November 20, 2020 | By Chuck Carlson
To Keena Williams, ’09, the Albion College she has known most of her life has changed in remarkable and dramatic ways. And that’s as it should be.
“It’s the difference in the underrepresented students and how every day they had to fight to be heard,” she says. “To carve out a space that’s just for them. Now it’s an institution that is actively working to create space for everyone and we’re not finished yet. To be a part of that shift is an amazing feeling. When alumni of color come back and we tell them what the campus looks like, they’re in awe and they’re excited about what Albion can be.”
It is a direction near and dear to her not only as an Albion native, an Albion High School and Albion College graduate, and someone who has risen through the ranks of the College administration. It is also important to her as an individual who knows only too well that student success in higher education is about more than just earning a diploma.
So this semester, Williams, who for the past four years has served as the College’s Associate Dean and President’s Special Advisor for Global Diversity in the Office of Intercultural Affairs, has been named to a new, Cabinet-level position: Chief Belonging Officer and Title IX Coordinator in the newly created Office of Belonging.
It is a position with many branches throughout the College. It encompasses diversity and belonging and involves working with individuals and offices working toward our collective commitment to changing attitudes and beliefs, policies and procedures, and rethink of a campus charting a new and necessary course.
“This is a big lift,” Williams says. “It’s starting something new. It’s making sure diversity is not solely my responsibility; it’s everybody’s job. It will move us along this continuum that starts with diversity.”
When President Mathew Johnson approached her about the new position, they both knew it could not simply be about diversity.
“Belonging is ultimately the place we’re trying to get to,” Williams says. “I really believe we are learning to create space and voice for everyone.”
Dr. Johnson is building on Albion’s ongoing goal of making the College more representative of the world in terms of a diverse student population.
“Keena will focus on institutional strategy and change related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” Dr. Johnson says. “Belonging takes us past diversity, equity and inclusion and asks us to be a place where Albion feels like home to everyone.”
Williams will lead the implementation of the College’s Blueprint for Belonging, which requires every unit within the College to articulate its public commitment to belonging. The aim of these campus-wide actions is to reinforce the fact that the work of belonging is indeed the work of everyone.
“It is not enough to just have the Office of Belonging,” Dr. Johnson says, “but that all of our community members—students, faculty and staff—will adopt this as their own personal charge as well.”
Implementing the Blueprint is a job Williams says she is eager to tackle.
“It’s definitely forward thinking,” she says. “Soon we won't be a primarily white institution and we have to think about how to educate students of today and tomorrow.”
Williams will direct an Office of Belonging that will impact every department and student on campus.
“It will force us to have different and difficult conversations,” she says. “It will push us in conversations and a shift in operations. Knowing that you do work that changes culture is sometimes scary, but this will get everybody to think about their role and what they can do to move instruction forward.
“This takes us from diversity and inclusion to belonging; it’s a journey,” Williams continues. “It’s moving from making sure that not only does everyone have a seat at the table, but making sure everybody’s heard at the table. Everybody has ownership at the table.”
Together, the new position, title and office are a recognition—and celebration—of the growing dimensions of today's college experience that go beyond academic success and student development. It's a recognition that pertains not only to Albion, but to all of higher education.
“This work is necessary on college campuses,” Dr. Johnson stresses. “Our student demographic has been shifting over the last decade and will continue to do so. In order to be the campus that our current students and future students need, we must change. It is not enough to accept a student to Albion and expect them to adapt to us. Albion needs to be a place that commits to our students by changing our policies, practices and ways of being and doing to support all students.”
“It’s looking at every aspect of the culture,” Williams says. “And we’re going to keep doing that until we get it right.”