los Angeles and playing with my cousins out in a small strip of grass between the houses. A group of seven or eight of us were together, and my back was to the street. All of a sudden, the kids took off running down the street, and I didn’t know why. I turned around, and two police officers were coming out of a car—and one of them had his gun pointed at me. He asked me something about where I was from or where I lived, and I said that I wasn’t from here, that I was visiting my cousins. I pointed to the house, and the officer told me to go home. That was my first real experience in which I began to understand who I was as a Black male in America. In sixth grade, I was called the N-word for the first time by a female classmate who was white. Those kinds of experiences fuel my commitment to my DEI work.
BB: What would you say is the most valuable thing you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Jones: The importance of patience. Every aspect of my career has required me to be patient. People can mistake me for being quiet, but if I have something I have to say, I don't have a problem speaking. My experience and training has helped me to understand that when I speak, it should be with purpose.
BB: Have you seen that patience pay off in terms of diversity and inclusion work?
Jones: Yes. At Wayne State, when we were beginning to think about diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus, I began to write up a proposal that outlined what a chief diversity officer position would entail. A couple of years later, I was invited to participate on a committee that was formed to examine the school’s recruitment and retention, and the preparation paid off when the committee came to the conclusion that we needed to hire a chief diversity officer and asked how to develop capacity for the position. I knew those conversations were going to make the institution better. We were being proactive instead of reactive. Diversity work requires patience, because everything can’t be done at once—it takes time. And this is what I’m thinking about as we start putting the diversity strategic plan together at the U of R. Being patient as we move in the right direction will ultimately make the institution better.
BB: Do you have any words of hope to offer from where you sit?
Jones: Martin Luther King Jr. has a quote that says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I live by that because of all the experiences I’ve had. When I think about words of hope, I look to that quote.
For more information on the University’s DEI work, visit the DEI FAQ web page and Racial Equity Resources web page. U of R faculty, students, staff, and administrators are invited to attend the virtual Diversity Town Hall from 3 to 5 p.m. on Monday, September 28; log in details will be sent via email.