University of South Florida


MS Teams screenshot of a meeting with the USF Black Employee Steering Committee

USF's Black advocacy groups unite to increase their impact

USF’s Black affinity groups and leaders are partnering in new ways to build a more equitable workplace and learning environment. Together, they are combining perspectives that represent Black faculty, staff, students and alumni to develop new ways to help combat systemic racism.

Because of how easy it has been to meet via Microsoft Teams and similar platforms, previously siloed staff and faculty members have galvanized the desire for real change into the formation of the USF Black Employee Steering Committee. The committee, launched in summer 2020, is a network of 30 interdisciplinary faculty and staff members working to address racial inequities that they have identified as interlocking priorities: salaries and hiring practices, to support professional development opportunities that promote inclusive excellence for all persons of color, encourage investment in key institutional infrastructure, such as the Institute on Black Life and Institute for the Study of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and advance initiatives around faculty and student recruitment, retention and mentorship.

“Folks have been resilient during these difficult times, and this is yet another moment when Black leaders have recognized the power of coming together to unify and strategize in order to have a sustained institutional impact,” said committee leader, Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, senior advisor to the president and provost for diversity and inclusion, interim vice president for institutional equity and associate professor of sociology.

Last summer, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody and the nationwide protests that ensued, USF Black faculty, staff, students and the broader community have been grappling with very difficult emotions. In spring 2021, Hordge-Freeman convened an even larger group of leaders from more than a dozen Black affinity groups or entities that support inclusive excellence in higher education to exchange ideas and discuss possibilities of further collaboration. In this virtual space with President Steve Currall, organizations such as the Black Faculty & Staff Association, Black Leadership Network, Committee on Black Affairs and Black Student Union shared heart-felt dialogues about existing challenges, and most importantly, they outlined and expressed interest in participating in efforts to advance racial equity.

Hordge-Freeman oversees a recently launched anti-racism website, which serves as a collection of resources and information warehouse for content related to USF’s commitment to anti-racism. The site includes the Diversity, Anti-Racism & Equity (DARE) dashboard, which was created to establish a baseline that can be used to better understand the current status of racial and gender equity at USF. The data initiative, created in partnership with the Office of Decision Support, will help university leadership set goals, track progress, identify challenges and re-evaluate policies eliminating racial inequities. Members of the Black Employee Steering Committee group, including Hordge-Freeman and Michelle McNulty, assistant director of New Student Connections, are part of the Staff Salary Equity Taskforce where they are using data to create a framework for assessing salary equity with a focus on gender and racial equity.

“This is a model for systemic change that supports inclusive excellence at USF. It’s a model for how others should leverage community, and unite, to really advance equity and inclusion and address oppressive practices in higher education,” said Ruthmae Sears, co-chair for the Black Employee Steering Committee Professional Development Committee and associate professor of mathematics.

Sears leads the steering committee’s monthly professional development workshop called the “Enlightenment Series,” which features topics such as bias, workplace microaggressions, anti-Blackness, and the facilitation of difficult conversations. The workshop is open to the USF community with a goal of building alliances and fostering a culture of inclusive excellence. Since its inception, the series has attracted more than 586 participants.

“We have a collection of concerned people of all colors who want to see the advancements, they want to see improvements at this institution,” said Kristofer Newsome, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association and co-coordinator for sports programs at the Recreation and Wellness Center, part of the Student Success unit.

The convergence of the Black Employee Steering Committee’s report on its interlocking priorities to target challenges and present solutions that better serve the Tampa Bay region is closely tied to broader initiatives at USF. Last year, USF awarded $500,000 to 23 multi-disciplinary research projects to explore solutions to the problems of systemic racism. All the projects include partnerships with Black communities, which is integral to understanding the societal impacts of racism.

“We often forget that the larger community around us has been here longer than USF and we have a moral responsibility to partner with and be a resource for the community,” said Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, educational and psychological studies professor and co-chair of the Committee for Black Affairs, a presidential-appointed advisory group with a strong understanding of the concerns facing local Black communities.

“There has to be a multi-faceted approach, but you really need to have the mindset that you are going to be more inclusive and use some non-traditional strategies to get some different outcomes,” added Brenda Walker, co-chair of the Committee for Black Affairs and education professor.

There is a strong sense of urgency in the voices representing Black affinity groups, including student groups. Student groups have participated in a variety of forums and have detailed how the university can better support students.

: Emmanuel Harvey with other BSU members in the Martin Luther King Plaza at the USF Tampa campus.

: Emmanuel Harvey with other BSU members in the Martin Luther King Plaza at the USF Tampa campus.

Last summer, Harvey wrote a letter to Currall requesting several actions be taken, such as the recruitment of more Black faculty and the creation of affinity spaces where Black students can feel relaxed from the pressures of justifying themselves.

“Making sure that it’s equity not equality because you are acknowledging the damage that has been done in the past and are working to reverse it,” Harvey said. “I want that justice for other Black students and students of color who enter USF. I want them to feel heard and I want them to feel equal, safe and happy."

Building on the importance of unity and solidarity, Kiara Brooks, vice president of the Black Student Union, has led the charge to re-activate the Coalition of Black Organizational Leaders, which would unify student-centered Black affinity groups to more effectively advocate for Black student concerns.

At the academic unit level, the Institute on Black Life, which promotes community engagement, research and mentorship programs, partnered with the Student Success unit to dedicate a space on the third floor of the Marshal Student Center that will serve as a social and academic center where students and faculty from all cultural groups can learn more about issues facing the Black community. The space will officially open once COVID-19 restrictions allow for campus events to resume.

“We’re at a wonder point around diversity, inclusion and equity. We have an opportunity to be great or to fall off the cliff – we want to be great,” said Winston Jones, associate dean of students and acting director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs." We do that by engaging and creating environments for our students to engage cross culturally.”

Jones has a growing list of ideas on how to create a nurturing community in the new space. He and Fenda Akiwumi, director of the Institute on Black Life, plan to loan some of their African and Black historical art. Also, faculty and guest speakers will be invited to encourage active dialogue about a variety of subjects centered around contemporary Black experiences, research and scholarship.

“We have stellar intellectuals, highly educated, innovative Black people here at our university,” said Akiwumi, professor in the School of Geosciences.

Reflecting on the work of this group, Hordge-Freeman states, “By recognizing that we are stronger together, we are forging new ties and creating new opportunities for solidarity with each other and across groups. The Black Faculty and Staff Association is sharing insights with Latinx faculty and staff about the logistics about how they can similarly establish and leverage an affinity group on campus. Afro-Latinx leaders in both groups have been integral to these conversations. Similarly, the student chapter of the NAACP on campus has organized events to raise awareness about anti-Asian violence as a way to build bridges across racial groups. Ultimately, by calling people and groups in, rather than calling them out, our work to address racial equities is building a foundation that will allow us to address multiple forms of inequity.”

Members of the USF Black Employee Steering Committee include:

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman
Cheryl Rodriguez
Maya Trotz
Ruthamae Sears
Deirdre Cobb-Roberts
Fenda Akiwumi
Christopher Simmons
Tangela Serls
Kristofer Newsome
Yulander Wells
Max Owens
Antonia Robinson
Geveryl Robinson
Jean Kabongo
Marie Byrd
Denise Davis-Cotton
Kelly Cowart
Carlos J. Moreira
Anthea Henderson
Latosha Thomas
Stephen Aikins
Michelle McNulty
Stephanie Williams
Lisa Knight
Dawn Brown
Antoinette Jackson
Walter Jennings
Nicky Luckett
Darren Gambrell

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