Diana Tate Vermeire was a college student studying theater when her eyes were fully opened to life’s inequities.
As part of her major’s curriculum at College of Santa Fe (N.M.), students had to audition for the play Dancing at Lughnasa, which is set in a fictional Irish town. The casting director “clearly didn’t believe in nontraditional casting” and let Vermeire – a young woman with dark, curly hair and mocha-colored skin – know in so many words that she had no chance of getting the part.
“It was a very stark experience about how … my skin color was a real challenge for me getting the things I wanted to succeed in,” Vermeire says. So she switched her major to sociology with an emphasis on inequalities, which set her on a course that landed her at Sacramento State as the University’s first full-time executive director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Vermeire, who arrived on campus in November, speaks excitedly about the possibilities presented by her new position. She will need that energy, considering that she essentially is charged with shaping the foundation of an office that was established in 2016 and turning abstract concepts from the University’s official statement on diversity and inclusion into something tangible.
As the mission takes shape, Vermeire focuses on a few explicit goals for spring: increasing faculty diversity; supporting retention, promotion and advancement of all faculty, especially those in traditionally underrepresented cohorts; and completing a campus climate survey on faculty experiences. She’ll also spend the next few months trying to paint a long-term picture of the office, establishing one-, two- and five-year priorities, and aligning those with the strategic plans of Academic Affairs and the University. The ultimate goal is making possible a fully realized inclusive campus.
“There’s a lot to be done that is measurable and quantifiable in this job,” she says. “The real challenge is creating the space and modeling and giving resources to be able to have conversations that open our minds, change our perspectives, allow us to view and do things in a way that is more inclusive of others and leads to the success of ... all of us in this community.
"And that is difficult. But, hopefully, we’re willing to do it.”
It helps having University President Robert S. Nelsen in her corner. He has outfitted Vermeire with a “thought partner": the Diversity Council. With Vermeire as the lead, its 20 members draw from numerous programs and divisions across campus. She says she hopes the council is able to establish “trust and safety” in the campus dialogue.
“We’re going to need to lay bare concerns from different segments of our community and how there may be tensions there,” she says. “That’s just reality.”
Vermeire, who graduated from Georgetown University's law school, is new to education. She comes to Sac State after working 17 years as an attorney for nonprofits and in private practice. Her most recent work was for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, where she had completed a second stint as director of its racial justice initiative, which she describes as something of a “dream job.”
While the cold realities of limited access mostly remained at bay in Vermeire’s life until that college experience in Santa Fe, she was not entirely untouched by it. She grew up with a black father and a white mother who was disowned by her German Catholic family when she married in 1971. Vermeire was 6 before she met her maternal grandparents.
The young family settled into an all-white neighborhood in St. Louis, where uneasy residents offered them money to not close escrow on their home. When Vermeire was 12 the family relocated to Oklahoma, which she promptly left upon graduating high school.
She describes her parents as apolitical.
“Mom and dad just kind of lived their life,” she says. “Their response to racist incidents that later became clearer to (Vermeire and her brother) was just sort of like, ‘If you don’t like us and our family, that’s your problem.’ ”
That’s part of what made that moment in college so jarring.
“It was like, there’s gonna be some real roadblocks in life based on race and being in an interracial family,” she says. “My expectations were not built to be that way.”
Vermeire now is in a place to help build a culture that helps a different generation avoid such roadblocks, even if it means having to welcome visitors with viewpoints that many might find offensive, or whose words run counter to the University’s stated philosophy. It’s not an unfamiliar position. Though she personally never represented white supremacists while working for the ACLU, the organization has and did while she was there.
“We have to respect the First Amendment,” Vermeire says.
She emphasized that such respect is a core obligation of a university and its leadership, especially at Sac State, which loudly touts a commitment to openness.
But Sac State also must make clear that speech and philosophies that endeavor “to oppress or invalidate the dignity of our community aren’t the opinions or beliefs of this university.” – Ahmed V. Ortiz