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Dismantling the isms: A Q&A with Dana Griffin, Dean’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Effective August 1, Dana Griffin, an associate professor in school counseling, begins a three-year appointment as the inaugural Dean’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the UNC School of Education. In this role, she will advise and work with leadership, faculty, staff, and students to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion across the School, and sustain a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming School community that upholds the highest standards of excellence. Get to know Dana Griffin and read a brief Q&A with her about her hopes for the new role and the School.

When it came to thinking about her future and career plans as a junior in high school, Dana Griffin wasn’t thinking about college.

“My outlook was to work at the local department store,” said Griffin, an associate professor in school counseling and the inaugural Dean’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the UNC School of Education. “I was thinking, ‘When I graduate, I can work there full time and work my way up to store manager.’ That was my goal.”

Growing up in rural Virginia with a single mom and in poverty, Griffin said that no one told her that she could succeed. Neither counselors nor teachers talked to her about applying to or going to college.

It was during Griffin’s junior year that a teacher — not her teacher, but one of the few Black teachers in the school —  gave her an application for a program at the College of William & Mary that brought low-income, first-generation college students to campus.

Her plans to manage the department store changed; she had always excelled in science so she declared pre-med as her major.

But once on campus, an advisor told her that she should major in English.

“It was what I now know as systemic racism,” Griffin said. “I didn’t know it then. My advisor, a white man, said, ‘You can’t become a doctor.’

“Based on my mom’s experience growing up in the tail end of Jim Crow in the South, she always knew white people were in power. She was never an activist. It was all about survival, minding your business, and not drawing attention to yourself because the alternative could mean death. I was raised to follow the rules.

“So when my advisor said, ‘This is not for you,’ I just said ‘OK.’ I was following the rules.”

She graduated from William & Mary with an English degree and a love for the novels and poetry written by Black women. She took an entry-level job with a credit card company, calling borrowers to collect their balance, but also listening to their stories, sympathizing with them, validating their stories, and working with them to pay whatever amount they could no matter how small. Self-admittedly, she was very good at this job. It revealed her strength in connecting with people and showed her that she could succeed as a counselor.

Griffin graduated from Hampton University with a master’s degree in counseling and began work as a school counselor at a middle school in Hampton, Virginia, where she served a diverse population. Some of her students were homeless. Many came from military families and underrepresented communities.

“I felt needed in that I could be helpful especially for the students of color and low-income kids because I could use my experience,” she said. “I never wanted any kid to not have someone talk to them about their futures. I was able to build their hope for their future. I talked about college.”

Equally important as her work within her school was her work within the community. She joined a church and built relationships with families distrustful of local schools. She worked to ensure that people’s voices were heard and most importantly, that students succeeded.

After four years of counseling, she wanted to use her experiences to train the next generations of school counselors, giving them the tools and insights to connect with students and families and to invest in their communities. Since earning a Ph.D. in Counselor Education at William & Mary in 2007, Griffin has been a faculty member at the UNC School of Education doing just that.

And much of her work in educating future counselors today involves anti-racism. It’s the one thing she believes all counselors need to adopt. Almost all counselors have been trained in cultural competence, but for the current times, Griffin said that’s not enough. When evidence and data show that students are marginalized in schools, counselors should advocate and take action.

“In many ways, school counselors aren’t utilized in the way that they should be,” she said. “Historically, when I’m counseling you, the individual, I am insinuating that the problem is within you.

“When we think about students who are marginalized — Black students, Latinx students, low-income students, students in poverty, students who have a different gender or sexual identity — the problem is external. If we want to address the problems of marginalized students, we have to address the external problem, not the student. We teach them to cope, but we need to be more proactive in trying to dismantle the ‘isms.”


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What are your hopes for this new Dean’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion position? 


This position was created in response to recent events, racial events, so I know this is a needed position. I also know that this is going to be a hard job because it involves change and involves going up against the status quo, and change is hard and is difficult. I’m stepping into it with my eyes wide open.

The Civil Rights Movement, we’re still in it. It takes years, but change … that’s my hope. And I hope people are willing to change or at least to see different viewpoints and be willing to let go of the “this is how we have always done things in the past” mindset.

