The Interview USA
Northeastern University
Executive Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Rosa Rodriguez Williams

To build a truly inclusive academic community, universities must move beyond token gestures and surface-level initiatives, instead embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the core of their institutional ethos. Rosa Williams, Executive Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Northeastern University, has put this understanding at the heart of her approach.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Rosa to discuss topics including Northeastern University's approach to DEI, the institution’s efforts to create a sense of belonging for all students and encouraging open dialogue across divides.

Rosa's Journey

Max: Can we start with a quick introduction to yourself and your institution?

My name is Rosa Rodriguez Williams, and I use she/her pronouns. I am currently the Executive Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Northeastern University, based out of the Boston campus. Our institution is quite a large global institution which was established in 1898. It was founded by the Boston YMCA, and in 1922 it received its university status. We have grown to become a community of 55,000 faculty, staff, and students across 13 campuses in three countries – Canada, the US, and the UK. I lead the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which serves as a central hub that offers facilitative leadership to all of these campuses. We have between 20 and 30 diversity officers who are embedded within divisions and colleges throughout the global university network. We work with them closely in a network-type approach.

Max: What drew you to the world of higher education and DEI work in particular?

I often say that people from marginalized groups have been practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion work all of their lives, just because of their lived experience and the challenges they face. A little bit about me – I’m Puerto Rican, and I moved to Massachusetts when I was very young. Part of my passion as a young person was around issues of social justice. Through my work with affinity groups, I grew up with a desire to continue social justice work in my professional life. After working in the nonprofit sector, I earned my master's in social work. After spending some time in community work, I decided that I wanted to try out higher education.

As you know, the DEI field has gone through a new wave, although folks have been doing this work for a very long time. Back then, there were no certificates or majors or anything like that. So when I say I stumbled into it, that’s true, because as part of the work that I was doing at Northeastern, which was one of my first jobs as a young professional, I was the director of the Latinx Student Cultural Centre for 13 years. I learned so much about DEI and decided that this was the path that I wanted to take. I think a lot of people have the opinion that you need to have passion for diversity and inclusion work. That’s certainly true, but there are also skills, strategies, and practices that go into this work. My years at Northeastern as Director of the Latinx Student Cultural Center gave me the tools to be able to succeed in this field.

Max: What’s your approach to creating a sense of belonging for students from all walks of life?

Dr. Robert Livingston, a scholar in this field and who wrote the book The Conversation, talks about belonging as a subjective feeling of being included. So if we work on inclusion, belonging will come organically. But you still need to work intentionally and carefully, like everything else that we do. Our work is multi-departmental, multi-college, and multi-divisional – we partner with our Student and Cultural Life Center and our Office of University Equity and Compliance, where all of the bias reporting goes. That allows us to provide clear responses to protocols and communication with students in terms of what they're experiencing on campus and in the classroom. Another approach that we take is prioritizing continual education and training for students which goes beyond programming and workshops and develops real peer-to-peer structures. Our office has been at the ground level of developing an ambassador program, where we are training students to offer training to their peers. In terms of mental health and well-being, we also work with our university health and counseling service to create safety networks. At Northeastern, one really important aspect of belonging is our cultural centers and student groups, which we have spent years building into student life. It’s about finding that niche where you feel comfortable and having resources provided to those areas so that students can find their community. 

Max: How do you respond to the challenge of engaging every student in such a large institution?

It’s a difficult challenge. One of the things central to our work is providing real learning opportunities to help folks understand that the work happens at the individual level as well as the institutional level. I think a lot of people, whether at our university or others, really see DEI as a separate entity from the actual strategic planning. The way that we should approach our work is by being highly intentional about our partnerships and working within already established networks within the university. We think carefully about how we approach DEI in day-to-day interactions and the culture we are trying to create. Our workshops provide a sense of individual responsibility to what you're bringing to your work and how you are able to touch the lives of others. We aim to provide learning opportunities based on real human-to-human interaction, showing people how they can use DEI within their area in their everyday work and conversations.

Max: How can we encourage students to foster dialogue respectfully across difference? 

It’s all about the protocols and processes and building open communication. So we think about it in three ways: thinking intentionally, responding with empathy, and being available to students. We’re doing some very important work around listening sessions and creating processing space for students. We’re highly focused on how we respond with empathy and providing open communication; students don’t only need to know where to go but also have a safe space where to share their feelings. We’ve also been developing workshops and seminars in partnership with other local institutions to foster dialogue and bridge differences. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

If you’re stuck in the same room for too long, you need to get out. Don’t impose those boundaries on yourself. Step out there with confidence.

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Max Webber
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