Diversity is not a box to be checked or a quota to be met: instead, it’s a continuous process of learning, reflection, and growth. Dr. Angelica Perez-Johnston, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer at the Community College of Allegheny County, has put this understanding into practice, working tirelessly to foster a welcoming and inclusive campus culture.
Angelica met with Charles Sin, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk about her unique career path, the importance of building cultural awareness, and the debate around free speech on college campuses.
I serve as Chief DEI Officer at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC).
I never thought education would be my calling. I really ended up here by happenstance. I was a first-generation college student and an adult learner. After high school, I got my Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies before I took a couple of years off. I came back to school in my late twenties — I majored in Psychology and stayed on to study for a Masters in Mental Health Counselling. I’d wanted to focus on mental health and therapy, particularly drug and alcohol treatment, but I found it too draining. So I transitioned to working with at-risk youth, while working with at-risk youth, I started a part-time job as a counselor at a State College.
That’s really how I got into Higher Education. As a student, I knew people worked at the college, but I didn’t know it was something you could actually do as a career. I ended up in DEI because of some amazing mentors: they encouraged me to be intentional and have challenging conversations about what diversity really means. Then I did my doctoral dissertation on supporting marginalized students at predominantly White institutions, before becoming a student-facing director and moving up to my current role.
With the notion of cultural competence, there is an assumption that we are working towards a final point. But I don’t really subscribe to that — I think it’s an ongoing process of cultural awareness and education. I’ve been with CCAC for two years now, and in that time I’ve established some foundational training for faculty and staff. My focus is educating employees about how to be more intentionally supportive of students and also increasing the institutional capacity for equity. It’s about building institutional knowledge and empowering others, so if I walked away tomorrow that experience would stay with the college. We’re also using data to better inform our work, identifying gaps and trying to build equity for the entire Campus community and community at large.
It’s important to educate folks about what free speech really means. We need to show students the difference between offensive speech and hate crime: some language might be offensive, but censorship can have a chilling effect on free expression. But we can increase awareness and help students take a proactive approach to advocate for themselves. We’re facing some challenging times: there has been litigation at both federal and state levels about reporting systems that infringe on free speech, which could affect the way DEI operates. There’s a fine line, but we need to toe it to do right by our students. We can challenge hate speech with counter-speech — empowering students to stand up and make their voices heard.
For community colleges, it’s especially challenging. All of our students commute, so we don’t really have a residential component. So the safety and security of our campus depend on the safety of our community. In terms of physical safety, we’re raising awareness of available resources and reviewing our security camera systems — making sure they are visible and cover places like parking lots. But even if our students feel safe on campus, they might not always be safe at home. So we’re providing educational support around issues such as domestic violence and making sure safe spaces are available on campus.
For me, it’s about working with our non-profit and grassroots organizations to better understand the needs of the community. As an open-access institution, the needs of our students are different from four-year colleges: we need to understand the issues they are facing. We’re also working with the mayor’s office on initiatives and getting out there to support the community. In my role, I like to work with my boots on the ground, and most of my leadership colleagues are the same. We have a different approach than most, and we do our best to be intentional and engaging.
Inclusion is an organic byproduct of equity. So if we meet the needs of students from an equitable perspective, then inclusion will benefit too. Inclusion isn’t just about bringing folks to the table: it’s about having those people build that table. We need to create spaces for meaningful conversations and go beyond the dichotomies of diversity — making sure everybody’s identity is respected.
If I had the answer, I’d be making a lot more than I am now! Community college is a challenge because most of our students are already in employment and taking classes part-time. So we try to be intentional when engaging students — we hold tabling events, employ a student coordinator and DEI specialist, and work closely with our student organizations. It’s about consistency: showing up and showing out, no matter what.
Have humility. Understand that it isn’t about you. DEI is always evolving and we need to keep learning. Help folks understand where they are in their journey, and support them along the way.