Rhonda Brown, Occidental’s first vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer (CDO), proved her dedication to her new college by embarking on a 2,800-mile, four-and-a-half day journey from Philadelphia with her Airedale terrier, Theo.
“If there was a place that I would leave my house and my horse and my world to come to do something different, it would be here,” Brown said. “I don’t think I would’ve done it for anyplace else.”
Her initial campus visit in November, in the middle of the student occupation of the Arthur G. Coons administrative center led by Oxy United for Black Liberation, allowed her to witness and appreciate a genuine desire for progress at Occidental.
“I was looking at a place that just wanted to be better, that was willing to take a hard look at themselves and say ‘We’ve done some great things, we’ve done some not-so-great things, but we can do better,’” Brown said.
Although her cross-country drive was primarily for the sake of her dog, whom she did not want to subject to air travel, it also gave her an opportunity to clear her head and mentally prepare for her new life in Los Angeles.
According to Brown, her position will ideally help members of the institution communicate in a manner that allows them to look beyond trivial differences. She hopes this will enable them to see the similarities in their goals and work together to achieve them, rather than against each other. Her aim is to create a common understanding of what diversity means to the Occidental community and then to work toward that objective.
President Jonathan Veitch feels that Brown is well-equipped to reach this goal.
“I think everyone will be impressed, as I have been, with the down-to-earth, approachable style that she combines with a depth of knowledge and seriousness of purpose that we need,” Veitch said via email.
Brown is well-aware that her arrival, long awaited by the Occidental community, will place a lot of pressure on her.
“I’ve been telling people gently that I think that you all expect me to walk on water,” Brown said. “And I can do it if it’s less than 32 degrees.”
A search committee co-chaired by Biology Professor Kerry Thompson and General Counsel Leora Freedman interviewed Brown in November alongside three other potential candidates.
“Rhonda had a great combination of substantive knowledge about diversity issues and practical experience working with students and faculty,” Freedman said. “I felt that she had a great communication style and that she was a very good listener and that she was fair.”
Brown brings with her relevant experience from her previous post at Temple University as associate vice president for institutional diversity, equity, advocacy and leadership that will guide her work here at Occidental. She has also worked in similar positions at the University of Notre Dame, the College of the Holy Cross and Albright College.
Every post that Brown held in the past taught her something, she said. Holy Cross allowed her to see social justice in a new framework and the importance for those with privilege to look after those without. Notre Dame instilled in her the value of being focused and committed and managing expectations with reality. Albright, her alma mater, taught her the importance of leaving her comfort zone.
Brown understands that in order to effectively be a voice of Occidental as an institution, she needs to collaborate and have conversations with as many people as possible to figure out what diversity means to them. Although she has expertise from her past, she anticipates taking some time to get a feel for how that should be applied to Occidental specifically.
“For me to work in a vacuum would imply that I know the answer. And I don’t,” Brown said. “I need the people who were here to help me take what I know and make it work for Occidental.”
Veitch agrees that this will be a collaborative effort but trusts Brown to take the lead.
“Addressing issues of diversity and equity cannot depend on a single person — it requires a collective effort from us all,” Veitch said via email. “But I know that Rhonda is going to play a key role in moving us forward.”
Brown thinks that people at Occidental actually have similar desires regarding progress in diversity at the institution, but that they sometimes have trouble seeing those similarities. That, she feels, is where she comes in — as the in-between who will aid communication and help build trust.
According to Freedman, Brown is responsible for developing a strategic plan in her first year here. Brown acknowledges, however, that it will be a gradual process, and that she first needs to become well-acquainted with the perspectives and desires of as much of the Occidental community as possible.
“I need to shake hands, I need to ask questions, I need to be engaged, but more importantly, I have to listen,” Brown said. “I don’t know how else to be an effective voice.”
Brown attributes her perspective on diversity to her overall upbringing rather than to any specific, defining moments in her own life. She is grateful for the mentors in her life who have both understood and fought for justice. Her father in particular, who is from the Deep South, not only wanted his children to grow up in a better time but also wanted them to play an active role in creating that future. That combination of her father’s influence, as well as growing up in an environment in which many different cultural influences were present, largely shaped who she is today.
“I lived in a diverse neighborhood before we called it diverse,” Brown said.
Part of Occidental’s appeal to Brown was the prospect of working with students who were not content to sit back, but who thought deeply and wanted an active role in challenging pressing issues. She greatly values people’s willingness to have open conversations in which hard questions are asked, especially when people acknowledge their privilege.
“To be in a place where there are white men who are privileged and are willing to talk about these things [is] exciting to me,” Brown said.
Another aspect of Occidental that appealed to Brown was its small size. She has previously worked at institutions of all sizes but feels that she has left the greatest mark on smaller schools. She partially attributes this to the fact that faculty members and administrators often serve multiple roles at smaller institutions — and thus have a greater investment in them — and that she is able to directly touch a greater percentage of students.
“I feel like if I have a hand in helping students understand what is just and what is right and how to speak for yourself and to address issues of injustice, that they will go out and do more,” Brown said. “I plant seeds that go out and blossom in other places.”
Brown has already put down many roots since her first day of work Feb. 1, attempting to meet with as many people as possible. She has chosen to reside close to campus on Armadale Avenue so that she is able to attend after-hours events and maintain a constant presence in the Occidental community.
“The best stuff that happens often happens after 5 [p.m.],” Brown said. “I really wanted to purposefully be able to engage in Oxy life at all different levels.”
In Philadelphia, Brown left behind her daughter Ashley, a junior environmental studies major at Temple University, as well as her two horses, Bob and Arizona, who are working in an equine therapy program for children with special needs.
Brown also has a passion for restoring antiques and has two to three projects in progress at any given time. She is currently in the middle of refinishing an 1860 Louis Rococo bed that she said likely originated from a plantation in Georgia.
“It makes me happy to know that a little brown girl sleeps in this bed every night,” Brown said. “The person who initially owned it would probably roll in their grave to know that.”