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Anthony James joins School as inaugural director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

In the role, James also serves the UNC School of Information and Library Science.
Anthony James

When talking about his new role as the inaugural director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) at the UNC School of Education and the UNC School of Information and Library Science, Anthony James, Ed.D., leans heavily into the idea of belonging.

Belonging — specifically its absence in his own experiences — drives James’s work to make the people within classrooms, programs, teams, schools, organizations, and beyond feel connected to the people around them and the work they collectively undertake.

“I want to make sure people feel they have a place here, whether they’re a student or faculty member or staff member because everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere, to have their village,” said James, who joined the schools Jan. 3, 2023, after serving as director of minority education and outreach at the College of Charleston’s School of Education.

At Carolina, James will help both schools to realize their vision of inclusive excellence — organizations where talented people from diverse backgrounds want to come, stay, and do their best work. He will work to initiate, lead, and sustain efforts to expand diversity, bolster belonging, and promote the highest standards for inclusive excellence.

In the new role, James will expand upon work led by faculty member Dana Griffin, Ph.D., who served the School of Education as dean’s fellow for diversity, equity, and inclusion from July 2020 until James’s arrival.

“This role is imperative for the School, every school, and I am thrilled to welcome Dr. James,” said Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, Ph.D., dean of the UNC School of Education and Alumni Distinguished Professor. “I also cannot thank Dr. Griffin enough for her excellent work during the past few years. This new staff role is part of her legacy and our unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion work at the School.”

Belonging, succeeding

After graduating from college, James said he found belonging inside a classroom tutoring second graders.

To become a teacher, he needed licensure, so he joined Call Me MISTER — Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models — a program created by South Carolina educational leaders to increase diversity in the state’s teacher workforce and especially to increase the number of Black men in teaching. He earned a master’s degree from the College of Charleston, where the program is based, and taught first grade for five years.

After teaching, James earned an Ed.D. from the University of South Carolina. Up to that point, he said his experiences in higher education didn’t reinforce a sense of belonging. In many spaces, he was the only Black man. And he was often tapped to provide a non-White perspective in service to his school, so he resolved to become a leader in the DEIB space.

After earning his doctoral degree, James returned to the College of Charleston as the director of minority education and outreach. In that capacity, he also returned to the Call Me MISTER program as its leader, working to recruit men of color to the teaching profession.

“I wanted students to feel like they belonged,” he said. “I wanted to get them across that finish line (of graduation).”

At the College of Charleston, his work also extended to faculty members, working with them to ensure syllabi provided a range of perspectives, including ones of scholars from historically marginalized groups. He helped them revisit their course policies to ensure equity. He worked with staff members on belonging efforts and consulted with other departments and schools across the campus.

In 2022, James was one of 40 professionals selected for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education’s (NADOHE) Standards of Professional Practice Institute. He called it a “major opportunity” for him and his work to advance higher education.

James will bring his experiences and skills to the leadership teams of both the School of Education and the School of Information and Library Science.

Following is a conversation with James edited for space and clarity.

When you began to develop your expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, what did you set out to accomplish?

Folks from marginalized communities in organizations, we are often asked to do some of the heavy lifting for DEIB. I was constantly asked as a graduate student so I wanted to become an expert in these matters.

I thought a lot about the work from my own perspective. I wanted to feel like I belonged and I didn’t always feel that way. Part of what I wanted to do was to make sure other people felt they belonged … because when people don’t feel like they belong, they leave. In my previous role, one of my biggest goals with students was retention. The same goes for faculty. I want them to get tenure. For staff, I want them to receive a promotion or a reclassification.

Using my own personal experience of not feeling like I belonged actually motivated me to do the work for others.

Why is diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging so important in higher education or any industry?

I liken diversity to technology. When computers first came out, most institutions and businesses knew that technology was going to be imperative for them to be successful. It wasn’t an add-on thing. They knew their whole infrastructure had to revolve around the use of technology in order to be successful.

We’re at that point with diversity now. Diversity just can’t be something that we do. It has to be central to everything we do. We have to be able to capitalize on the diversity that’s present. The reason why some institutions fail is because they see [diversity] as a standalone thing. We do a diversity workshop, and we’re done. That’s a huge mistake.

We have to think about [diversity] as the folks did when technology was being introduced. It became central, and now you notice that there’s no budget cuts for technology. We have to have that same mentality when it comes to issues of diversity. 

How does a role like this help us to succeed?

I believe successful change leaders recognize windows of opportunity created by everyday events and capitalize on them. Early on, many change agents focused on access so we’re talking about the 1960s and 70s. Access was their diversity, and that was integration.

For me, diversity is just the first thing. That’s the least that we can do. Belonging is the end, the goal. Equity, inclusion, justice all fall in between.

We’re at a point now where we’re more diverse. But what happens next? We need to focus on success, and that gets at the belonging piece.

I’ve seen leaders walk around campus and say, “Look at all the diversity we have.” It was sad because many of those students were not staying and graduating. Those students didn’t feel like they belonged and didn’t succeed. [Success is] the whole reason to bring in diverse students, right?

Focusing on the right data and ensuring success will play a big part in this work.

What does success look like to you? What do you want for the School of Education and School of Information and Library Science?

Nothing beats a student saying, “This was my experience at Chapel Hill. I had a phenomenal educational experience. The professors were loving. They were kind, they were available.” I want our students to be able to say that about us. I want them to feel like this is the place they can grow and learn. I want our faculty and staff members to be able to say this is a great place to work, grow, and learn and to become the best version of themselves. And I want to make sure the data matches that.

I also measure success by the number of change agents that we turn out from here who we create and promote and send out to do this work. One of my strengths: I am able to help students with some of their issues, but also help them to become ambassadors and change agents to help other students. One of my former students led a workshop yesterday and did a phenomenal job. I was so proud because I had been preparing him for that moment. He is going to be in phenomenal DEIB leader. Faculty and staff can do this, too.

That’s the one message I want to send clearly: We have to do this work together.