There are things happening across the University that impact the School, and there are things that go on within the School as well. I hope to make sure that we have structures in place where our Black students, students of color, Indigenous students, or students from other oppressed groups can feel supported and feel heard. I want to make sure that those students within the School do not have negative experiences related to their ethnicity, their gender, or their culture. So addressing that is one thing that I mean when I say “change.”

That means that we have to look at how we educate our students, the things we talk about in our classrooms, understand the power of the language we use in describing people and things i.e, describing Black and Brown kids and their families as threatening, uneducated, uninvolved, or using terms like “bad neighborhoods” or “broken homes.”

One thing we can do is provide a critical look at our course material, the readings, and assignments. Are we truly providing students with knowledge about the history of our profession and how our current theoretical frameworks may be steeped in white supremacy? Are we teaching them to disrupt the system and to advocate for students? We need to ask each other these questions, be willing to engage, and discuss how our teaching pedagogies or curriculum need to change. I hope to facilitate this kind of work — not tell someone what they need to teach or how they need to teach, but to facilitate the conversations around our teaching. Ultimately, it benefits our students, all of our educational disciplines, and most importantly, the students and educators in schools.

Do you have any action steps that you see as immediately achievable?

The first thing that I want to accomplish is to get a sense of people’s viewpoints. I can’t go in and make change immediately. My goal is not to come in and say, “Everything we’re doing is wrong, and this is how we’re going to do it.” That sets us all up for failure, and that does nothing for anyone, and it doesn’t create a sense of community. I want everyone to know that we are all in this together.

I also do not see myself as an expert. I’m all about learning together.

I want to understand everyone’s perspectives and hear everyone’s voice. I want to do more than just bring people to the table; I want to build a new table together. I don’t want to use the old table because the old table is the status quo. I want to bring voices of the silenced, of the oppressed, of the marginalized to this new table. We all have knowledge and perspectives and expertise that we can use to dismantle the ‘isms. Unity is a powerful tool.

How can a role like this make our School a better school of education?

We definitely have people in the School who are dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s central to their teaching, research, and service. But for some, equity work is done in addition to the jobs they were hired to do. This role allows time to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a top priority. I want to continue to work with the people already doing the work because that’s their passion, they are good at it, and together we can get more accomplished.

In my 13 years here, issues have been raised around diversity, equity, and inclusion. People have raised their voices, but the issues continue. They are pervasive. Many of our institutions, the University and our School included, have been built on a foundation of racism and white supremacy. So distrust exists in our building from those who have been victimized by racism and white supremacy.

I believe this role can begin to build bridges of trust. It won’t fix the issues immediately. But this role shows a commitment to addressing issues that exist. It shows that our leaders realize these issues are real problems that some members of our community face and that they are willing to dedicate resources to addressing them.

What does it mean for you to be asked to take on this role? Why are you the right person for it?

As I mentioned before, there are many people in the School who could take on this role and who would be really good at it, probably better at it than myself. The Dean asked me, and after discussions with trusted colleagues, family, and friends, I accepted.

I will be good at it because of my counseling background. I am trained to listen. I am trained to facilitate. Those are some of my greatest skills and strengths. I’m all about relationship building. And while this is a leadership role, I’m not looking at this from a position of power. I lead by following, by listening, by creating relationships, by pulling people together and building on the expertise that we all have, regardless of your role — faculty, staff, or student. We all need to be 100% invested. I hope to get us all invested, and then we can be ready to take action on improving the racial and equity issues at the School.

Relationships are so important when you do this type of work. It’s the same way that I train school counselors to work with schools, families, and communities to ensure student success. The trust and the relationships have to be there for you all to come together and work together.

To the School of Education community:

As I have tried to survive in our new world of COVID-19, on top of trying to survive our world where I can be killed at the hands of police, I never thought about stepping into a leadership role to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, I am here.

In some ways, I do not see myself as a leader, even as I led the School’s Faculty Executive Council for the last year. I see myself as a person who works behind the scenes, hopefully leading by example. Yet, I am here. And I am humbly asking for your support, your engagement, and your commitment to creating sustainable changes around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I do not want to lead you; I want us to do this together.

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” – Gwendolyn Brooks