Ensuring students feel a sense of belonging takes more than simply accepting them into university. It involves the removal of oppressive barriers, the transformation of spaces that weren’t designed for everyone, and the opportunity for students to have a meaningful impact on their university’s design.
This is something that Dania Matos, Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of California, Berkeley, strives for. She sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss UC Berkeley’s Thriving initiatives, the relationship between freedom of expression and equity, and how she leads with love in everything she does.
My name is Dania Matos. I use she/her/ella pronouns and I’m the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. So, what does that mean? I lead the division supporting our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community — because we’re a public institution, we serve a public good.
With resource initiatives, both academic and administrative, we have programs to uplift and transform our campus ecosystems. We often say institutions weren’t built for everyone, so my role is to make it so. Sometimes that means dismantling things, sometimes it means building new things, and sometimes it means taking what exists and creating something with different bits and pieces.
We often say institutions weren’t built for everyone, so my role is to make it so.
One of the things I often talk about is leading with love. It’s a word not often used in professional settings, and certainly not in Higher Education (HE). Centering love for me is how we co-construct and transform a new ecosystem with new conditions for thriving for everyone, focusing on justice for our campuses, communities, and the world.
Absolutely. The United States Department of Education has a federal designation for Hispanic Serving Institutions, which means that you have 25% enrolment of students who identify as Hispanic. For us, terminology matters, so for our internal community, that’s Latinx. And then 50% of those students are Pell Grant eligible, which basically means low-income, modest means — of which I was both. So I get to be everything my younger self needed. In that way, the work becomes personal and really powerful for me.
The Latinx community is not homogenous, so it’s frankly a big endeavor involving immense partnerships from the office of planning analysis, which helps us submit to the federal government. We work with our academic deans, our cabinets, department chairs, staff, everyone. One of the beautiful things I’ve seen emerge, especially for the Latinx people, is seeing themselves centered. That’s really powerful.
For us, we connect our work around what it means to be an anti-racist campus. That was one of the frameworks we took on post-George Floyd. We’re an institution that keeps it going — we’ve seen so many initiatives wane since that summer, but for us to be a Latinx Thriving institution is to be an anti-racist one. And to be an anti-racist institution is to be a Latinx Thriving one. They are one and the same and deeply embedded in how we do things.
Latinx Thriving is one, but all of our Thriving initiatives are built on the same framework. In my division, we also have the Othering and Belonging Institute. One of the ways they ground this work is by talking about how belonging — or being fully human — is about more than just being seen or having access, which I think is where some people stop. They think that if they increase a population at an institution, then that’s how people feel like they belong. But belonging is really having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design and social and cultural structures. That means you’re actually creating the space, not just being invited to it. It means you’re being respected at the basic level of humanity, which means you can co-create and make demands upon that same society.
That right to critique, to say ‘I deserve this’ or ‘This doesn’t exist’ is such a critical component of belonging. I say this because this is how we build our Thriving initiatives. We have African American, Latinx, and burgeoning Native American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander. What’s really beautiful is that when we work with one, we work for all. We’re developing the throughlines of racism, disability justice, and housing justice — so that every single one of these communities has these pillars, even though they were born with different needs.
This is so critical now in a context like the United States. Many feel that the inception of this country was grounded in freedom of expression. And yet you’ll see that it really isn’t — I hosted a free speech week which talked about ‘Can speech truly be free?’
One thing that people think is that freedom of expression is invaluable to an institution — but so are equity and justice. The claim we have to choose between one or the other is false.
What would it mean to build emotional intelligence and communication skills? To value uplifting dialogue and active listening? While recognizing that sometimes — speech causes harm. There is such a thing as hate speech.
We need to empower communities to use their voice against that, but if you need to check out, because there’s such a thing as psychological safety, then we ensure others can uplift that for you. Too often, we put the labor on the people experiencing the harm. Institutions need to think about how we share the labor so we center those most impacted. For me, that’s how we lead with love. We say ‘I got you, I’ll take care of you, and speak so that you can take care of yourself.’
That it’s not an industry to get into, but a place to come from. You must remember that your journey is your own and that it only has to make sense to you. I had so many people telling me I didn’t have the right credentials, but now I’m Vice Chancellor at the number one public research university in the nation. The thread for me was always knowing that I was creating room for others to speak for themselves, dismantling systemic oppression, and working toward collective liberation. I knew that my freedom was inextricably linked to the freedom of others. So as I helped do that, I was also setting myself free. And that’s really powerful.
I had so many incredible leaders. I was at Brown University when they elected the first African American Ivy League president, Ruth Simmons. That’s on my heart right now because Harvard just elected their first Black president, Claudine Gay, which reminded me of Ruth being the first. Brown was one of the first institutions to recognize its connection to enslaved peoples and built the Center for Slavery and Justice. I think she came out of retirement to be president of Prairie View.
Right now, I want to lift The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change by Michelle MiJung Kim. It has so much good advice about how you move from wanting to make the world a better place to transforming systems. It has been really powerful for me lately; Michelle is a Berkeley alum!