Giving Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Jillian Watts, Assistant Director of ODEI
Tell us a little bit about your job at ODEI, what do you like best about it?
I am one of the Assistant Directors of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I coordinate LGBTQ+ programming at Kenyon, in charge of the Alumni of Color Mentoring Initiative Program, aid in cultural programming, co-chair the Summer Internship Stipend Fund committee, chair the LGBTQ+ advisory committee, and support students that are in need of services and mentorship. I love interacting with students the best. They have been the highlight of my time here at Kenyon. I believe that learning is reciprocal, and I definitely think that I have gained so much knowledge from my students.
Why is diversity important? In what ways do you think Kenyon should be taking steps to do better?
Growing up in a community in Kentucky that is much like Knox county and lacked ethnic diversity, I realize more and more as I get older of what I missed out on. My undergraduate experience was a bit of a cultural shock because oddly enough, it was the first time I had interacted with a larger group of people of color that also had aspirations towards collegiate success. I was the only student of color until my junior year of high school. My experiences with racism and classism in high school shaped me profoundly and my view of the world because I began to route my thinking and experiences in a social justice lens. Diversity, in all its forms, is essential for understanding the world around you, becoming a more empathetic person, and being able to really appreciate differences and recognize similarities in all groups. When we don’t see ourselves in others, we become critics, we marginalize, and we can become oppressive. I believe Kenyon is doing a great job in being a catalyst for change and initiatives that many campuses have not even thought to do. Like all universities and colleges I have worked for, we are striving to be more proactive with issues and to boost visible diversities on-campus.
How do you handle ignorance in everyday life? Do you have any advice for students?
Being an empath like myself, it sometimes becomes hard to shake off feelings of marginalization and recognizing the complicity of others in oppressive systems that are operating all around us (even without them knowing it). When once I would be driven to tears and bitterness about ignorance in everyday life, I have learned that I have used my experiences as a young Queer woman of color in academia as a means to empower the voiceless; uplift the discouraged; and give breath to those that need to be revived in their efforts to impact the world around them. It doesn’t hurt less. I grieve on a daily basis for the loss of security that I have within people and those that I loved and cared for to do the right thing; to advocate when it doesn’t involve them for what is right (not what is popular); to understand that passion and frustration is a normal part of feeling othered; and true allyship recognizes all of these elements and allies become a sounding board instead of requiring the marginalized to fight for themselves. I’ve learned to become a tempered radical, and I wish I would’ve learned this much earlier in life, so this is my primary advice for students. They say that everything worth while is worth fighting for, and I have found that to be true. No one ever says that sometimes while you are advocating for fairness, equity, inclusion, and diversity, sometimes it can leave you deep in murky waters. The term called “tempered radical” describes an individual that utilizes the system within to aid in systemic and institutionalized change. Many may assume that these people are unloyal to the system, but on the contrary, they are some of the most dedicated because growth and change means success for all of those around them. It is straddling that divide of both conformity in the traditional setting but also a rebellion against normative values that are inherently oppressive. It is scaffolding your environment by starting with little triumphs that grow larger and gain more momentum…until they become the norm. Sometimes we go into spaces with our big “Angela Davis” radical thoughts thinking that we are going to change the world and everything in it but unaware of the institutionalized oppressive systems that are at play (even without individuals being aware of their complicity in the system). It can leave you bitter, disenchanted, disengaged, powerless, and hurt. Students, sometimes you have to understand the system in order to affect change within. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with others (as much as possible). Build relationships. Forgive yourself when you don’t reach an outcome you wish you had. Never give up your mission. When you are calling-out injustice, insensitivity, or plain-ol-ignorance, are you also taking the time to explain why you are calling it out? Are you using education as a tool to dismantle oppression, or are you just stifling growth by instantaneous quips with no messaging behind it?
What’s your advice to students of marginalized groups for living in today’s political climate?
Fear of the unknown is okay. Frustration with a plight is okay. Grief of a societal condition is okay. People are going to tell you that neither of these things are appropriate to feel, but you are the owner and operator of your experiences, your past, your present, and your future. YOU know its impact and the power that situations have on you and your community, BUT how are you going to use those feelings and passions to aid in community growth and understanding? Sometimes, the best thing you can do (and I’m taking this advice myself) is to keep self care a number one practice that keeps you motivated, energized, and sane while you live in a world that has be proven unkind to multiple aspects of your identity. What would you like to do with that hurt? That pain? This feeling of being ostracized? The feeling of being unheard? Use that passion for good, advocacy, service, and education. When you let bitterness overtake you, it will cause you to question the mission you have sought out to do. It will cause to question your intellect, your resilience, and your place in society. Don’t let that happen. Let your triumphs fuel you; let your missteps (and those of others) propel you forward. I’m so proud of each and every one of the students at Kenyon. You all are going to change the world…IF you are patient enough to go through the hoops to do it.