The Interview USA
The University of Southern California
Vice President and Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer

Christopher Manning

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in Higher Education (HE) must feature at every level of the institution, and a huge part of that is learning how to have difficult conversations about essential matters in a constructive manner.

GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Christopher Manning, VP and Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at the University of Southern California, about the ways in which he is developing inclusivity initiatives at a faculty level so as to deeply embed equality into the core of the university.

Christopher's Journey

Kira: What brought you to DEI work?

I was always interested in breaking down the various barriers and forms of oppression that have been created by people; the ones we talk about as if they are natural or universal.  These barriers at the outset were about race and class. I brought in other categories such as biological sex, gender expression, ability and disability, religion, national origins and more.  My goal with my academic students was always to teach them that there is nothing universal, natural, or essential about this oppression, and if we created it then we can break it back down.  I began by bringing this into my academic work, and in 2016 I was asked to become a special assistant on the issue of race, which excited me because I believe that in HE if you can make that fundamental change you are immediately impacting society.

Kira: How has your nonprofit and academic work contributed to the work you’re currently leading at USC?

My research project was on social justice movements in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which was another expression of wanting to do something more immediate.  It was an oral history of those who ran nonprofits in this sector.  A lot of money flowed for this relief but it dried up when the economic recession hit in the following years.  What this taught me was that it is not wise to base funding for nonprofits solely on grants — it’s time-consuming to maintain and that takes away from your mission.  So, I ensured that we could function based on the revenue that we generated and used grants as an extra income.  I always practiced relational leadership and inclusion around program development, assigning responsibilities, budgeting, etc. What I saw was that, compared to my counterparts, our membership was much more stable.  While others had members on one or two-year cycles, we had people in the group who had been there from the very beginning and even from the group I worked with before.

It’s important to come from a place of empathy and wanting to help people be better in DEI work.  A lot of units seek DEI training but they don't have a strong sense of community or community resilience, so they don’t know how to have the right conversations or deal with difficult topics.  This doesn't work.

Now, in my work in DEI, I have learned more principles around restorative justice and practices, good communication, and resources like crucial conversations, which all gave more shape to what I was already doing instinctively.  I try to work very relationally with staff, and I am inclusive about budgeting and setting our priorities and strategies.  When I interact with our clients I do so on a unit-to-unit basis, because when you appreciate a person's humanity rather than see them as a problem, you can serve them better because you start by deeply listening.  It’s important to come from a place of empathy and wanting to help people be better in DEI work.  A lot of units seek DEI training but they don't have a strong sense of community or community resilience, so they don’t know how to have the right conversations or deal with difficult topics.  This doesn't work — it only reinforces patterns of oppression and can hurt people too. So sticking with the pattern of empathy and humanity first, we have developed a core of restorative practitioners who teach units how to build resilient communities around difficult topics.  We utilize this proactively to help communities develop strength before issues occur.  We begin with exercises that bring people together in the room and explore vulnerabilities before getting into the DEI training.

Kira: What are you doing on the student-facing side in terms of creating a sense of belonging?

We are about to begin strategically showing the academic units how to teach in an inclusive manner.  This is to help them to understand how to engage in difficult dialogues by utilizing restorative practices and relational techniques.  That’s why students are here, and when students feel alienated in the classroom environment then you are affecting the core of their experience.  We will also be working with academics to show them how to have conversations about race.  Data shows that White-identifying people have extreme difficulty in these situations and it comes with a lot of anxiety because of fear of how they will be perceived, but if your faculty is predominantly White then there is going to be a problem if they cannot engage in this subject matter.  We will be asking the Deans to start implementing this across academic units so that faculty can become more comfortable and confident in all of these topics and in having difficult conversations.

Kira: What does that look like outside of the classroom in the student experience realm?

We have been focusing more on creating pathways to increase the diversity of our students.  We recently held our Minority Serving Institutions Conference where we had over 150 students that we flew in and paid for to come and learn about our graduate programs as well as allowing them to apply for free.  These were students from historically Black colleges and institutions, and Hispanic serving institutions around the country. We know that the fewer minoritized people that are in a community, the larger the feeling of alienation and tokenism.  We want to increase the numbers so we have communities that feel at home, and then they can hone the gifts they have to help USC be a better institution by having more diverse experiences.

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What is your top piece of advice for anyone getting into HE right now?

Take on any opportunity that is presented to you with a sense of joy and curiosity.  

Kira: Who do you admire the most in HE or DEI?

The author James Baldwin. He has the most articulate expression of the American experience that I know of.

Kira: What is the most important book you have read?

Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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