Combining her various degrees in music and educational psychology, the new director of Diversity and Inclusion Maegan Pollonais, PhD, hopes to make the Center for Diversity and Inclusion the heart of campus.
Originally from New York City, Pollonais and her family moved back to Trindad and Tobago when she was seven years old, so she could have a Caribbean upbringing with friends and family. She moved back to the US at 18-years-old to go to university.
“Music has always been my vehicle for higher education,” Pollonais said, “and I think that's something that I appreciate in others is that there are many doors and many ways that people can get to academic success.”
Pollonais said she enjoys creating relationships with students and building understanding that everyone has different needs and obstacles in their academic careers.
“Your journey is going to be different and everybody has different needs in their journey and so I think just having that personal relationship with my academic journey also helps me approach students with compassion and empathy to the different steps that they might take to get to their ultimate goals.”
Expanding upon helping students in their academic careers, Pollonais said she has big wishes to make all students feel like the Center is not just for diverse students but a space for them to learn and relax.
“I want the center to be the heart of the campus because the thing about it is, diversity is everybody's job,” she said, “it's not just the diverse person on campus — we need to be able to pump all of these diverse thoughts to everybody to reach everyone.”
Director of Religious Life and Rev. Hannah Adams Ingram, PhD, said she is excited to continue work on events in partnership with the CDI under new leadership.
“I think anytime you hire someone new, they bring in their new ideas, they bring their experience,” Adams-Ingram said. “They bring with them things that we haven't thought about before. I think that the CDI has done really cool events in the past and really cool trainings and I think that she will continue that legacy of good work through CDI.”
Ultimately, she says her goal is to “create that sense of belonging for our multicultural students but also help our white students understand this changing dynamic.”
“For some students it's the first time that they're encountering people that don't look like them; how do we navigate those spaces; how do students make sure that when they graduate, they have cultural competency, and they know how to navigate this growing diverse world,” Pollonais said. “I just want the center to be a place where we have intentional, equitable, diverse practices for everybody to follow and learn and grow.”
On the topic of practices for learning and growing, Pollonais joins the campus community following a year of racial diversity awareness and Black Lives Matter movements that provoked dialogue about how educators should teach these topics.
A particular teaching style, critical race theory or CRT, has generated an ongoing debate in school districts across the country. CRT is a four-decade old academic concept, which relies on the principle that racism is a social construct, not as a result of individual biases but rather embedded in legal systems and policies.
Contingency on the topic led to Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita releasing a “Parents Bill of Rights” July 23, encouraging parent guardians to engage in discussions with their local school boards on the matter. Both major political parties are in a volatile disagreement when, how and how much these issues should be discussed in K-12 classrooms. CRT in theory is not a way of pointing fingers or associating blame with a particular race but addressing the nation’s dark history of racism.
Pollonais said miscommunication and misunderstanding spurred the national discourse on CRT, but research and learning the country’s history will promote progress
“People think that it's about using racism as a blame for everything or why people just must feel like they're terrible people,” but she says in reality, “it's understanding our history and how that plays out in our current life and our future life; it's understanding that, yes a huge part of America's story starts with slavery. All of our different institutions have a racialized influence to them.”
Pollonais said in order to lessen the weight of the “ugly underbelly of America,” understanding the history of the nation and its institutions is vital for moving forward because "we all have biases, but we have to work together to move forward."
“I think that a lot of people like to skate away from it or not pay attention to it. And that's not going to change anything, that's not how we move forward,” Pollonais said. “We have to look at the ugly underbelly of America — America is a wonderful country we have a lot to offer — but we also have a lot of things that we need to address for us to move forward.”
She said the regularly scheduled programming, of brushing past “racism steeped in this culture,” has to be interrupted for white students to become comfortable having these difficult discussions without feeling to blame.
“It is part of our culture and we have to address it,” Pollonais said. “And I think that that's why these centers exist like we have programming surrounding that sense of belonging for historically excluded students but we also have programs surrounding teaching white students how to have difficult conversations, how to understand their biases, knowing that it's not your fault.
But it is your responsibility to unlearn what we have learned to be what is accepted and it's not okay, so I think it's important that we have these sorts of discussions. We have programming to help us unlearn so much of what was taught to us."