Black History Month: Four leaders speak about the UI's diversity

BY DI STAFF | FEBRUARY 29, 2012 6:30 AM

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People of all colors want to learn from people of all colors.

That's according to Adjunct Assistant Professor Vanessa Shelton, the executive director of Quill and Scroll, who believes the University of Iowa community is hungry to embrace such diverse experiences. The Daily Iowan spoke with Shelton and three other leaders in the UI's African-American community: Marcella David, a professor of law and international studies; Motier Haskins, a clinical assistant professor of social work; and Joe Henry, recruitment and outreach coordinator in the UI's Office of Graduate and Ethnic Inclusion.

The four shared personal experiences and milestones that contributed to more diversity — especially for the African-American population — in both Iowa City and the UI community.

In reflection of the many talents and fulfillments by black people in American history, the four also noted what can still be achieved for the future.

The UI's black student population has remained relatively stagnant over the years — ranging from 2.43 percent in 1978, dropping to 2.05 percent in 1986, and rising to 2.7 percent in 2011.

Vanessa Shelton, executive director of Quill and Scroll International Honorary Society for High School Journalists and adjunct assistant professor

Vanessa Shelton tried to fill a void.

But as a young, black professional journalist, there were few similar to her and even fewer to look up to.

"African-American people have been more disassociated from the professions just because of our history," she said. "We don't have generations of professionals. It's the young people who are getting into the professional world."

That's why she jumped at the chance to serve as an adviser to help revive the UI's student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists in 1991 — a group she had been a part of since her undergraduate years at Coe College.

Shelton said she knew the importance of connecting students to the organization. Currently, the chapter has 12 active members.

Membership has been as high as 14 and as low as six throughout the years.

"I believe that [the chapter] has a lot to offer the students," said the 23-year-veteran of the UI. "I am a big believer in mentoring young people and providing support and guidance."

And so each semester, chapter members produce a newsletter — meant to improve news coverage of African Americans in the community — called "Nuru," which is Swahili for "ray of light."

"We need to bring in more and more people of color," she said, as a way of adding more voices to the important discussion of the day.

And Shelton said Iowa City residents have realized the importance of having a community that mirrors the global society.

"Not just the students who are minorities, but for students of the majority," she said. "There are a lot of students who are white here who want that experience. They want it because they know their world is diverse. They want to learn from people of all different stripes. So the university is embracing that."

Motier Haskins, clinical assistant professor of social work and Coordinator Cultural Competence Certificate Program

Motier Haskins thought he was prepared for his move from the ethnic melting pot of Miami to Iowa City five years ago — but he wasn't.

"Reality really smacked me in the head," he said. "You might see one or two [black] faces across campus."

After searching, he said he found his people.

"I felt like I died and went to heaven when I discovered the [UI's] African American Council," he said.

The council — which is dedicated to improving campus life for black faculty, staff, and students — was concerned with young black men running into trouble in downtown bars, criminal charges, and police profiling at the time, he said.

Iowa City police reports showed African-American adults made up 20 percent of all arrests in 2007, and that grew to almost 24 percent in 2008. According to the 2010 Census Data, Johnson County's black population is 4.8 percent.

But for Haskins, the council's lack of swift action caused him to step up to the challenge.

"For me, personally, the most logical folks to deal with brothers' issues are other brothers," he said, remembering the first Black Male Forum in 2008. "And we certainly had some extremely intelligent and energetic black faculty and staff."

The forum was part of Haskin's creation —the then-newly formed Hubbard Group — dedicated to developing young black men on campus.

"We thought we'd honor him," Haskins said, noting Philip G. Hubbard, who was the first black male administrator at any of Iowa's three public universities. "Most people go by Hubbard Park, and they don't know what that means, and so we want to keep that name alive."

Though the group has grown — even outgrown its current venue, the Afro House — Haskins would like to see faster changes.

"I'm very happy to see the name out there … but unhappy because the issues are still the same," he said. "There are too many not making it and too many not staying. So what's the problem? All we are seeing is it getting little bit better, but it isn't enough."

Marcella David, professor of law and international studies

Marcella David could name them all.

In 1995, David showed her parents around downtown Iowa City, during which her mother insisted on pointing out the few black people they passed. David didn't miss a single name.

"Over the course of our afternoon in downtown, [my mother] actually became a little upset, and she said, 'Do you know all the black people in Iowa City?' " David said.

David remembers her reply as "Yeah, probably I actually do."

But that isn't the case anymore, she said.

"The diversity in Johnson County and Iowa City has increased dramatically," David said. "So I don't feel as alone or unique as I used to feel in Iowa City."

The New York native has held many titles at the UI, one of the most important to the campus being interim associate provost for diversity.

In 2004, David said she jumped at the role, because the UI was beginning an initiative to diversify the campus population.

"There was an interest in combining central diversity functions and seeing if diversity efforts could be improved," she said. "It was a plan that for the very first time included diversity as its main goal and linked diversity to educational excellence."

One of the benchmarks for the plan was to reach a 10.9 percent minority population among the students. That goal was achieved in 2009.

"I'm not saying the progress that was made was solely by the offices I worked for," she said. "But I think having a coordinated, central effort facilitated the progress the university was trying to attempt."

And though David is proud of the progress thus far, she said the city needs to come together to further increase diversity.

"In Iowa City, there is this notion that if we all have good intentions, then we will be able to adapt to the changes in our community, and we won't have any problems," she said. "But I think we need to have more deliberate thought as to how we can do that."

Joe Henry, recruitment and outreach coordinator for the Office of Graduate Ethnic Inclusion

Joe Henry smiled radiantly as he recalled a young black man from Memphis, Tenn.

That young man — Phillip Lewis, now a professor at Langston University in Oklahoma — came to Iowa to pursue education, where he met Henry.

"Long story short, he was my graduate assistant," Henry said. "We worked closely together and got a chance to talk about life and his dreams, professional goals, and aspirations."

Lewis is just one of many graduate students of color whom Henry has helped as the graduate outreach coordinator in the Graduate College.

Henry said he is very proud of his role in a student's choice to attend the university — especially one of ethnic background.

"Through conversation, dialogue, and reaching out to people who are not from here, you get a chance to build a relationship that can be a friendship down the road," he said. "It's especially exciting to see them when they show up for the new graduate-student orientation. It's a very electric and exciting kind of moment."

Henry has worked at the UI for more than 25 years, and through that time, he has interacted with thousands of prospective minority students —– leading to the recruitment of hundreds.

In fall 2011, the UI Graduate College enrolled 33 African American students out of 206 applications – down from 35 enrolled out of 217 applicants in 2010.

After working at the UI for seven years, Henry moved to the Graduate Student Office in 1992 to increase minority enrollment. He said the dean helped orchestrate the move.

"It gave me an opportunity to have a broader reach in participating in the graduate recruitment effort," he said.

As the student population at Iowa slowly becomes more diverse, he said his favorite part of the job is still when a student praises the UI for successfully preparing them for the real world.

"[Students] feel like they are really in competitive positions in comparison with their peers," he said. "They feel like Iowa really was the cauldron for honing those research and writing skills, and those skills are serving them at a really high level."

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