Faculty Spotlight: Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, Ph.D.

Faculty Spotlight: Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, Ph.D.

By Chris Neary


This interview was originally published in the Spring 2021 MSHE Alumni Newsletter.

Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson serves as the Assistant Vice President for Inclusion and the Acting Chief of Staff for Student Affairs at Northwestern. A long-time friend of MSHE, she taught the inaugural diversity, equity, and inclusion-focused leadership course in summer 2020. We talked to Lesley-Ann about her recent promotion, new initiatives at Northwestern, and advice for MSHE alumni.

Briana Jarnagin: Congratulations on your recent promotion! How has your role at Northwestern changed with this new promotion?

Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson: Thank you. I'm currently still partially in my previous role and also in this new role. We are currently hiring the new Executive Director of Campus Inclusion & Community. But in my new role as Assistant Vice President for Inclusion and Chief of Staff, I am really thinking about how our efforts and priorities around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in Student Affairs are aligned, and also have shared framework and synergies with the Office of the Provost and various other areas of the university.

Jarnagin: Can you tell us about some of the efforts and initiatives you're taking to promote a more inclusive environment at Northwestern?

Brown-Henderson: One thing that has taken concern about a considerable amount of time and effort is the Northwestern commitments toward social justice. Myself, Robin Means Coleman, who's our new Chief Diversity Officer, and Manuel [Cuevas-Trisán] who is our Vice President for Human Resources, a reaction leaders on these commitments. Our senior leaders: our president, provost, vice president for student affairs and senior vice president for business and finance, are the sponsors of these commitments, and we are the action leaders trying to get things in motion. So, we've done a considerable amount of work getting things going and really trying to be responsible, attentive, and accountable to the community for what our senior leaders have said that Northwestern will be doing or committing to. Some of those things, to various varying levels of satisfaction, have been the review of Northwestern University police (NUPD). There was a desire to revisit some of the recommendations of a previous task force and move some things forward. So, we've really been working on some of those. For instance, a recommendation around an ombudsperson came up a couple years ago and that's been moved forward. The hiring a new chief diversity officer was achieved with Robin's hiring, so these are some things that I think we've been able to move forward. There are other things that, in the arc of a year, take more time than a year to get done. We're now looking at this as we wrap up this first year: how are we reporting back on the progress or lack thereof that we've been able to do in related to each of the commitments? And then what is our path forward? So that's where we are now. I would say that's a really big initiative that we've been undergoing, and that's university-wide. My previous role was very student focused. We worked on behalf of the students and certainly in my role now, students are still at the center, but I'm looking institutionally to understand how our work and efforts are in connection with other things that are happening university-wide . I have my hands on a lot of different things as the chief of staff: dealing with HR, budget, board of trustees, all these different things. So, it's a pretty varied job. But one thus far that I've enjoyed.

Something really specific to staff, maybe in student affairs, is that we are currently going through a strategic planning process, which I'm leading with a colleague, Rob Aaron, who also teaches in the MSHE program. One of the things that student affairs has committed to is racial justice. So, as we think about racial justice and social justice, not only how it's connected to our strategic plan, but what are things that we can be doing in the interim before we have a full plan to advance racial justice in our division. I have been working and leading with my colleagues committees of staff, who really been thinking about goals and how we can move those forward. Those include things like every staff member in the division being able to have a foundational competence in social justice, and us providing educational opportunities and enrichment opportunities for that to occur.

Jarnagin: Your class counts towards the MSHE leadership course requirement. What leadership skills do you think are most important to prepare future higher ed administrators, and how do you teach these skills in your class?

Brown-Henderson: I think the justice, equity, diversity, inclusion lens is fundamental in leadership and in higher education. There is a fundamental need for leadership to have a justice-related lens. Even more than just diversity, right? To really understand how power and privilege play out through the entire institution. And our responsibility as leaders, in attending to those needs, as well as to understanding the nuances that come along with being able to engage in justice-related work on campuses. When I think about the class Maria [Genao-Homs] and I taught, and will be teaching again, I think the foundation of doing justice, equity, diversity, inclusion really starts with the individual. If you don't know who you are, the identities you hold, how you establish your world view, and why that matters in the context of doing this work, then it becomes really difficult to then understand your own lens in relationship to broader diversity, equity, inclusion issues. So, we really start with that foundation. I think it can be challenging because it's a different way of thinking, reflecting, and writing, but it's really, really important to be able to understand your own positionality as you then start to think about, what is the impact that I want to make, how do I make it, and in what ways am I perpetuating systems of inequality? Am I perpetuating harm, whether consciously or unconsciously? So reflection, I think, is a key part of leadership, and that's something that we try to teach. I think we're certainly teaching concrete leadership skills but they are not necessarily the skills that people always think about, like how do you lead a meeting or public speaking or executive presence. They're more holistic and foundational skills that I think many leaders lack, and it shows when we start to think about how things play out on a college campus.

Jarnagin: What’s one piece of leadership advice you’ve received that you would pass on to MSHE students and alumni?

Brown-Henderson: I love quotes, and one of my quotes in my [email] signature says, ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important, whether I'm afraid.’ That's from Audre Lorde. I think fear can inhibit us from taking action. We have a physiological response to fear, which tends to be freeze, flight, or fight. And I think that there's lots of ways to fight but we have to get past our fears, whether that's our fear of being known and seen, of making mistakes, of not knowing how to apologize, or of not knowing all the things that we feel like we need to know or doing things exactly perfectly. As we learn, as we continue to be open, as we continue to reflect as leaders, then the fear that sometimes inhibits us from taking action will actually then fuel the passion that enables us to take action. And like I said, action can be having a conversation with a colleague who said something racist, or noticing a student feeling kind of isolated and making room for them, holding space for them or changing policy that are more affirming to various identities. Or, carving out a space where students feel seen or staff feel seen on a college campus, particularly those of marginalized identities, or asking the question that others won’t ask at the table. Those are all actions. I think a lot of times as leaders, we don't take those actions because of fear. So my leadership advice is to take deep breaths, to trust your training, and to know that you can in most circumstances, make things right.

Jarnagin: The theme of our newsletter is hope. Where do you feel like you’re finding hope in higher education these days?

Brown-Henderson: Towards the end of our class, we talk a little bit about critical hope. It’s this sense that you have a full or clear understanding of what's happening and what it takes to move the needle, but you understand that in community you can make it happen. I find a tremendous amount of hope in community. I think throughout COVID, I've experienced challenges that I never thought I would and people in my life have, as well. What I've been refreshed by, upheld by, renewed by, is really community. You know, when I feel like I am at my wits’ end, somebody will send a note or write a card. My partner lost his job pretty early on into the pandemic, and it was like, ‘You all will never note at.’ You know, like things like that. That seems so basic. But that has continued to inspire my hope. And that includes students finding community with one another and finding their voices. It includes all of those things. The other thing, which may not come as a surprise, is I have two little kids and they continue to give me a lot of hope. My son, who's four years old, says a lot of amazing things that I'm like, ‘Huh, wonder where he learned that from?’ I see the sparkle in his eye, and I see the way the light reflects on his brown skin, and I think to myself, the ups, the downs, the hard, the joyous, all of it is for them. My children, certainly, but also for the young people that are coming up behind us. And whether that's in higher education, whether that's in my community, whether that's in my home, I find a lot of inspiration in them.

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