There are three things everyone knows you shouldn’t talk about at work: politics, religion, and race.

Yet on a Wednesday afternoon in October, a group of Virginia Tech leaders and administrators broke that long-held taboo by sharing their own searingly candid narratives about how race informed their identities growing up.

To open up about such deeply personal experiences with colleagues is a delicate business for the 27 participants in this semester’s Transformational Allyship for Inclusive Leadership (TRAIL) program, offered by the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. “It makes you very vulnerable,” said Aaron Bond, senior director of learning services in Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS). “It was like going to a therapy session — and then revealing what you talked about in your therapy session to 30 people.”

But the hope is that for people in positions of leadership — the dean of the graduate school, say, or the dean of students, both of whom are participants this semester — TRAIL will inspire not just inner transformation but a commitment to making institutional change at Virginia Tech.

On the trail

The Office for Inclusion and Diversity launched TRAIL this spring as the administrative counterpart to a successful program for senior faculty, now called Academic Allies for Inclusive Excellence.

Participants spend a semester studying the book "Becoming a White Antiracist," posting journal entries on Canvas, and discussing their thoughts and experiences in monthly meetings facilitated by Michele Deramo, associate vice provost for diversity education and engagement, along with Catherine Cotrupi, interim assistant dean and director of diversity, inclusion, and strategic partnerships in the Graduate School, and Takiyah Nur Amin, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design.

In the course, leaders learn the three main practices of TRAIL:

  1. Stepping up to do the personal work of critical self-reflection
  2. Stepping back to listen to the lived experiences of those who have been historically marginalized in the academy and to learn from research on inclusive practices
  3. Stepping forward to take back to their units the best practices for an inclusive academy

Near the end of the semester, Deramo asked cohort members to set a short- or long-term goal to implement what they learned on allyship — the “stepping forward” that results in concrete efforts to improve equity at Virginia Tech.

Lisa M. Lee, associate vice president of research and innovation and director of scholarly integrity and research compliance, found that learning to step forward boldly was the most valuable takeaway of her participation in TRAIL. “It's not that everything's fixed in a year,” she said, “but TRAIL really has provided me with a different lens through which I can look at the things we are doing and say, ‘Is this in some way systematically disadvantaging someone? If so, how can I make a difference?’”

Headshot of Michele Deramo
Associate Vice Provost of Diversity Education and Engagement Michele Deramo. Photo by Melissa Ripepi for Virginia Tech.

"Do something that matters"

Last semester, when Deramo asked TRAIL cohort members to “do something that matters,” Lee committed to scrutinizing language that might have subtly racist overtones. In a recent meeting, hearing the phrase “whipping people into shape,” with its connotations of slavery, gave her pause. She wondered how that everyday idiom might be perceived by a Black person.

“We all say things like this and probably don't even think about it, but we should think about it,” Lee said. “I feel like we can be much more careful and thoughtful about how we interact with people so we don't send them the message that they don't belong.”

Lee believes that watching out for linguistic microaggressions is not about being woke. It’s about using what she learned from TRAIL to rethink interpersonal interactions and university structures. “I look at a policy that we’re writing and say, ‘Who does this exclude? What’s the message about who this applies to and doesn’t apply to? Whose experience have I not considered here?’ That to me was most helpful.”

Stepping forward

Lee also joined Leanna Blevins, associate vice president for health sciences academic affairs at Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke; John Provo, director for the Center for Community and Economic Development; and Ginny Pannabecker, assistant dean of University Libraries, to ask Virginia Tech’s Commission on Research to read, share, and adopt one best practice from "A Framework for Advancing Anti-Racism Strategy on Campus."

They presented the framework at the commission’s September meeting, where it was well received. “If we can all just link arms and take a step forward together, it makes the work easier to do,” said Blevins. “You realize you're not going at it alone.”

Other projects from spring TRAIL cohort members included

  • Reviewing signs in residence halls, student centers, and dining centers for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Enhancing the diversity and inclusion competencies of university communicators by incorporating training into professional development
  • Offering more recreational sports experiences in the outdoors for Black students
  • Expanding measures for inclusive recruitment and retention in the Division of Human Resources

Affirming Virginia Tech's commitment to diversity and inclusion

This semester, TRAIL’s 27 participants include upper-level administrators, deans, directors, and leaders from a variety of units across campus, including

  • Matt Hammond, assistant vice provost of business administration in Academic Resource Management
  • Julie Weaver, division director of human resources in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design
  • Shaun Grahe, senior director of young alumni and reunion programs in Advancement
  • Stephen Milleson, director of integrated and digital marketing in Advancement
  • Zeke Barlow, senior director for colleges communications and marketing in Advancement
  • Bob Gavagan, assistant director of marketing and promotion in Athletics
  • Stephanie Hart, director of academic advising in the College of Natural Resources and Environment
  • Jacqui Pelzer, assistant dean, student affairs and admissions, in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Jessica Black, director of student success in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Amy Epperly, director of Hokie Wellness
  • Jeananne Knies, director of assessment and professional development in Student Affairs
  • Mark Sikes, dean of students
  • Rachel Smucker, director of university scholarships in Enrollment Management
  • Rebecca Folmar, director of risk management in the Division of Finance
  • Aimée Surprenant, dean of the Graduate School
  • Joyce Landreth, deputy executive director of user engagement in the Division of Information Technology
  • Julie Griffin, senior associate dean in University Libraries
  • Scott Tate, associate director for community innovation in the Center for Economic Development
  • Jennifer Havens, director of the Center for Business Analytics in Pamplin College of Business
  • Jamie Lau, director of customer service in the Division of Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities
  • Matt Stolte, director of engineering services in the Division of Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities
  • Nam Nguyen, executive director of energy and utilities in the Division of Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities
  • Anna LoMascolo, director of the Gender Equity Center
  • Aaron Bond, senior director of learning services, TLOS
  • Quinn Warnick, assistant vice provost for technology-enhanced learning, TLOS
  • Stephen Biscotte, assistant provost for undergraduate education
  • Angelica Witcher, assistant dean for student vitality and director of student affairs

“People who come to this are people who are bought in, which is a lot of what I believe about how diversity education should be,” said Deramo. “It’s people who are ready to take that next step, and we do it together.”

Even as diversity and inclusion efforts at other institutions of higher learning have come under fire, Virginia Tech has stayed steadfast in its commitment to diversity. “We continue to commit to the imperative of representational diversity and creating a climate within which all members of our community can thrive,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke at the COACHE town hall in October.

The university has a long way to go. But TRAIL’s effort to build personal capacity for allyship among administrators is increasing forward momentum.

“It’s not like, ‘This year I'm going to address microaggressions and I'll have done my work,’” said Lee. “This is a way of being, as opposed to some tasks to check off a list. We can probably continue to make things better forever. And I hope to be able to do that.”

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