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“It is Time AU” for Diversity

“It is Time AU” for Diversity

Michael Nixon
Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion
michaeln@andrews.edu

 

Where are you from? Where were you raised?
I was born in Upstate New York, in Poughkeepsie, and lived there for a couple of years while my dad was pastoring. Afterwards we moved to Southern California for about three years, then we moved to Washington D.C., and then to Michigan area in 1998 and I spent half of my youth here because my father accepted the chaplain position at Andrews. We moved around a lot, which I would say is the narrative for pastors and their families.

Before this position you were a civil rights lawyer. What made you want to seek that profession?
I guess the first time I became interested in law was when we were in Southern California. I was probably seven or eight, and it was during the OJ Simpson trial, which was on TV every day and my parents were very interested in it. Of course I was young, but I was visualizing the courtroom, and seeing that whole process was very interesting to me. As I got older I learned more about the criminal justice system and decided I didn’t want to be a criminal lawyer, so I started looking into different ways to create change through the legal system. In high school I looked into fair housing and housing discrimination; to learn more I worked for the fair housing legal clinic my school had in Chicago, which really opened my eyes to that area of law.  It’s the foundational level of where exclusion can start to happen. Doing that gave me that passion for inclusion and trying to work on the ground level; so, I saw this opportunity of being the VP of Diversity as an expansion of that. Having worked through the ground level of advocacy and suing a lot of people it was interesting to transition into this role which is more policy and procedure. This position is also more about connecting with people and influencing/impacting the structures that are currently in place. It’s a unique challenge, but I feel like I have the foundation since I have worked for civil rights and have been on the other side.

Having been a student at Andrews University, and a resident of the Michigan area have you noticed a change on campus in regards to how black students/clubs are treated now versus then?
When I was student from 2007-2009, it seemed like BSCF was just starting to become bigger on campus. I would say BSCF was always open to campus, but I don’t think the campus was open to BSCF. I think it was when I was here that BSCF had changed their vespers’ name to Impact; before it was just BSCF which I think communicated that it was just for black people so the change in name really was making it known that it could be for everyone. Of course, there were still predominantly black students going, but it kind of expanded it to be more open to campus. You started to see a little more of the diversity there, so now I think there does seem to be more of a representational diversity. I think the service is still specific to the black church experience, but I think being able to open that experience up to have more people enjoy is a great thing. Same thing with New Life; my father used to pastor there. I think that church was initially born out of a need for black students. So, growing up there it was almost exclusively for black people, but now I would say New Life is a part of the campus culture; which I think is a great thing. Their service outside (Throwback Sabbath) was probably the most diverse  crowd it’s ever historically been, and I think it’s good to normalize the black experience so it’s not seen as a novelty thing, or something that is exclusively for black students, and can be appreciated, empowered, and welcomed by others.

I know the school year has just started, but do you think you’ll become comfortable in this new position, and may be here for awhile?
I came into this understanding that this was going to be a long term process, and I’m definitely thinking long term. I don’t necessarily know how long I’ll be here, none of that is guaranteed, but I know that this position is something the institution is very committed to and very much invested in. It’s definitely something that we’re trying to put some long term visioning and planning to, while also trying to impact whatever we can do right now. So there are short term action plans, but also there’s a long term vision.

Do you feel like you have a big responsibility because you are the first one kind of defining this role, and when people come in the future they will analyze what you did?
I’m taking it day by day. People could sit down and think about it and maybe the gravity will hit them that they’re the first person to have this position. However, I try not to think about  the title, label, or the significance of it from that aspect. I think it is very humbling, and an amazing amount of responsibility and trust that the institution is putting in me. The thing that’s comforting in the midst of that is that I have the support of the president, provost, and other administrators as well as a number of different faculty and staff that have fought for diversity for years. This is also something that the Diversity Council has been pushing for over a decade, and there has been a lot of hard work from people who are no longer here that has led to this position happening. Of course the It is Time dialogue contributed, but that was sort of the tipping point on a foundation that has been working towards this for a long time. So, I guess I stand on the shoulders of all that work; which is again very humbling. At the same time I am excited to work with students, faculty and staff who are passionate about this, and I think that if we do this together we can create something beautiful.

What is your goal personally that you want to see on this campus?
My big goal, and I think President Luxton talked about this the other day at Convocation, is the campus community truly living out the gospel. There have been a lot of discussions today about lot of the different issues around diversity, inclusion, race, gender equality, or whatever the case may be, and those things have turned into political issues. Now what I’m trying to show everyone is that these aren’t just political issues; these are issues that affect us in our common humanity. They are actually issues we are given moral imperatives to stand up to because of the gospel. So we want to get to a place where we’ve truly embodied that, and also understand the value and common decency of everyone on this campus. Whether someone is Adventist, Muslim, atheist, or whatever your gender identity/orientation is, you’re valued as a human being, treated with respect and we can have civil dialogues about it. If we can get to that point I think that would be my ultimate goal, and I believe we can truly be successful.

I believe some people think that your position was solely born because black people wanted equality on campus. Is there anything you want to say to people who may feel this way?
Again, in my past when I worked with fair housing in Chicago I worked on discrimination cases of many different issue whether it be source of income, disability, religion, family status, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, or domestic violence victims. A number of different issues would come across my desk on any given day, and I had to approach those situations and scenarios in many different ways. So when I look at diversity I’m not just looking at it from my own personal experience of being an African-American man in this country. I also think about our Muslim students, disabled students, female students, and other students; those students are on my mind the most just because I know that that experience is foreign to me, so the only way I can learn more about it is by being sensitive to that and dialoguing with them. I think people are often going to make assumptions, and that is a part of the deal, but all I can say is that I’m truly thinking about this in a larger way.

Are there going to be any open discussions or forums where people can come and see more on how Andrews will fight for diversity?
We definitely want to do as many different forums as possible. Right now I’m doing my best to support any ongoing discussions. I know that BSCF has a lot of things planned, BSAS as well, and I’m trying to engage with other student groups as well just to see when and where these conversations are going to be happening. I have some ideas about how we can start to have these dialogues, how we can have these really important conversations regarding hot topics and intense issues in a civil way. I want folks to feel like they can share their opinion anywhere, whether they think it will be popular or not, without the fear of  being ostracized or rejected. A lot of this is difficult, but my main thing is how we can have some honest and fruitful dialogue while also coming out of those dialogues respecting and loving one another. So if there are any students or clubs that are trying to have those conversations I would like to have them contact me, and we can bounce ideas off of each other. Because the more we create spaces for dialogue the more we normalize conversations so they won’t be so polarized, and people can truly value each other's perspectives and approach it as a family.  

Are there any last remarks you would like to say, for any students reading this?
Again, I really want to engage with you. I’m not saying that as a cliche. A big part of why I am here is to listen to students of different backgrounds--because the only way I can understand the student experience is to talk to students. Don’t make assumptions of what you think I’m going to say about different issues. Often we put folks in a box and assume. I’m trying to be intentional about not doing that, and I hope that you do the same in response. I am here for you, so please feel free to shoot me an email, and we can talk.  

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