The Interview USA
Virginia Tech
VP of Strategic Affairs and Diversity

Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke

The impact of Covid-19, combined with the huge social change of the last few years around racial justice, means many feel uncertain of their roles on campus — particularly when it comes to advocating for marginalized colleagues and classmates. These challenges are the focus of the work of Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Diversity at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Pratt-Clarke sat down with Chris Mansfield, co-founder of GoodCourse, to discuss her journey into the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) sphere, how to build allyship, and her most significant achievements to date.

Menah's Journey

Chris: Could you give us a brief introduction to yourself and your current role?

I’ve been at Virginia Tech for 6 years, currently serving as Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Diversity. I’m also a Professor of Education and have affiliations with Africana Studies and Sociology.

My father was an immigrant from Sierra Leone, who got a PhD in nuclear physics, but was not able to be a faculty member because of racism within the academy — I believe it was racism that killed him at the age of 60.

I wrote a book about my mother called A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor. Her grandmother was enslaved: the legacy of my family is steeped in education, but also the legacy of racism. I wanted to support the advancement of People of Color in the academy, and help realize and actualize the potential of others who have been marginalized because of their skin color.

Chris: What sits within your DEI remit at Virginia Tech?

InclusiveVT is our institutional and individual commitment to our motto — ‘that I May Serve’ — in the spirit of community, diversity and excellence.  We have four pillars that fall under that commitment, including sustainable institutional transformation. Whatever we do, the focus is on sustainability.

Representational diversity is another pillar, as is creating a welcoming, safe and accessible campus climate. Our final pillar is integrating inclusivity into the academic curriculum. All of our efforts are about advancing an equitable, affirming institution that is sustainable around DEI issues.

Chris: What initiatives have you been working on to foster a sense of inclusion?

Our recent student populations, faculty, and staff have not been in community with others because of Covid. I don’t think we’ve prepared as well for what it means to re-emerge and socialize with people again.

There’s a natural creation of community on a college campus but the real challenge is making sure socialization isn’t superficial — how do you start to form deeper connections that create friendships? We’re still working on that.

Chris: Can you talk us through some of the approaches you’ve taken to help educate people as to what allyship means?

I was part of a webinar with White and Black women talking about allyship. As part of this, I wrote a blog post on this topic. I wasn’t convinced that most people truly knew what it meant to be an ally. In that post, I interrogate when and how you show up, and how to educate yourself.

At Virginia Tech, there are lots of good-hearted people, but they were very few colleagues with the words and tools to do the difficult work of DEI. We’ve tried to create words and tools — fundamental basics — educating people so they can educate themselves.

Whatever we do, the focus is on sustainability.

One of our most transformative programs has been White Allies as Transformational Leaders. We’ve engaged department heads to be part of a cohort that involves meetings and assignments, where they reflect on and interrogate their relationship to race. I’ve seen the difference it has made.

Chris: One challenge we often hear is engaging students that are difficult to engage — how do you tackle this challenge?

If you start on more superficial topics, like activities and interests, from that base, you can move onto the deeper topics. Most students won’t listen if you say the word diversity, but will if you use the word friendship.

Something that unites us all is the desire for community and friendship — and that happens through conversation. We don’t start talking about huge topics on the first day, but by the end of the semester, we should be able to talk about issues around race, religion, politics and more. It’s easier to call people out when there is a base of friendship and trust.

3 Quickfire Questions

Chris: What is your top tip for anyone coming into this space now?

Educate yourself. Know what your own capacity for dealing with oppression is, because it’s hard and challenging work — you have to be emotionally prepared. You have to get your words and tools together, so that you can help others get their words and tools together!

Chris: Who do you most admire in the DEI space?

Mary McCleod Bethune. She started with a commitment to her vision: that previously enslaved Black people needed to be educated. That level of commitment and dedication must be brought to this work today.

Chris: Is there a book you think everyone in the HE space should read?

Humans by Brandon Stanton, is a book of photographs and narratives about people from across the globe about their lives. You never know what anybody is dealing with at any moment. We need more compassion and appreciation for everybody’s personal journeys so we can better support each other.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at

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