When UCF recently held a virtual conversations to discuss race and unity, the online platform created a larger space for the campus community to have difficult dialogues around what real inclusion is, and isn’t — something S. Kent Butler has been advocating for even before he became the university’s interim chief Equity, Inclusion and Diversity officer in July 2019.
“We must strive to be malleable in our understanding of diversity and inclusion, because every day something new comes and challenges us and helps us to be better [at accepting and supporting everyone],” says Butler, who was the moderator for June 4 virtual conversation. “We need to continue these conversations in an effort to inform proper courses of action that we can take so everyone at UCF feels that they belong here.”
Butler came to UCF in 2007 to teach counselor education and has more than 30 years of experience in the field and multicultural work. As the head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, he has created the Leadership Council for Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity, which is made up of 22 individuals across UCF that champion social justice and equity.
“We must strive to be malleable in our understanding of diversity and inclusion because every day something new comes and challenges us and helps us to be better [at accepting and supporting everyone].”
He was also recently selected by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education for its Chief Diversity Officer Fellows Program, which gives him the opportunity to learn with the six other fellows who earned the honor for the current academic year and an experienced mentor he’s been assigned to.
“To have been selected in my first year as a diversity inclusion officer — and an interim at that — into a very selective, highly competitive cohort speaks to my passion and my desire for this work,” Butler says. “I’m excited for what this means in terms of my own development, which will benefit UCF, because I don’t know it all. I must be a lifelong learner, just like everyone else.”
The learning continues Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. on Zoom, when Butler, students, and student organizations will participate in a virtual forum to discuss concerns about racism toward Asian communities. Discrimination against Asian individuals has increased nationwide during the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center. During the event, he will also provide insight on the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s plan on the topic.
And as UCF, like much of the rest of the nation, is dealing with flaws in its system related to race and racism, Butler is ready to help the university address these issues. Here he shares some personal and professional insight.
ND: As a Black man and someone who has committed your career to multiculturalism, what are your thoughts and feelings about where UCF and the nation are at in this fight?
KB: I’m exhausted by it, and I’m energized at the same time, because to whom much is given, much is required. I can’t allow the exhaustion to override the need for people to be able to be free, to have access and to feel as though they belong at UCF.
Too often, others in power write the narratives of folks [who are Black and persons of color] and control how their life experiences are going to be lived out. And that’s gone on because, despite seeing the disparity, the hurt and the pain, people in power believe these marginalized communities want something from them other than their humanity and equal access. So we have to find ways to empower people to be able to live their life on their terms.
ND: Racism is a complex problem that doesn’t have just one face, and many people who do not experience its effects may not understand this. But the onus to solve this problem isn’t on just the people affected by it, right?
KB: Racism is a systemic problem, a machine, that was created to keep a system of people in power and in control. Racism comes from slavery, from when they used to have [Black] people swinging from trees, from when [Black people] were denied their rights to write and to vote. Those are the things that are still having effects today.
“In a very real sense, white people have to stop racism. White people have to come to the forefront and stop the systemic system that’s been put into play by white people.”
And people are still benefiting from it today. They’re benefiting from the stereotypes that have come out of people continually dehumanizing those who are not from white culture. And we have to recognize that, and we have to speak to that. In a very real sense, white people have to stop racism. White people have to come to the forefront and stop the systemic system that’s been put into play by white people. Black people, people of color, and marginalized populations have tried, and tried and tried. But if power hasn’t been in their hands, how can they alone make the systemic changes?
And so we need our allies. We need our anti-racists who happen to be white to speak out, to take charge, fight with us and help to create a better society for all.
ND: You’ve recently stated that now is the time to be actively anti-racist. What are some actions people can take to uphold that?
KB: First, people need to check themselves. It’s going down deep and looking at what you’ve learned in your life that kept you away from people who were different from you. Look at how it allowed you to start putting implicit bias and explicit bias into your pathway. Look at how you treat people and take the opportunity to immerse yourself into the lives of others in ways that you have not before. Let that teach you how to treat people.
“That’s the machine of systemic racism talking because it thrives when we fight against each other. In doing so, we can’t fight against it, together.”
For the people benefiting from racism, even if you say you aren’t racist, part of checking yourself is recognizing and talking about how you benefit from it. It needs to be recognized that acknowledging these benefits doesn’t mean that somebody’s trying to take something from you. That’s been the issue all along, that’s the machine of systemic racism talking because it thrives when we fight against each other. In doing so, we can’t fight against it, together.
