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A Conversation with Jim Singletary: Diversity, Remembering the Past, and Preparing for the Future

March 9, 2020

 

Jim Singletary has been a staple in the MVNU community for the past 16 years. In that time, he made countless strides in the name of diversity and inclusion. Jim doesn't just talk. Rather, he valiantly tries to make MVNU as inclusive as possible through his actions. He is a voice to those that may feel excluded. From orchestrating the annual MLK Breakfast Ceremony to assisting in the creation of the new African American Experience course, Jim knows the importance of an environment where everyone is welcome. The immense amount of time that he has spent interacting with students does not go unnoticed and as such, Jim has been seen by many as an inspiration.

As his tenure at the university comes to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with him about his journey to MVNU, how the campus approaches diversity initiatives, and why it is important that students of color have an environment to thrive in.

 

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Mark Wesley:

Hello, how are you today?

 

Jim Singletary:

I'm doing well sir. Thank you for sitting and talking with me today.

 

MW:

You're welcome. I've been meaning to talk to you! This is your last year.

 

JS:

This is my final year. I'll be done July 1st and this is my final graduating class. This is my final semester and I get to say goodbye to everyone.

 

MW:

So let's start at the very beginning. How did you get here?

 

JS:

I was living in Youngstown with my family and I worked at the university of Akron. I was the Coordinator of Academic Support Services for Minority Students. I had a crowd of almost 6,000, and then I was a director of an upward bound program that had about 90 students in it. I left in 2004 and I applied to the job down here and wanted to leave for a big school university. So I applied [for] Director of Multicultural Affairs and I was hired in August of 2004.

 

MW:

What about working with students did you find so appealing?

 

JS:

Well, when I arrived, there was only one [student of color] here. When they asked me my roster, they had one name on it. So, I was over in the admissions office. And because the idea was I would start recruiting students, student recruitment was added to my title, which I did not like, but didn't have much choice. And so they thought that my presence and working on campus will help bring students of color in.

 

MW:

Did it help?

 

JS:

No, it did not really because in admissions, you need a policy and a plan to do that. My first group that came to [MVNU] the following year consisted of 41 students of color , which was the largest group that had ever been here. What we discovered was that students of color were realizing that they were the minorities on campus everywhere they go, classrooms, teams, etc. They will congregate together and connect together and hook up together and all of these kinds of things very naturally and then they're looking out for each other. They're looking for that, for that group, that sameness and culturally what is in common.Well, they always are gravitating toward my office.

 

 

 

MW:

I think it's interesting because many of us consider your office to be a safe haven of sorts. We come to you with issues and sometimes, we just hang out and kick it.

 

JS:

Well, you all always gravitate toward my office. As something very natural for students of color and culture to continue to come together, my office did become a haven. It was that way at the University of Akron, at Waynesburg College, Kent State places and the other places I worked. My doors are always open. I certainly understand what it's like to be one of a kind on campus and then find someone who can connect to me, make me feel at home someplace or I can just let kind of let my hair down and be and, and feel at home and a place that doesn't feel at home.

 

MW:

How do you explain this to people that ask about that feeling?

 

JS:

One expression that I learned early on in higher ed was that when students of color come to a predominantly white campus, they feel like strangers in a strange land. The Dwelling that we have now was created in 2006 by those same group of students and they created a room, multicultural room where they could congregate together and relax. And so that still exists up until now.

 

MW:

So is that why you think that you became kind of the person to go to? I remember when I met you at orientation three years ago and I said to myself, "Oh, I like this guy because he is recognizable to me immediately," just seeing you for the first time.

 

JS:

Yeah. Well, that and my good looks.

 

 

MW:

[laughs] Yes, that too.

 

JS:

But the other reason that came is because I am a person of color. So, to have somebody they can relate to racially, culturally. There was an affinity that's always developed among people of color in our families, in our communities. So on a campus where they are feeling [like] strangers, then they need someone, a one of a kind welcome face.

 

MW:

As someone that has been here 16 years, how has the campus kind of evolved? Has it become more diverse or less diverse?

