• Fri. Aug 12th, 2022

Difference maker: Roberta Wilburn reflects on the ‘huge growth’ in diversity and inclusion at Whitworth University

ByRandall B. Phelps

Dec 27, 2021

Last summer, Roberta Wilburn reaped the benefits of her new life as a retired educator, completing a 13-year stint at Whitworth University.

She stabilized her new business as the founding president of an independent consultancy organization which she shares with her husband, James. Called Wilburn & Associates, their passion project teaches clients about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Then she got a call from Scott McQuilkin, interim president of Whitworth.

Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, Whitworth’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, was leaving for the University of Puget Sound. McQuilkin needed someone to fill the position for the 2021-2022 academic year. Was Wilburn ready to retire?

Although the offer came out of nowhere, it was an answer to a prayer Wilburn had entertained for years.

“I am preparing to become a Diversity Manager,” said Wilburn. “I took courses and training because that’s really where my passion is. So when he asked me, even if I wanted to go east and be close to my grandkids and stuff, I was like, I can’t say no.

Wilburn, who has worked in the field his entire career, created ripple effects for Whitworth University and the Spokane region as the new Acting Vice President of Diversity, Equity and inclusion. This is the reason why it is part of the Difference Makers of 2021.

“It’s really important to know that this job has to be done by someone who is committed, who believes in it and who is ready to work,” said Wilburn.

Her current work ties her to her New York roots and even to her early aspirations to mirror the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in Brooklyn, Wilburn remembered the “melting pot” ideology as she witnessed the influx of immigrants and culture across New York City.

Some of Wilburn’s first classmates were first generation immigrants. His best friend in elementary school was a white student, so for Wilburn racism was a long-standing myth his father spoke of, pointing to his experiences in the Navy.

“Then I had my own experience of racism in sixth grade, and it was like ‘Ah, everything my dad told me was true,'” Wilburn said. “It started my work to always stand up for marginalized people. “

Wilburn followed his passions for advocacy throughout his education, earning graduate degrees in special education programs, then working at historically black colleges such as Howard University and serving on the board of directors of LeMoyne- Owen College for International Studies.

Even at Whitworth, Wilburn has always been active in the area of ​​diversity, equity and inclusion. She was Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in Education and Diversity Initiatives in 2011, the same year talks for her current role as Director of Diversity were underway.

Wilburn was one of the architects of the selection process for the position of Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, participating in the Whitworth board interview process and advising them on the qualities that a diversity manager should embody.

“Ever since before I even came here, Whitworth has always said they embrace diversity,” she said. “But that hasn’t necessarily been the experience of all of the students, faculty and staff of color who attend.”

She weighed in on the decision to hire a black professor named Lawrence AQ Burnley, the very first associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion for Whitworth. Wilburn, understanding the introductions and local connections necessary for an effective diversity officer, hosted a reception for Burnley and his wife before making the decision to meet with local Black Spokane leaders.

“I’ve worked with every diversity manager we’ve had,” Wilburn said.

With a single Diversity Officer serving the university, Wilburn also took on the Diversity and Inclusion task at Whitworth’s School of Education. What originally attracted Wilburn was the work to ensure that students in education fields understood the diverse backgrounds their students would come from. “Leveling the playing field” with various research and sources was an important aspect of creating an equity-based program.

One of the key ingredients of his work? Vulnerability.

It’s easier to have more difficult conversations in safer environments. One of the first steps, says Wilburn, is to create a safe space for his learners. Wilburn would rather the students ask uncomfortable questions now rather than afterwards.

“Then we had people doing diversity audits for their departments. They were starting to see where the gaps were in their department. It’s part of the plan former president Beck Taylor has put in place. These were all specific goals for diversity, ”she said.

Wilburn’s programs often took a little more regular lessons. During trainings, she hosted with Indigenous counselor Anne Eaglebear to discuss historical similarities in black and Indigenous communities. She recalls the students who came after class, discussing how the joint program has helped them understand how America’s legal, political, and economic systems can further marginalize people, especially people of color.

Networking with the diverse communities of Spokane, such as Hmong and Iranian groups, has also helped her prepare for her work on diversity and equity, including partnerships with World Relief, a nonprofit that helps refugees and immigrants.

Through these various partnerships, Wilburn has equipped Whitworth’s new educators, social workers and other social service career workers with the ability to serve “all walks of life.”

“You’re going to have to learn to deal with people from all walks of life and different backgrounds, so do you know how to navigate these rough waters? ” she said.

As an ordained minister with a doctorate in divinity, Wilburn calls her transition to the diversity job a “God-led” journey, a path that only emerged when she retired. During his retirement, Wilburn reflected on the changes diversity leaders had implemented in Whitworth’s program and environment.

“We had built up so much momentum, and I wanted to make sure that diversity, equity and inclusion were always at the forefront of people’s minds and visions,” Wilburn said of his decision to return. .

After years of shaping diversity manager roles, Wilburn is now able to create the changes she once helped. In the future, Wilburn hopes that the position of “one store” can expand its impact.

When asked about her professional background, Wilburn acknowledged that the first foundation she built was the underlying force that brought her to where she is now. It was a testament to his dedication to making a difference and to those around him “buying the vision.”

“I absolutely love what I do and I love the people I work with,” Wilburn said. “The fact that I have people calling me and asking me to make sure they represent the native people correctly or that they had an idea to do something but want to make sure that they don’t offend anyone?” It’s huge growth.