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Q&A: New chief diversity officer discusses returning home to CMU

Shawna Patterson-Stephens, her daughter Kennedy, her son Kingsley and her husband Charles Courtesy photo

Central Michigan University's new vice president and chief diversity officer Shawna Patterson-Stephens said she is excited to return to Mount Pleasant and be back "home."

During her time at CMU, the Detroit native was very involved in the community as a Leadership Camp Facilitator, a member and president of the Organization of Black Unity (OBU) and part of what is now the Multicultural Academic Student Services.

After graduating from CMU as a sociology major in 2003, she earned a master's degree in student affairs administration from Michigan State University and a doctorate in higher education from Florida State University. Her career in higher ed began at MSU as a residence hall director from 2007-2010. 

While at MSU, Patterson-Stephens met her husband Charles, a Michigan native from Southfield, who also works in higher education.

"One of the big reasons why I took on this role, I just want to go home," Patterson-Stephens said.

Central Michigan Life spoke with Patterson-Stephens about her career, family and Michigan background.

CM Life: What made you apply to work and come back to CMU?

Patterson-Stephens: I think first and foremost, I felt encouragement from some of my mentors in Mount Pleasant. They're all retired faculty, but they were sharing with me their more recent experiences of community members and the events that they have experienced as community members, and their ability to observe the positive social changes that have been occurring on campus and in the community. 

I'd say the second piece was seeing an opportunity to invest in a community that invested a lot in me. I was very active as a student leader. Some would probably argue I was majoring in student involvement, not sociology. I took advantage of a lot of opportunities that were available to me at CMU, and I do believe in giving back to my community. I see this as the entry point to be able to do that. 

A third reason is because of my commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity in higher education, and connected to my first two reasons, the ability to engage in diversity, equity and inclusion work in my home base. I feel that would not just be self-fulfilling but it would offer an opportunity to create an even more engaging and intentional learning environment for students like myself. 

What are some big parts of diversity that you're passionate about?

I think the biggest piece for me is uncovering the interconnectivity amongst people's lived experiences and delving into what it means to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate difference, while also understanding that some of our very unique issues and struggles are actually related to some of the same things. 

I think a passion area of mine is uncovering different modes of oppression and talking through what it looks to alleviate centuries of those systems being layered on top of one another, to create these complex things within different communities that might seem to emerge in different ways, and manifests in different ways. 

Something else that I'm passionate about is just exploring how people come to terms with who they are as individuals and then connect to different communities, how they build and find community. I think for me what that means, and translating that into the student experience, is that sense of belonging, like what can I do to ensure that people feel heard, seen, valued and that they belong. Those things matter. they impact people's ability to grow as individuals. 

How did growing up in Detroit impact you?

 The rites of passage as a teenager happened for me there. It was my coming of age moment. It definitely shaped how I perceive not just who I am, but my responsibility to space, environment and community. I learned that all coming up as a teenager there, so I took that with me everywhere I went.

Some people like to use where they're from, I guess, as a badge of honor. I do too, but it really did set the stage for me to understand you don't just take from where you're from. If you just take and move away, you're not helping anyone or anything. You're creating a path of destruction, because you're taking nutrients away from a community and planting it elsewhere.

Currently, CMU is really trying to recruit in Detroit. Being from there, is ensuring CMU has Detroit representation something are passionate about?

Absolutely. The more we can open the doors to folks from any area within Michigan, I think it will better the living environment and material condition of Michiganders at large. I believe in making sure that Michiganders have educational opportunities because I understand the more folks who receive those opportunities, the more inclined they will be to having access to health care and job opportunities. Their kids might have better opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities or volunteerism.

Tell me about your kids.

I have two kiddos. I have a two-year-old boy, Kingsley, who is very independent, adventurous and fearless. Kennedy, my daughter, is turning 15, so if anybody wants to wrap their arms around the little girl for some support, I would appreciate any kind of warm welcome. She's head and shoulders. She's well beyond what I was at 15 thinking about equity social justice and what it means to be a brown girl in America.

Kennedy is named after JFK. Had she been born a few years later, she might have been named Michelle. Michelle Obama is my crush. I love her. I want to go shopping with her one day. I follow her on Instagram, hoping that one day she sees my comments, in a non-creepy way.

I also have two cats, Lily and Petunia, named after the sisters in Harry Potter. They take on their characters. They fight like Lily and Petunia.

You talked a lot about how you love Michelle Obama. How many times have you read "Becoming," her book?

An honest answer is "none," but that's because I don't like biographies. I'm reading science fiction. I'm reading, you know, something that's completely out of this world. I'm just not a fan of memoirs or bios at all. I bought it and it will stay on my shelf. Anybody's open to read it, but I won't read it.

What are some interesting things about you?

I think some other weird, quirky things about me are that I'm really into art. I love art. I love creating art. I wasn't in fashion design at all, but I love using the sewing machine to create new things. I like to actually embed sewing patterns into my painting. I like that texture.

I enjoy TV, so I do watch a lot, maybe too much TV. My downtime is 2 a.m. watching television. I've also learned that I can't watch TV like I used to right like I have to binge it. I will wait until a season goes through, and then I'll watch it all at once.

I like to write a lot. I don't have that kind of discipline, but I enjoy it when I do it. I'm not a collector of many things. I actually get very anxious when it comes to clutter and you know a lot of things surrounding me, but I love books. So, that's my prized possession, my book collection.