 

JS:

I want to say we've come a long way. We are just getting to the place where we're realizing how important it is to deal with diversity from an institutional perspective. Now, I've had a lot of success with events. I think I've put on over 400 events and success with graduation. My graduation rate among students of color is fairly high. I've had a wealth of experiences and I've seen some cross cultural things that are done great. We did not, unfortunately, have anything in place a way to address racism and discrimination. Nor did we do a very good job of educating our students. I began to teach a diversity class to try and remedy that.

 

MW:

Speaking outside of MVNU for a second, a lot of [younger people] are seeing how the world itself kind of has evolved. It can be very scary to read and see what's happening on a daily basis. Not just in our country, but globally too. I wanted to kind of gauge that question with you again, but from an international perspective.

 

JS:

Let me start with the United States. Our society, a lot has happened. We have a history that is very difficult to compartmentalize. We've had a lot of things happen in the last 10 years that have rocked us. Ferguson and Baltimore and then also police brutality. These racial divides have become more prominent and that's a big time struggle. I'm not quite sure where we are overall because to be a person of color in America today is not easy by any stretch.

 

MW:

One thing that I will eternally grateful for you for is that you've been able to kind of connect a lot of us together and you've inspired us to kind of make, like, institutions you know, Darryl [Daniels] with the BSU and you helped to orchestrate that. I wanted to ask you about a kind of black potential. A lot of us kind of feel like we're kind of like just trapped behind this wall of, well, we're, we're here and everyone else's up here. How do you kind of break past that to achieve what we all want to achieve in our lives, whatever that may be.

 

JS:

The first thing, in this context and even my own life, is keeping God first because keeping God first keeps things in perspective. I see this with students where they come from, from strong family backgrounds, whether they're single parent or whatever. Then I think the notion is we want the next generation to be stronger. I have picked up where families and parents have taken, have left off cause I tell students when they come into the university and you made it this far, you made a phenomenal achievement.

 

MW:

So jumping back a little bit to get African-American experience course, what made you feel like this was the right time to have this course happen?

 

JS:

One of our students, Darryl [Daniels], as well as D'Lasia [Bass] as well helped to organize everything. We had a chance to connect with Kenyon during the 50th anniversary. But when Michelle [Alexander] spoke, it triggered something in Darryl. Shel came back and said something's got to happen.

 

MS:

You two collaborated on the inner-details of the course, correct?

 

JS:

I joined them and put it together. We ran it across those [people] in the university who are the decision makers and [the course] was affirmed and granted. The timing was everything.

 

MS:

Does this speak to MVNU's efforts in creating a more diverse space?

 

JS:

I believe so. Having an African American experience in our books is big. It signals the fact that the university is willing to take one culture and explore it. And that culture happens to be a culture that many of us need to understand. So yeah, that, goes without saying. UBLACK, the BSU and now, this African American Experience have been steps to bring about changes.

 

MW:

So what do you think the end goal there is? Do you see it kind of expanding out to other cultures as well, maybe the Asian culture or maybe middle Eastern culture.

 

JS:

Number one is that it should become a [general education] course, which means it would be something that every student can take. It should be a requirement. That course and similar courses like gender studies, for instance. We can look at other ethnicities and cultures and develop those courses accordingly, so we can understand one another. That's how I see that evolving. If it does not, then shame on us because we have a great opportunity to teach students how important these things are. And I can't think of a student in this university that would not benefit from taking those classes.

 

MW:

What has been your favorite on campus with the students so far?

 

JS:

Oh, that's a tough one because I've had many, particularly with building relationships with students. One will be seeing my first group of students come in and watching them graduate that first graduating class and then I dare say I've had some great times all along the way with different classes and everything else. But then the experience I'm going to have as this 2020 class finishes. I can't even begin to think how amazing that will be.

 

MS:

Any parting words?

 

JS:

It has been my absolute pleasure to serve. God has a sense of humor and allows me as a young man of color to come in and deal with all that I've been able to do. And I am thankful for all those who have allowed me to be the best that I can be. I salute and thank them, but my students, without that is my heart. And so all of them, every single one that I've encountered and have a chance to get to know, they're there. I don't have enough places in my heart because you are my heart. It's been a good run. I'm ready to pass the Baton on to the next person and hope and pray that we can do nothing but get better.

 

MW:

Jim, thank you for talking with me.

 

JS:

Thank you.

 

Artwork by Liz Crosby.

 

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