One of the most difficult elements of DEI work is encouraging people who are unfamiliar with the topic at hand to listen and be open to changing their perspectives. As director of LGBTQ and Gender resources at Vassar College, Danushi Fernando works hard to make sure that everyone can access the most important conversations around social justice.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield speaks to Danushi about how her lived experience drives her passion for working with students towards change, and how she is helping to engage everyone in Vassar’s community with DEI issues.
I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, at the height of the civil war. My school was bombed, and on the day of my visa interview, I actually witnessed a suicide bombing right next to the US consulate.
I lost friends and loved ones at so many points throughout the war. That experience instilled in me a strong belief that there had to be a better way to resolve conflict than through violence.
I wanted to explore all of the ways I could help build trust and compassion between different groups. Unfortunately, I knew that I couldn’t do this in Sri Lanka, because of the ongoing fighting, so I began to look to America as a place to make my career.
I realized in my early teens that I was queer. Homosexuality is still a criminal offense in my home country, so my decision to come to the USA as an international student was also informed by the need to explore this side of my identity.
As soon as I began my studies, I gravitated toward the field of student affairs. I became a resident assistant while I was still at college, and this gave me the space to interact with all kinds of students. That’s what really made me want to work on DEI issues within Higher Education.
The division and hurt of the 2016 election cemented my path into DEI roles, and I became director of DEI at Clarkson not long after. Working at Clarkson meant commuting into upstate New York – which is totally unlike New York City in that it’s very conservative.
On my way to work one day, my bus was boarded by border control officials. I was the only person of color on the bus and the only person who was asked to present identification. I don’t carry my Green Card with me when I travel, so I couldn’t provide evidence for my right to be in this country, and I was threatened with detention.
At that point, my commitment to DEI redoubled. I realized that even though I enjoyed my work at Clarkson, I couldn’t have the impact there that I could at a university, and that’s why I moved to Vassar.
Today my work serves both women and LGBTQ+ students at Vassar. Those are two separate demographics, but I often produce work at the intersection of those two groups, and that’s the work I enjoy the most.
When I first came on board, it was common for conservative groups to target initiatives that sought to widen access to STEM subjects.
This is why an intersectional approach is crucial. People and their identities can’t be viewed in isolation from each other. First and foremost, I bring intersectionality into conversations just by being myself – I’m a queer Sri Lankan woman, and all those parts of who I am are important.
In my work, I always make sure that others have the space to be their authentic selves too. This means being as inclusive as possible in the language we use and the decisions we make.
An example of this is our Women in Leadership Development Program (WILD) – we make the point that “woman” includes transgender women and non-binary people, and we go out of our way to find transgender and non-binary workshop facilitators to really evidence that point.
We have dedicated mental health and wellbeing workshops at Vassar, but I think that what we do really well is incorporating well-being support into our overall approach and ethos. We always remind students to put themselves and their health before their studies and to prioritize their needs.
I think that a good ally is someone who has an abundance of empathy and compassion for people who are different from them. Allies also need to be patient and willing to constantly learn. Good allies also need to be willing to apologize – we all make mistakes, so it’s important to know how to hold yourself accountable.
Education can’t just be about presenting people with facts and terminology, because this often feels alienating for those on the receiving end, and this shuts down their perspectives.
I’ve found that when learners can’t see eye to eye with each other or with me, it’s often because of how much othering there is in that conversation.
I help people overcome that by opening up about the times when I’ve made mistakes and excluded others without intending to. That encourages people to feel more comfortable with vulnerability, and with learning through the discussion of our personal narratives.
I can tell when my efforts have been successful because I see more inclusive and empathetic behavior in my learners. This is particularly relevant to conversations around white privilege, where participants often feel defensive, or can’t see the problems at hand.
On one occasion a member of staff actually came to me and admitted that he used to be a member of the KKK, but that my approach had resonated with him in a way that other kinds of education hadn’t. He told me that he felt heard and understood, and that’s what made him listen to me in return.
He asked me if I would be open to having the same conversation with his friends in his own university department. That was a really powerful moment and a big sign of progress and success.
The first step is to identify the spaces where change needs to happen, and that need the training the most. Then I start to build personal relationships with the people who make decisions in those areas, such as heads of departments, so that I can help them see the problems at hand without it coming off as an affront.
After that, I will seek out opportunities to have conversations or to present my ideas, but only once a trusting relationship has been built.
Ask yourself why you want to work in DEI, and really hold onto the answer, because there will be times when you want to give up!
Make sure that your personal values align with those of the institution you’re joining, because making progress in this area requires a lot of commitment and conviction.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, an academic who is credited with a lot of the theory behind intersectionality. Her work has helped me to understand myself, and constantly informs the projects I deliver in my role at Vassar.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. This book really spoke to me because I saw this exact thing happen at college myself, and wanted to know why.
When I was assigned this book for one of my classes, it explained to me how segregation can happen even in diverse spaces. It just blew my mind, and was one of the resources that influenced my journey towards a career in DEI the most.