SAE's New Director of Diversity is a Black Woman. We Spoke to Her About Her New Job.7/09/2015
Sigma Alpha Epsilon national headquarters recently announced the hiring of Ashlee Canty in the role of Director of Diversity and Inclusion...
Sigma Alpha Epsilon national headquarters recently announced the hiring of Ashlee Canty in the role of Director of Diversity and Inclusion. This is the first position of its kind for a national Greek organization. Canty will oversee “development, promotion, and implementation of strategies that lead to enhanced diversity” within the SAE organization.
SAE is well known to most as the fraternity behind the racist chant heard recited with glee in a shocking video that got the University of Oklahoma chapter banned both on campus and nationally.
Canty has an extensive background in student affairs and campus fraternity and sorority offices, and she herself joined the Zeta Phi Beta sorority during her undergraduate years at North Carolina State University. We spoke with her about her role promoting diversity and inclusiveness within the SAE organization, her motivation, how she reacted to the original video, and changes she intends to make.
This interview has been edited for clarity
Talk a bit about your background and how you reached this point.
Before working here at Sigma Alpha Epsilon I worked as Fraternity and Sorority Advisor at both Syracuse and DePaul University. I did my master’s degree in college student personnel, where I served as the graduate assistant for Greek life. So I’ve been really involved in fraternity and sorority advising and things like that. Also as a doctoral student, in curriculum studies, I have a really strong background on curriculum development and learning. So when I saw this position and saw that it gave me more responsibility, the opportunity to do more programs in curriculum development, and also the opportunity to grow personally and professionally I thought that this would be a great opportunity for me, so I reached out to Blaine Ayers [executive director of SAE] and talked to him, asked a few more questions about the position, and then decided to apply.
So you were motivated to take the position because of how it relates to your professional and educational background?
Yes, my doctoral research is looking at African-American sorority women and how they deal with racial and gender microaggressions at predominately white institutions. So then, looking at a position in diversity inclusion, it brings in not only my professional background but my research interests. And it also gave me additional responsibilities, working with Title IX and assessment, which also helps me professionally.
How did you respond to the original video controversy?
Being a campus advisor when you hear about something like this happening you’re angry and you’re also disappointed because you know that’s not what our organizations were founded with the intent to do. We were not founded as hate groups or as groups that promote this type of behavior. But I was impressed though by how quickly the national organization came in to rectify the situation. That is the quickest I’ve ever seen a chapter removed after an incident. Within a week or two they were done, they were like “Okay, this group is gone.” They had the video, they had the proof, there was no need for an investigation and so I think that speaks volumes to how this organization is really looking to change the perception and to hold the men accountable to what the values of the men of the organization are and have been since its founding.
What are some of the duties of the Director of Diversity and Inclusion?
I will work with the risk and safety team here and so I’ll have the opportunity to develop programs for any chapters that are having any types of challenges. I’ll also look at the current educational programs—the new member program, any type of training—and work to incorporate diversity inclusion curriculum in those pieces, in their different leadership experiences that they provide here for the members. I will also be working with Title IX in any sexual misconduct and bystander prevention education programs as well, and also looking at different trends with anything we see going on in the fraternity. It kind of encompasses a large area of looking at several different types of bias related incidents.
So the position wasn’t created solely to deal with the racist incident that occurred?
I think that’s where the initial idea came from but as they started to look broadly at what the fraternity needed the position has grown into looking at other areas and different aspects to make sure the organization is inclusive and making sure all members have this safe space to come to to be able to talk about who they are and share those experiences with their brothers.
What would motivate a black college guy to join SAE now?
The commitment SAE has made to their members and to potential members to really create an environment that is safe and encouraging for everyone. What motivates anyone to join a fraternity is that there are those bonds that you have with your brothers and those values that are really congruent to who it is that you are, and also what it is that you believe. And I think the incident is not fully representative of the majority of the members of SAE. So I think that the fact that they are committed to doing this, that they swiftly went in to remove that chapter shows that they are committed to creating an environment that is conducive to being welcoming to all people.
Do you think this type of position, being the first of its kind, will become standard for Greek organizations?
I think there are more conversations about it, I don’t know if every national organization is at a place to have a full time person but I believe that several national organizations have started different committees or work groups that focus around diversity and inclusion and that look at what type of experience we offer our members: are we welcoming? Are we amenable to everyone? I think that our colleges and universities, there’s a more diverse population and I think fraternities and sororities, not just SAE but overall, have to move with the times and get out of the mindset of this is what our membership looks like and really look at what are we offering to be able to bring in people that fit the criteria but also live and understand the values and the mission of our organization.
Do you think that NPHC fraternities and sororities need to have the diversity and inclusion conversations?
For NPHC organizations, we were founded because African-American students could not join other groups and we were also founded to promote and help members excel on college campuses and go into the communities that we were founded and be able to make change for people of color. I think that you can do those same things and it not be “people of color”. I think it’s important that, no matter what race you are, when you join an organization that you really understand the mission and the ideals of that organization and I don’t necessarily think that you have to be black to understand or to be an ally. Some of our chapters are diverse but I think that there is some work to be done in that area for NPHC organizations.
How are you going to ensure you’re not seen as a prop for this organization?
Through the work. I can tell them all day it’s not what they think, and at the end of the day most of the naysayers don’t matter to me. What matters is that I’m in a position to really effect change and my goal is to effect change. I’m not going to solve all the problems of racism in the world or anything like that because I’m working with people that come to an organization with things that they’ve been taught for 18 years before they even gain membership.
My goal is to increase the conversations, increase the dialogue, and through that create opportunities for learning so that even if you have been taught certain things all your life that when you come to this fraternity and you come to these new member programs and leadership programs that I challenge what your perception is so that you can critically think about what it is that you say and do as it relates to difference.
So I’ll let my work speak for itself. I don’t feel that I need to defend myself I am not ashamed, I am proud, I am excited and I know that this is an opportunity that has the potential to do a lot for an organization and also help me, as well, as I look to engage in these conversations on a larger level at some point.
Has there been any criticism of your taking this position? How do you respond to it?
I have received criticism through several different Greek blogs, some people that are my own sorority sisters and own fraternity brothers but they’re typically people I don’t know. To some extent I did expect that there would be criticism but I think that oftentimes we want to start having these conversations about racism, right? We want to be able to confront it and to educate and I think that it’s in a way contradictory to not support that happening even on such a small scale as a fraternity, when nationally those conversations are happening but they’re happening among the people who are oppressed. That’s great, but we need to be able to take that message beyond just our circles and I think the best way to do that is one, to educate, and two, be in a position where you can effect change.
So the criticism, yeah I’ve received it, and I’ve seen it. It is disheartening that, as a black woman who is the first director of diversity and inclusion for any national fraternity, my own black Greeks are not supportive of it when we know based on the history of our organizations that that conversation has to be had. And we’re the ones that should be doing it because that is what our groups are founded to do.