When we talk about diversity, it's crucial to recognize that its benefits extend far beyond underrepresented communities — it's a game-changer for everyone. No one understands this more than Damira Grady, Vice President of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Relations at Madison Area Technical College, who is leading her institution’s efforts in the fight against systemic racism.
Damira met with Kitty Hadaway, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss issues including her background in community work, her institution’s initiatives to tackle racism and support students of color, and the debate around free speech on campus.
I serve as the Vice President of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Relations at Madison College. We’re one of sixteen technical colleges in the state of Wisconsin, and one of the largest with over 30,000 students. We offer technical diplomas, certificates, and apprenticeships, as well as two-year degrees and adult-learning programs. My favorite thing about Madison College is our diversity: students here feel comfortable being themselves, and we have a real commitment to social justice.
I really stumbled my way into it. After my undergraduate degree, I started working at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I was studying for a Master’s in Educational Psychology, and I got involved as a life coach advisor in a program supporting low-income students with children. My job was to connect them with resources in the community and on campus. I worked there for three years, and once I graduated, I went to work with the Milwaukee YWCA as a Racial Justice and Economic Empowerment Coordinator. That included running various workshops about racism, microaggressions, and white privilege. We also ran a program on economic mobility to help people with writing their resumes and finding work experience. I didn’t even think of it as equity work; I just wanted to help the community. After that, I worked a few different jobs — visitation, foster care, and disability support — before I returned to higher education at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. From there, I moved to MATC Milwaukee where I worked as a counselor and then a Director, and was there for seven years before I was hired as the Chief Diversity Officer at UW Oshkosh. Then about a year ago, this opportunity at Madison came up, and I jumped at the chance to return to a community college.
It’s been fast and slow at the same time. I’ve really been able to grow my team; when I arrived, it only had three members, but now we’re up to ten. Institutions have long memories, so it’s important to build relationships and set the foundations which will allow our work to thrive in the future.
About a month ago, I updated the board with our progress. We have a lot going on and we’re fortunate to have some passionate staff who are willing to put in the work. But there have been definitely some challenges; a lot of our goals were aspirational, and we didn’t really think about how to define success for our students. We’re trying to build a shared equity model so everyone is working from the same plan. We want to embed our new equity and inclusion plan into the strategic goals of our entire institution. Right now, we’re working on a charter to establish an anti-racism task force at our institution. We’re determined to transform Madison College into an anti-racist institution. The policies which will eradicate racism can also be applied to other forms of discrimination — whether that’s sexism, ableism, or homophobia. Our data shows that our students of color are not succeeding at the same rate as their white counterparts. In particular, our African American students face a unique form of discrimination, so we need to make sure to center those voices. We need to identify which interventions our most vulnerable students need: then we can scale those up to benefit the entire student body.
It’s about helping people understand the difference between free speech and hate speech. And it’s not just about students — we need to reach staff and faculty too. As a diversity officer, I hear a lot of things that I disagree with, but I respect people’s right to say them. That’s how we create discourse and find the opportunity to understand each other. Sometimes, if someone says something hurtful, it can become personal. But instead, we should be trying to create systemic change, and asking where we want to be as a culture. So I’m leading a monthly series called “Leadership Insights” with all employees who are managers or above: the purpose is to have real conversations about what we want to normalize at our institution, and what measures we can take to eliminate bias.
I’ve worked at four-year and two-year institutions, and each brings its own challenges. At Madison, a lot of our students commute, and we have large numbers of international students. I’m amazed at how involved they are: students often make their own plans and hire out areas for their activities. I’ve seen a lot of our students getting engaged with racial and social justice movements, as well as gender and LGBTQ+ issues. We’re working hard to make our spaces more inclusive, including gender-neutral bathrooms and systems to make it easier for students to change their names. Many of our students are parents or caregivers, so we are trying to create spaces where they can be with their children. I learn so much from our students every day: I have two children who are students themselves, and they are always keeping me up to date! This generation doesn’t want segregated spaces — they want to feel welcome everywhere they go.
Nobody is an expert in this work. Instead, you need to act as a practitioner and a learner. Some of the best work is coming from people who are getting out there with their boots on the ground. Don’t sit up high and make judgments about people: instead, go and walk alongside them.