Throughout her life and career, Swarthmore’s new Associate Vice President for Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar has had a deep relationship with institutional diversity. She has worked on diversity initiatives at Goodwill, Colgate, and Harvard. Just one month into her new position, we sat down with Prescod-Caesar on Tuesday to find out how she’s settling in to her new job and about the special role diversity will play.
Where does your appreciate for diversity come from? Is it simply a part of the job description, or is it something that you chosen to focus on?
Diversity came into my career several years ago. It started way back when I was Vice President for Human Resources at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. Goodwill’s mission is to help folks with disabilities achieve success, and we served a diverse population. Then, when I went to work at Harvard, I got really more engaged. I was working for their Vice President for Administration in a division that included skilled workers, dining services, environmental services, and other services that made it really a potpourri of diversity. There were people coming from all different backgrounds. We especially had a very large population of immigrants working at the faculty club and things of that sort. Working on Harvard’s diversity initiatives, the questions were, “How do we bring people together who will be able to really appreciate the values and the cultures that come in?” We started a series of programming and events celebrating things like National Black History Month and National Hispanic History Month as opportunities to bring people together. We wanted to envision ourselves as a tossed salad instead of a melting pot. We didn’t want people to lose their individuality, but we wanted them all to work together.
How does that inform what you did and Colgate and will do at Swarthmore?
Diversity is so innate in what I do. In fact, it’s more than just what I do; it’s a part of my being. I immigrated to the Boston area from Barbados as a child, and so I’ve had the whole experience of transitioning to a new country. I landed in a predominantly white community, and I was the only African-American student in my whole school at the same time Boston was dealing with school desegregation. Going through life from that lens and having that experience, diversity is a part of me now. I think it’s so important.
How do you define “inclusive communities”?
I’ve worked at companies where when you walked in the door you had to conform to what were often conservative standards. You know, like “everyone has to speak the same language.” An inclusive community is a place where we allow each person to be their authentic selves. It’s a place where people can truly bring themselves and be respectful of other people. Too often people look at the differences. I always try to focus on the similarities and the things people have in common.
Did you work on diversity in the strategic planning process at Colgate?
Somewhat. At Colgate, then-President Chopp had established an office of diversity and a position of Chief Diversity Officer that reported directly to the president. Hamilton, New York, is very rural and doesn’t have a lot of diversity besides what the student body and staff bring. So we wanted a new way to educate both the internal and greater community and expose them to the broader concepts of diversity. So I had an opportunity to work collaboratively with the Chief Diversity Officer and put together a diversity week which included symposiums, keynote speakers, faculty members, and student involvement. At the end we celebrated the week with a parade and invited an artist and educator from the Caribbean to share about carnival culture. It was really cool, and even neighborhood kids got involved. I also helped the Chief Diversity Office work with students on Black History Month events, staff symposiums, a faculty and staff climate survey, and things of that nature.
What about Swarthmore’s Strategic Plan and other pushes for diversity here?
I’m still learning about the specific areas that I’ll be working on, but I’ll be working with Equal Opportunity Officer Sharmaine LaMar and Dean of Students Liz Braun on the strategic diversity initiatives in the plan. In fact, my first introduction to the discussion will be in meeting with one of the groups—I’m still learning the acronyms—in order to start the dialogue. I look forward to getting involved with that. We have to determine what it is that the community really needs and the action steps are that we have to take to get there. There’s a little more drilling down to be done, but it’s all cued up.
Bernadette Dunning, a member of the search committee for your position, has said that you have “an open and welcoming manner that inspires trust.” It seems to me that this same description could apply to President Chopp’s leadership style. Do you think this new team at Swarthmore has something special the community can really appreciate?
I think what it is that President Chopp has pretty much assembled a senior team that can inspire trust and truly connect with the students, staff, and faculty, whatever their needs. I look around the senior table at the folks that I’ve just met, and I feel comfortable being my real self. I guess that’s part of my nature, but it also comes from the sense that they too are being authentic in their interactions. I truly believe that the formation of folks that come with these special qualities make for a really good leadership team.