A Climate of Inclusion with Georgianna Meléndez ’94
Georgianna Meléndez ’94 was shocked to hear that she was named to Get Konnected!’s inaugural list of the region’s 50 Most Influential People of Color in Higher Education — sitting among talented people in Boston’s higher education scene (including her former mentors). But in truth, the honor mirrors her successful career in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“Diversity, oppression and structural racism permeate everything, and we have normalized it so much that we don’t even see it,” Meléndez says. Her job is to help people see it, then empower others to do something about it.
In her role as assistant chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion at University of Massachusetts Boston, Meléndez is responsible for working collaboratively across the campus to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.
"When you have a world and community that is grappling with issues related to race, racism and social justice, and you have a campus that is so diverse — 60 percent of our student population identify as underrepresented minorities — it's important to consider how that impacts our campus,” Meléndez says. “Having a role as facilitator of those conversations and providing education as well as considering the climate — is a critical role on campus that has more visibility now than it had in the past. It's an awesome job.”
She is quick to add that it’s not a one-person job. Much of her day is spent listening and guiding faculty, staff and students, who then go out and implement initiatives. “The work is not supposed to just originate out of our office; it’s everybody’s work. We provide the resources and support them.”
Students, for example, have raised concerns about issues like classroom climate, roommates and even university holidays. Meléndez reports a major milestone: “This was the first year we officially recognized Juneteenth on the university’s official holiday calendar. This step made antiracism a part of who we are. Students helped make that happen.”
Though the diversity of the UMass Boston campus helps to extend the reach of Meléndez’s DEI work, it doesn’t come without challenges. “People come to the table with different lenses, belief systems and expectations, and those don’t always mesh. Diversity brings with it the need to expand the way that you think about things, and we are committed to help people work through that.”
It’s important, she adds, to create a safe space for self-reflection and accountability. “Faculty, for example, may ask themselves if the curriculum or syllabus is diverse and inclusive. The idea is that we have these conversations and raise awareness.”
PRIDE IN HER WORK
When Meléndez considers a highlight of her DEI work, it is the 2019 rollout of a university-wide Inclusive Excellence Workshop Series. “We introduce concepts and practices that will advance a climate of inclusion on campus,” Meléndez says.
The workshop specifically focuses on non-binary identities and pronoun use, micro-aggression basics and implicit bias, with a goal to establish a shared knowledge base and language among UMass Boston employees that will be a part of the university's efforts to become an antiracist and inclusive institution.
“It’s not easy,” Meléndez says of the workshop. “We talk to people about their personal role, the impact that they have on causing emotional trauma and emotional labor for those who experience microaggressions that they engage in — because we all engage in them.”
The program runs four hours, but participants often want more time. “We’re proud because it means that people are willing to learn and that we found a way to have them hear an important message,” Meléndez says.
Though she hopes to add a deeper component in the form of historical information related to race, racism and privilege, Meléndez says personal responsibility is this first step. “The ideal situation is to be there to answer questions, but give people the tools to be successful themselves.”
New Major Focuses on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
It was during college that Meléndez developed a serious interest in DEI work. As a Bentley student, she did diversity training for Bentley Service-Learning Center students prior to their placement in the community. But it was the course Managing Diversity in the Workplace that she says, “brought a lot to the surface” and served as a strong inspiration.
“It made me think about ways in which people are privileged, ways in which they are challenged and ways in which people are treated the same,” Meléndez says. “Those things shaped a way of thinking for me and were major influences on my career direction. After I left Bentley, I worked for a nonprofit serving communities of color and marginalized communities, and it’s been my life ever since.”
That life includes roles like co-chair of the Restorative Justice Commission at UMass Boston and executive director of Commonwealth Compact at UMass Boston, a workforce diversity initiative aimed at increasing the presence of professionals of color in leadership ranks across the Commonwealth. She is also a board member of the Commission on Access, Diversity and Excellence.
Meléndez says that 2020 was a major turning point in how she does her job. “In many ways, the public acknowledgement of systemic racism has made it more possible to do DEI work. I’m spending less time convincing people of the 'why' and more time on the 'what.' Now people come to me with their own ideas, and it’s really inspiring to see how much people want to engage and learn.”