Throughout February, the City of Cedar Falls has been honored to recognize the impact that local past and present leaders of color have in our community as part of Black History Month. As the month concludes, however, it is an important reminder that this legacy is not confined to a single calendar date. Gwenne Berry, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Northern Iowa, recently sat down with us to discuss why being engaged in Black history is a year-round mission, as well as the barriers she has faced in her own career and lessons for the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your role at the University of Northern Iowa?
I am a Waterloo native and attended Iowa State for my undergraduate. I worked at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier as a reporter for five years prior to my career at the University of Northern Iowa. I initially worked in marketing and public relations. After 13 years at UNI, I interviewed for Associate Director of Compliance and Equity Management. This position was extremely impactful in my life as it included working with people in protected classes that had been treated negatively. I was the primary investigator for sexual assault and sexual harassment. In 2016, UNI, as well as many universities across the United States, recognized the importance of creating the Chief Diversity Officer position. Nationally, universities were going through periods of crisis around race. The position includes research and staying informed about the national scope. It also is important to understand the individual generational impact so that I know what picture is being painted, not just at UNI or even in America, but around the world. What happens outside the institution affects our students now more than ever. Seeing incidents of violence including the death of George Floyd causes racial trauma. If you send students back to school and they are suffering from this trauma, even if they don't realize it, it is very much like PTSD. Due to this, these students are not in the position to do their best work. I have to understand what those images do in the minds of a young person and how to help them process that information and move forward, in addition to helping faculty and administrators understand what is happening in the classroom and in their workforce.
What have been some of your biggest obstacles and accomplishments?
By far my biggest obstacle has been coming face-to-face with institutional and systemic racism and learning to recognize it. My father grew up very poor and it was his goal that it would not be the life of his children. He did everything he could and worked hard to put himself through what was then Hawkeye Institute of Technology. My siblings and I grew up more comfortable than my father because of his dedication. Due to this, my parents were in a good position to shelter us during that time. However, once I was at college, I was directly confronted with these issues and incidents, some of them systemic and some of them individually driven.
My greatest accomplishment and pride is finishing my Master's degree as a single mother. Also as a reporter, I actually had the opportunity to sit down and interview the sister of a young man who had been a victim of Jeffery Dahmer so that was an emotional and incredible experience. The opportunities I have had at UNI, no matter how subtle, to make a change for the better is something I will always count as an accomplishment as well.
What barriers have your encountered throughout your career and what advice do you have for young women, especially young women of color?
During my career, I have always had to double and quadruple review my work and writings to consider how people will view me. Will they think I am angry about it? How does that anger manifest? I understand anger and I decided that I am going to use it in the best possible way to make a better world for my daughter and my daughter's daughter.
In my professional position, it can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting. You have to give your heart to do the work. Once people see that your heart is not in it, you may as well stop. There are two quotes I often refer to and share with others when I feel I cannot go on. The first was attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, which is do something every day that scares you. However, I changed it to do something that terrifies you. I keep my own list of things that terrify me. The second is attributed to Nelson Mandela, which is that it is not how many times you get knocked down that matter. What matters is how many times you get back up. If I keep those in my mind, I am usually ok. It is what I share with young women as well. You are going to get knocked down, but as long as you get back up, it is ok. You will be ok.
How can people keep honoring Black History Month outside of February and why is it important that they do?
Black history is American history so we need to focus on telling the story year-round. It is a long, complicated deep history; however, if you do not know your history then you are doomed to repeat it. I would ask that people look at the hyperpolarizing that has engulfed our political line and ask where are we going? Everyone needs to know the complete history so that we know the whole story. Make every effort to remain engaged by reading books, by inviting people that are different than you into your homes, or going to their homes. If you find yourself in a space where everyone looks the same, ask why. We use race, gender, and social economics to put people into categories. Break the categories.