Felix Brooks has big shoes to fill, even though he’s the first person to step into them.
Hired in January 2015 as Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s first director of diversity and inclusion, Brooks is reforming hiring policies and practices at the college to create more diversity among its staff, faculty and leadership while creating a more inclusive environment on campus.
“When people think about diversity and inclusion, they tend to think about race, but it’s more than just about race,” Brooks says. “It’s about creating an equal and equitable environment for all people, regardless of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities,religion and special needs. Kalamazoo Valley had a great deal of diversity in regard to the student population, but less than 10 percent of our faculty, staff and leadership is made up of people from underserved backgrounds, which doesn’t reflect the community.”
KVCC had already begun taking steps to create a more diverse and inclusive campus before Brooks’ position was created. The college has a diversity and inclusion team and offers staff and faculty workshops and training through ERACCE (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), a local organization that provides resources to help organizations become more diverse and inclusive. KVCC had also brought in the consulting firm Vicki Rosenberg & Associates to measure the college’s intercultural competence on a continuum in regard to its understanding of and behavior regarding cultural differences.
The college ranked in the middle of the continuum, earning a ranking of “Minimization,” which meant that KVCC tended to “highlight cultural commonality and universal values and principles that may mask deeper recognition and appreciation of cultural differences.” Brooks says he interpreted the results as “a letter C grade.” The college decided the next step was to create an in-house position that would serve as the umbrella for all diversity and inclusion matters.
“The diversity and inclusion team and the ERACCE training were separate entities and were geared toward the individual,” Brooks says. “I was hired to have a collective impact across campus. The position is not about what we don’t do well with respect to diversity. It’s about what we can do to get better.”
The man for the job
Brooks was already working at KVCC when the opening for a new director of diversity and inclusion was posted. He was working as a success advocate, mentoring KVCC students on how to handle the everyday challenges of academic, professional and social life. After reviewing the duties of the new position, Brooks concluded he had the skill set to do the job. He has a master’s degree in political science, 30 years’ experience as a juvenile probation officer at the Kalamazoo County Ninth Circuit Court, 20 years as an adjunct instructor at Western Michigan University, and a year as a community investment officer at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, where he was in charge of initiatives to help increase literacy and high school graduation rates in Kalamazoo County. However, he had been working at KVCC for only three months and says he thought other KVCC employees who had more longevity would get the most consideration. But he applied anyway.
“When I came to KVCC, I decided it was going to be my last stop, and I wanted to be fully engaged in the college,” Brooks says. “And I believed being the director of diversity and inclusion would take my engagement to the next level — it was my opportunity to have a larger impact on campus.”
In an interview for the job, Brooks was asked to explain why he thought he was prepared for the position. Instead of detailing his professional experience, Brooks gave an answer that delved into his personal life.
“I told them, ‘My lived life,’” he says. “I said I was married to a white female. I have one daughter that’s white and one daughter that’s biracial. I have four grandkids — two of which are white and two of which are biracial. Growing up in Pontiac, I never lived in a segregated neighborhood. I never went to a segregated school. That’s why I’m extremely passionate about the position. I know exactly what diversity is.”
KVCC apparently agreed. “Felix is mature, and he has a wonderful background when it comes to working with the community,” says KVCC President Marilyn Schlack. “He was the best candidate for the position.”
On Brooks’ first day as the director of diversity and inclusion, he walked around campus introducing himself to staff, faculty and students. He said they were enthused but skeptical.
“They were concerned about whether the administration was truly on board with this process,” Brooks says. “They didn’t want this to be another flavor of the month, which is what happens sometimes when institutions come out with new initiatives.
“I understood that this wasn’t going to be a one-person job. If we’re going to improve diversity on campus, we’re going to need support from all the key players.”
Among Brooks’ responsibilities is developing partnerships with organizations and groups outside the college that promote diversity. Brooks has facilitated having these organizations lead workshops and discussion panels at KVCC and elsewhere. He was on an organizing committee for a health equity summit that the Center for Diversity and Innovation held at Kellogg Community College in October. The center is an organization that provides training and workshops to promote diversity and inclusion among companies, organizations and institutions in Battle Creek. Brooks is also on the advisory board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.
In addition, Brooks is a commentator on Critical Issues, Alternative Views, a YouTube discussion panel about current national and world issues. He says he was originally a special guest on the show but then was asked to be a regular by the show’s creators, Ron Kramer and Don Cooney, because they wanted the show to have more diversity.
“The outside connections we’re building put us and the organizations we partner with in a win-win situation,” Brooks says. “We need different perspectives on how to go about improving diversity and inclusion, and they need the same thing. No pun intended, but we need diverse opinions. We’re all involved in the same body of work, which makes these relationships more vital. In order to affect the community, it has to be a collaborative effort.”
Brooks says KVCC is taking some very positive steps to create a more diverse college, but he acknowledges it’s not going to happen overnight.
“Our president, Marilyn Schlack, is committed to this process,” he says. “I meet with her one-on-one every Monday. If any institution wants to exhibit excellence, it must embrace diversity.”