Keith Barnes, the first-ever executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Pikes Peak Community College, has been in Colorado for all of three weeks. The Chicago native worked in Illinois to make his state a more accepting and empathetic place, and is bringing that experience to the community college, where he spoke with the Business Journal about promoting understanding, acceptance — and even appreciation — of all the things that make us different.

What’s your background?

I was born and raised in Chicago but recently spent time in DeKalb County. I went to school at Northern Illinois University and got my start in higher education working as a veterans’ benefits counselor. I am a veteran of the Army Reserves. From there I went into financial aid, worked in admissions and advisement, was a career-planning instructor and student adviser.

Ultimately that led me to Kishwaukee College, where I started my career as a diversity practitioner. I did programming, training and compliance as well as developed strategic plans.

What does this position involve?

First of all, I set the strategic direction for the diversity efforts on campus. Then I am the lead when it comes to diversity issues. My job is to inform the president and other executives and stakeholders on issues that could potentially impact underrepresented groups.

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I also will work to develop training for faculty, staff and students. I’ll work with faculty to address diversity in the curriculum and in co-curricular activities. I’ll work with branding, whether it’s how the website looks or our advertising and brochures — making sure it’s inclusive and representative.

We’ll be doing climate surveys to be sure the campus is inclusive, and there is traditional programming, like awareness months and celebrations. We’ll be trying to build relationships with external entities, like community organizers and school districts locally, but even at the state or national level.

How new are these sorts of positions?

Well, I started at Kishwaukee in 2007 and officially became the chief diversity officer in 2013. The positions have been around since the late 1990s, but they really started in the corporate sector, and higher education saw the merits of having a chief diversity officer. From the late ’90s to now, there’s been an increase in the number of chief diversity officers.

Before that they were more in the realm of programming, so multicultural affairs directors or someone had the responsibilities tagged on to the “other duties as assigned.”

It’s more effective to have an executive-level position because it’s so interdisciplinary and affects every aspect of the campus.

Why is this position important here?

We are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and in the strategic plan [PPCC] stated it wanted to increase the diversity of faculty and staff. It was a strategic objective. The HLC noticed we didn’t have a defined plan to do it. That’s what led [PPCC President] Dr. [Lance] Bolton to say we needed to look at this more critically. … Simultaneously the faculty was getting together to see what they could be doing more effectively to inject diversity into the curriculum and create other avenues in co-curricular experiences to get students to think in diverse and global terms. They created global studies initiatives and study abroad programs. The [faculty and president] came together and created this energy on campus that led to this position.

What are some examples of diversity initiatives in Illinois?

One example is, at Northern Illinois University, the completion rate for African-American males was unacceptably, dismally low compared to other populations — about 20 percent. So I helped found the Black Male Initiative where we tried to get them focused on graduating. We did social things and had fun, but it was really about getting them to focus on academics. That program had almost a 100 percent success rate among the people who stayed active.

But it doesn’t have to be African-Americans. It can be trying to get women into [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs. If there’s a decrease in white women from a feeder school, we need to figure out why that’s happening because it will impact enrollment. It’s really data-driven.

Another one is transgender bathroom issues. At Kishwaukee College we dealt with that years ago. We scratch our heads as to why this is an issue nationally. We have unisex bathrooms and created an open and affirming climate with regards to transgender students. They had a fairly large open and affirming transgender population. It boggles the mind that it’s such an issue.

How quickly do these issues evolve?

I think these issues are quickly evolving as we become more diverse. It will change how we think and do things. We’re used to operating in one paradigm and now it’s shifting because differences are becoming increasingly part of our institutions and communities.

There are some people who really value tradition and will say it’s how we’ve always done things. But it may be at the expense of someone who is different. So how do you reconcile both of those? That’s the challenge. As we become more diverse, it will bring more complexity, which is why you need someone like a chief diversity officer.

Why do you do this work?

I love it. … The newness is intriguing and there are a lot of avenues to grow in the profession. Most of these positions are newer — during the last 10 or 15 years. The fact that I get to be the inaugural director means, hopefully, I’ll lay a foundation for a strong future of diversity at Pikes Peak Community College. … And I love learning about different people.

All of us are culturally incompetent to some degree. Learning about different people is a benefit of being in diversity. It forces you to interact with people who are different from you. … Then you have to face why you may think of certain things in certain ways. That’s where you get to build your cultural competence. Not learning about other people, but learning about yourself.

Is our society moving in the right direction?

I’m concerned because everything is becoming extreme on both sides. If you’re for this, you’re against that. People only want to go into their corner with those who support what they think or believe or feel, versus ‘I feel this way and it’s real for me, but I’m trying to understand why you think about this issue differently.’ And in doing that, you might be transformed.

But I don’t think people want to be changed. That attitude is becoming more prevalent in society. It’s a real concern for me as a chief of diversity because it makes my job harder. But it also gives me reason to do what I do.

Any closing thoughts?

In terms of diversity, I want people to understand that everybody makes up diversity.

It’s not a race thing or a sexual orientation thing. If you’re not homosexual, you’re heterosexual and that makes you part of diversity. If you’re not black, you’re white or Latino or Asian or Native American and that makes you part of diversity. If you’re male or female or don’t have a gender identity — everybody is a part of it.

I hope people understand we’re talking about everybody. There’s something that makes you different from someone else. That includes how we think, learn, where we grew up, where we live, our socio-economic status, where we work. All of these things make us different. They make us who we are. 

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