• Scott Baker

An Interview With Dr. Taniecea Mallery, ViVA Board Member

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of asking Dr. Taniecea Mallery, a ViVA board member and the Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives & Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Co-founder of Diverse City Labs for her advice and thoughts about systemic sexism and misogyny; how her consultancy emerged as a collaboration with her husband, who is a nurse; and her concerns about the current complex issues facing American society and democracy.

Natalie: Taniecea, you have been a great supporter of ViVA’s mission and vision when first introduced to you in 2020. How do you see the organization’s core values fitting into college and university strategies for DEAIJ education and similar efforts in our wider communities?

Taniecea: I think that as we have seen across the country in the past year, universities, organizations, and community groups have all come together in significant ways to help advance conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are all wrestling with the task of defining concrete ways that we can take action to make tangible progress in accomplishing the goals of cultivating a more inclusive, just, and equitable society. ViVA's work is intentional in creating opportunities to highlight the work of artists from all backgrounds while making their work accessible to colleges and universities. I see ViVA as an important partner to universities, organizations, and community groups in helping to increase the visibility of artists whose work has traditionally been excluded, with the potential to inspire future generations.

Natalie: A few years ago, a former college art major friend of mine, now a Silicon Valley executive, noted during a conversation about discrimination that he thought women are naturally really good at many things, but that no one teaches us those things. I remember naively saying that he was totally right! Surely, I thought to myself, he meant that girls and women aren’t taught math and coding. Later, after I realized what a total misogynist jerk he is, I also realized that he was openly suggesting that I/we were not equals. (Let’s just say, so many other things began to make more sense after that.) But, as a self-described “numbers girl,” with a PhD in applied and computational math from Princeton, I wonder how you see gender continuing to play out in the most infuriating and insidious ways both inside and outside of higher education? What are some tangible things that anyone reading our interview can do about it?

Taniecea: Like you, I used to be really angry when people made blatantly sexist remarks about what men and women can or should do. As a young woman who has always been interested in math, I found it challenging to rarely see classmates or role models who looked like me. But, as I've grown and learned more about the nuances of DEI work, I've come to realize that many of the realities we see today are rooted in deep, systemic biases that are inherent from birth. For instance, as a mother to two young children, I'm often cognizant of the images and messages that they receive through the things that they consume — cartoons, TV commercials, books, toys, games, etc. For a while, my young son was really into two different cartoons — one called Blaze and the Monster Machines, and another called Butterbean's Cafe. Blaze and the Monster Machines is about, you guessed it, a bunch of monster trucks who ride around town overcoming obstacles and accomplishing tasks by using STEM concepts. Meanwhile, Butterbean's Cafe featured a group of fairies who live in the forest and spend their days baking sweet treats for their other fairy friends. It didn't take long for me to realize the gendered messaging that was embedded in these cartoons and influencing the impressions of young children. It shouldn't be a surprise that, when we look at our university classrooms, there aren't enough women and people of color pursuing STEM fields. These days, I'm very intentional about exposing my children to more inclusive resources — cartoons, toys, games that affirm their potential to pursue any goal they set out to accomplish.

Natalie: In addition to your role at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, you and your husband co-founded a consultancy to help organizations in their diversity efforts. You are both advocates for the importance of data as a component of any DEAIJ strategy and you are helping us devise dashboards to measure ViVA’s performance and goals. I wonder if you could share more about your philosophy?

Taniecea: Several years ago, as a consequence of working at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I found myself with an opportunity to consult with local organizations who wanted to increase their own capacity for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the same time, my husband was starting a doctoral program in nursing practice, and he decided to leverage his degree program to study the impact of cultural competency in the healthcare setting. These experiences led us to co-found a consultancy devoted to bringing my unique mathematical perspective and his unique relationship building skills to better understand how to change organizational culture. Many organizations focus on diversity metrics, which typically relies on understanding the demographic composition of a group of people within an organization or community. Our perspective, however, focuses on pushing organizations to think about ways to measure equity and inclusion, which often relies on gaining an understanding of individuals' perspectives related to their sense of value and belonging. Once armed with this perspective, organizations are then uniquely poised to make changes that result in transformational shifts toward being more inclusive and equitable.

Natalie: How did the pandemic, the January insurrection, and racial reckonings of the past year and a half change or modify your philosophy?

Taniecea: I think what has been really impactful about the past year and a half is the layered, multidimensional experience of living through a pandemic, intense political division, and deep reckoning around race. It has amplified the notion that all of these things are interconnected. We see communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with those in lower income, marginalized communities facing higher levels of stress, illness, and financial hardship. At the same time, the death of George Floyd made clear how far we still have to go in terms of justice in policing. What has been most enlightening to me is that the country is facing a deep polarization, one that impacts both the ability to respond effectively to the pandemic and the ability of our colleges and universities to wrestle with systemic injustices through the teaching of history and sociology in the classroom.

Natalie: So, I’m always curious what others are reading, watching and thinking about these days. What are you reading right now? Have you seen any good TV, movies or documentaries lately?

Taniecea: I just started watching The Chair, a Netflix series featuring Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly minted chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke College. It is both a hilarious and sobering depiction of the culture of higher education, particularly highlighting the experiences of young, minority scholars. It's so refreshing to see a show that features the nuances of faculty life. In a way, it makes me feel somewhat comforted to know that the microaggressions I've experienced in my own daily life are all too common in higher education. Perhaps this series will open the door for more dialogue on our university campuses about how we might transform the faculty experience to embrace and celebrate diversity.

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