Another action is to be an advocate. Speak out against things that are wrong. Protests can be a great place to do this, but you need to actively take action against racism and discrimination after the protest is over. And that’s everywhere, right? It could be with your mother, your father, your grandparents, aunts and uncles. It could be with anybody. A lot of times people are given a pass. Well, there’s no pass on [the effects of] racism for some people. People who are hurting can’t afford for you to be giving passes. It takes some difficult dialogues [to stand against racism]. It takes everybody having their voice in the situation and being a part of the solutions.
ND: Some members of UCF’s campus community feel uncomfortable with police presence due to instances of police brutality across the nation. How are these concerns being addressed at UCF and what else can be done?
KB: We need a police force to keep us safe, but we have to wake police forces up and make them accountable. It has to go into the training.
A recently launched national initiative is #8CANTWAIT, which calls for eight measures that can be immediately enacted to change police departments. This is a project from Campaign Zero, an organization committed to ending police violence in America. These measures require de-escalation training, policies that limit the potential for police brutality, require reporting for uses of force and weapons, and other actions to ensure officers are appropriately serving their communities.
“We need students, parents, faculty and staff of all backgrounds to participate with the [Chief’s Advisory Council] so UCFPD can hear what the community wants and needs.”
Recently UCFPD announced a commitment to #8CANTWAIT. The department has outlined policies that already existed or have been recently created or updated that address each recommendation of the initiative.
UCFPD has also recently launched a transparency website and actionable items to address some of our community’s concerns. One of which is updated training which requires all UCFPD employees to take the Harvard Project implicit-bias test and engaging in race-education courses. Hiring practices will now include additional screenings for bias and implicit bias training will be available for officers.
One measure that is important to note is the revival of the Chief’s Advisory Council. We need students, parents, faculty and staff of all backgrounds to participate with the group so UCFPD can hear what the community wants and needs.
ND: Our administration, faculty and staff are predominantly white, and it doesn’t reflect the diversity of our students. What is UCF doing to try to rectify that?
KB: First and foremost, what this needs to be about is hiring our qualified candidates, not “meeting a quota.” When somebody worked hard for their degree, or they worked hard to get their foot in the door, how degrading is it to say they got here because of Affirmative Action or the color of their skin? So our intent needs to begin with having qualified, diverse faculty, staff and administration because it is necessary to draw from a variety of perspectives and experiences to allow our campus community to thrive and ensure the best outcomes.
“It also goes hand-in-hand with the [campus] community actually being inclusive. People can sense if that is authentic or not.”
Part of the issue begins in systems outside of UCF. It’s not that people can’t be here, it’s that they haven’t been able to even enter through the gates. But we still need to make it a priority to do what’s within our control to foster diversity. There are initiatives being put into place to help search committees reduce bias — because everyone has biases — toward job candidates so we can bring in rich and diverse pools. There are many ways we can recruit talent.
On top of that, it’s about retention, how you treat people once they get here. There are methods being outlined to encourage an inclusive workplace, but it also goes hand-in-hand with the [campus] community actually being inclusive. People can sense if that is authentic or not.
ND: In February, UCF sent out a culture and climate campus-wide survey that was intended to gauge the environment at the university and provide data that could be used to inform necessary changes. The survey was completed in March. What will happen with the information it gathered?
KB: We [the Office of Diversity and Inclusion] are going through the data from the results and analyzing it. On July 15, the results will be published on several websites and distributed through email so the university community can see how the students, faculty and staff who participated responded.
I am also planning on having a series of town halls to talk about the results and give people an opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings or concerns about the information.
ND: What needs to happen to ensure that the stances the university is taking now result in lasting change?
“To put accountability measures into play, it starts with open communication. That’s why I’m saying to students who are upset with the way things are going, come and be a part of the team — not to do our jobs but to inform them. Help us help you.”
KB: UCF is a work in progress. And we need to go to the ends of the earth to make sure everybody who’s here feels safe, welcomed and a part of this community. We have to strive for it daily. We — administration, faculty, staff and students — have to actively denounce any biases or discrimination we come across, and take the appropriate actions to confront them. Because we all have a right to be here. It’s about accountability, which has to be conducted in the right and legal ways. To put accountability measures into play, it starts with open communication. That’s why I’m saying to students who are upset with the way things are going, come and be a part of the team — not to do our jobs but to inform them. Help us help you. Because we have not gotten it right sometimes, so we need people to help us get it right. If you come looking for answers and are not willing to help us understand what better options are available, then the possibility of us getting it wrong is very high. Help change that narrative, as opposed to fighting against the system that’s at least trying to make things right. UCF is waking up. In order for real change to happen, we have to work together. We can make it happen by being accountable to one another.