Q&A with Willette Capers, university’s new director of diversity

Willette Capers took her place as Augustana’s new director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the midst of a polar vortex.

Coming from the significantly warmer and more diverse South Carolina, Capers found herself challenged by more than just the weather.

However, Capers is ready to face these challenges with a warm, winter coat and a wide arsenal of diversity advocacy tools. The interview took place Monday, Feb. 26, 2019.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in South Carolina, on the coast. Interestingly enough, I am of the Gullah/Geechee heritage—we are the descendants of the slaves from West Africa.

I attended Claflin University for my undergraduate degree in Orangeburg, S.C., where I got my degree in English and Theater. From there, I went to North Carolina Central University where I got my Master’s Degree in English Literature.

From there, I got my first full-time job in higher education at Coastal Carolina University.

I worked in housing and residence life, but I felt like I needed more because it was about the same as what I did in graduate school.

I then moved to Atlanta where I enrolled to get my master’s in higher education administration at Troy University because at this point I realized that student affairs and student development theory was my lifelong dream, and I found my passion.

That’s why going back for the additional degree was so important to me. I’ve been in the field of student affairs since 2005.

What brought you to Augustana?

I was looking for a change, and I knew that diversity, equity and inclusion was work that was important to me.

I’m currently getting my doctorate at Northeastern University in Boston, and my research is centered around women of color, specifically looking at why black women are leaving the field of student affairs. When this opportunity came up, it was right in my wheelhouse, and it’s what I’ve been studying for years—it was the perfect opportunity.

I always joke that when I took this interview that I did not take it seriously whatsoever because I did not want to move to South Dakota. It’s cold, but when I got here and really dug deep into meeting people during my interview, everyone was so welcoming.

What are your goals for your position here at Augustana?

I really want to provide students with the opportunity to learn just how unique we are as individuals and what we can do collectively which is why I’m doing a lot of these educational sessions.

I also want to see our classrooms reflect globally what the world looks like. Sometimes I walk down one of the academic corridors and I might peer into a class and I see a sea of white faces.

When you get into the workforce and the world beyond here, it’s not like that. I want any student that is connected to this institution to feel like they’re prepared to work with and engage in a very diverse community.

I want to work with faculty and staff so that we can recruit faculty members of color.

It helps the students and the university as a whole because different people from different backgrounds bring in different perspectives.

What are some specific ways you intend to achieve these goals?

For faculty and staff, I have been doing some specific training to prepare them for developing and engaging a diverse workforce.

For students, I have been offering student-focused trainings that unpack power, privilege and oppression.

In the fall [2019], I will be offering a series of certifications that people can get such as diversity advocates for search committees when looking for new faculty.

On the student side, there will be [certifications] for diversity educators; sometimes students are more open to learning from their peers, so I can train five to ten diversity educators and send them out into the residence halls and classrooms to teach about diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism.

I will also be offering safe zone training which is one where at the end of it, you get a rainbow logo that lets people who identify as LGBTQIA know that you have been trained to have conversations that might be difficult, especially for those who might want a safe space to come out to someone.

If you could bring any event or speaker to campus, what/who would you bring?

Jane Elliott. She is a powerful diversity advocate and speaker. The way her activities are staged into helping others understand power, privilege and oppression is just outstanding. It is my goal to hopefully bring her to campus to do a workshop. (Jane Elliott is best known for her blue eyes-brown eyes experiment performed with her third graders.)

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love to play Call of Duty on my PlayStation 4. I have a dog, Bailey, who is a Shih-poo. I’m a TV fanatic; I am obsessed with The Walking Dead, like obsessed. I also like EDM music.

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