The Interview USA
Vice President for Engagement, Retention, and Inclusion
Harrisburg Area Community College

Armenta Hinton

It’s often said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. And forgetting isn’t always a passive action. It can be the result of a concentrated effort to deliberately whitewash the past or mislead people to uphold the patriarchy and white supremacy, as we’ve been seeing when it comes to recent attacks in the United States on schools teaching courses in Critical Race Theory. Denying people the truth about the past is a means of controlling the narrative and attempting to deliberately return society to a less progressive time. 

GoodCourse spoke to Armenta Hinton, Vice President for Engagement, Retention, and Inclusion at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) in Pennsylvania about how the key to creating and maintaining a truly equitable society for everyone is education.

Armenta’s Journey

GoodCourse: What brought you to this role and the wider field of student experience and engagement?

Truthfully, I embody the role. Some people have a story about a journey that got them to where they are. I believe that I was born to be a person who helps others navigate through difficulties. What I mean by that is in the United States, education was not free for everyone, and I’m from the South. I have a legacy of many things, one of which is the enslaved people. Whilst I was not one, my great grandparents were. They were eventually freed. However, that comes at a cost, and there’s a cellular imprint on your family as a result. And they did remarkable things. For example, my grandmother, who was born in 1890, was college-educated, roughly 25-30 years after the Emancipation. How remarkable is that? Her son, my father, was college-educated with a Masters degree. He and my mother met at college, and I actually grew up pretty much across the street from a college campus, So the whole college world and education are a part of my DNA. I’ve been a K-12 teacher, I’ve taught in Germany, I’ve taught in Britain. I understand from the legacy left to me by my ancestors that education is how you move from oppression to freedom. It empowers and opens opportunities. And knowing it wasn’t an opportunity given to everyone, it’s my goal to make sure that no person has an obstacle to it. 

GoodCourse: What does cultural competence mean to you, and why is it such an important aspect of your work?

I think cultural competence is essential for every human to work and live in an interconnected world. It’s our job as educators to make people aware of other cultures and to celebrate them. Here’s the difference between cultural competence—understanding, appreciating, valuing other cultures and norms—versus saying “I don’t see color or difference”: the latter diminishes me, because I think one of the greatest things about me is my color and my culture. That’s a moment of erasure for me. If you take away my color, you take away my culture. I was named after a former slave, for God’s sake! Armenta, my first name, was also the slave name of Harriet Tubman (spelled with an “i”). Why wouldn’t I want you to see my color? It’s something to celebrate.

Here’s the difference between cultural competence—understanding, appreciating, valuing other cultures and norms—versus saying “I don’t see color or difference”: the latter diminishes me, because I think one of the greatest things about me is my color and my culture.

And no one really is colorblind. There’s a difference between recognizing a color, race, or culture, and ascribing a value to it—saying I’m less because I’m a person of color. Now, that’s where we get into trouble. So I want people to celebrate my difference but I don’t want them to problematize it. We all have to value each other through our differences. It’s essential because you can’t move forward without it. 

GoodCourse: What are the biggest challenges HE is facing in the coming years?

HE in the United States is about to go off a cliff. We have fewer students to choose from, fewer applying, fewer graduating from high school. There are too many institutions in the US, and they cost a fortune. That’s going to start affecting who is able to attend. Education will soon revert back to a place of elitism because it won’t be for the masses, which will affect our society and humanity in general. Those issues are going to stay with us for a while. 

GoodCourse: I understand you do a lot of research into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in HE leadership. Can you tell me about it and what it reveals about the sector?

My research reveals that in the US our educational system was not created for people of difference or women, and that the recognition of that is making some people want to not talk about it. Areas of the US are becoming more conservative in terms of how they view the whole premise of education. That only things that are pleasant and don’t make a certain group look bad should be taught.  There seems to be a pushback against knowing historically where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. And because people don’t want to talk about the things that got us to these points, I fear we will start slipping back in some ways. 

Institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania were originally places where only well-to-do white men could be educated. Then other institutions were formed so women could be educated, but again it was very class-focused. Then you had the Morrill Land Grants after the Civil War, which allowed people to establish institutions like Penn State and Ohio State so that the average man and woman could be educated. We mustn’t forget what precipitated that.

I was recently looking up a walking trail of the Underground Railroad on a website, and a location on the map referred to a plantation owner simply as a “planter.” My research has shown that there’s a kind of cleansing of who we are and our journey. It’s been sanitized in a way that erases the experiences of an entire group of people… It’s a little frightening, actually.

GoodCourse: What are your thoughts on freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. I believe opposing views should be present and respectfully presented. But when we are using freedom of speech to harm other people, that’s a problem. So yes, you’re free to say whatever you want but do understand you’re in a civilized society and you shouldn’t use your position to harm others. That is not what freedom of speech is for. 

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