Rafael Zapata
Photo by Chris Taggart

Q: You’re Fordham’s first chief diversity officer. It’s a title that you’ve held before, most recently at Providence College. Can you tell me a little bit about what you see the job as?

A: The job is to provide leadership and help the University attract and retain outstanding students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds, and help them thrive. How can we craft a culture that affirms, values, and supports members of this community to be their best selves? How do we draw on the mission of cura personalis to support people to be their best, so that their god given talents can shine through?

We live in a deeply segregated society, and college is usually the first time that students can come together in some way, shape, or form as equals. We may have different class, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, but for the first time we’re encountering each other as actual people, not as abstracts. Having a gay roommate, having a roommate who has a disability or who hails from the suburbs—you will learn from being in close proximity with people different than you.

Q: You were born and raised in New York City, so this is a homecoming for you. You grew up in Chelsea, right?

A: Yes, I grew up in the Chelsea public housing projects and attended Rice High School in Harlem.

Q: This the most diverse city in the country, if not the world. So why do we need to pay attention diversity in a place that’s already diverse?

A: In New York, you can have the presence of diverse people, but what is the nature of those interactions? I grew up in public housing, and there were people who lived around the corner in very different housing who I never saw. We knew the same convenience stores and the same landmarks, but we didn’t worship in the same churches, attend the same schools, and we certainly didn’t play in the same sports and recreation leagues. You can be neighbors, but does it mean that you’re one community?

When students are on a college campus and are roommates or classmates, the University has to intentionally create opportunities for them to interact and learn with and from one another. How faculty and staff engage with our students and with each other is also really important. The quality and nature of those interactions are often times based on abstractions or assumptions. Such experiences can be disruptive, but disruption can also lead to new learning.

What people often learn is what not to say. That is not what this is about. It’s about how we can develop the tools to exchange ideas and learn from one another—as opposed to avoiding ideas that we might find uncomfortable and even repulsive.

Q: Can you talk about this idea that this is more than just learning what not to say?

A: Clearly, we don’t want students using misogynistic, homophobic, or racist language…or anyone on campus, for that matter. Sometimes, where people are coming from, that’s normalized and maybe viewed as being a bit irreverent, playful. In intimate circles, it may be understood that that’s not something being done seriously or to intentionally cause harm. But when there is no relationship – in fact, even when there is a relationship – such language can be troubling. In those instances, we need to help people understand why these words, actions, or attitudes can be viewed as harmful by others.

“Just don’t say it” is oversimplified and will be dismissed as political correctness. If I don’t know why I shouldn’t say this, or why you think I shouldn’t say this, I don’t have a chance to understand why you feel the way you feel. When people feel coerced or don’t have an opportunity to have a real conversation about the reasons behind why an idea bothers someone, that defeats the whole point of an education.

It can also become a burden for students who constantly have to explain why certain jokes, remarks, and attitudes they encounter day after day after day are incredibly difficult to endure. Institutionally, we need to examine structures, policies and practices that may result in similar, negative impacts. We need people from an array of backgrounds to engage these questions. So white students need to talk to each other about why using racial epithets may affect students of color or other people who find such words offensive. Men need to talk to one another about misogynistic language, attitudes and actions. And even more importantly: students, faculty, staff, alumni and residents of the neighborhoods need to be engaged with one another about the kind of community we want at Fordham University, because it will take all of us.

Q: How does a diverse campus population benefit everyone?

A: Even in ostensibly homogenous groups, not everyone thinks the same way. What’s more, having a broader range of diverse identities and experiences in the classroom and among the staff and faculty provides a dynamic environment for substantive, mutual learning that’s simply not possible when people all come from the same place. It’s central to the notion of cura personalis, and to the academic mission of the University.

Q: What do you expect will be the biggest challenge you face?

A: I see two significant and related challenges. The first is being new to the institution, and second is the importance of articulating this work as a collective responsibility. I learned a great deal having been the inaugural CDO at Providence College, but each context is different. Fordham is a much more complex university, with three campuses locally and the Calder Center and programs in London, Pretoria, and Beijing. There’s a shared identity, but there are unique elements, I’m sure, to be found at each campus.

I’m going to ask a lot of questions, like ‘what are the initiatives in your area,’ ‘what are the challenges you’ve faced around equity, diversity and justice,’ ‘what are your priorities going forward, and what resources and other sources of support might be required.’ I may not be able to furnish all of those resources, but it’s important to know what people feel are the priorities in a particular context, and how we address them. It goes back fundamentally to building relationships, developing an awareness, and asking questions so we can develop and move forward together with a shared vision of diversity, equity and justice.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.