Holmes was arguably the highest-ranking black woman during her three years at Cal Poly. During her time in San Luis Obispo, Holmes worked to execute the Campus Climate Survey and develop the university’s Diversity Strategic Framework.
The university’s Diversity Strategic Framework is a foundation for improving inclusivity and diversity on campus, but has yet to be implemented.
Mustang News sat down with Holmes for a final interview before she left Cal Poly.
Mustang News (MN): What are some of the biggest issues you noticed during your years at Cal Poly involving inclusivity on campus?
Annie Holmes (AH): I think that the biggest issue for students has been finding their place on campus. It’s difficult being able to feel comfortable on campus because the numbers are so small.
What came out of (the) campus climate survey, and has since come out in conversations with students, is that they tend to be the “only.” If they’re the only one in their department or college, they become the token. There’s no comfort in being who you are and speaking your truth without people questioning you or your background.
There’s a need not only to provide safe spaces on campus — especially for students who come from those different backgrounds — but to also provide a general education so that faculty know how to address some of the issues that come up in the classroom.
When faculty ignore the issues or don’t know how to deal with them and move on, that’s when students begin to feel unsafe in the classroom. There’s really a lot of education that needs to happen across campus for everyone — faculty, staff, and students — on how to address these issues.
MN: What caused your decision to leave Cal Poly?
AH: It was a quality of life decision for me to leave. First of all, it puts me closer to family so hopefully it’ll relieve some of the stress of being thousands of miles away.
Also, I have had some challenges here with moving the needle and really impacting diversity at an institutional level. Given those challenges, I thought it would be better for me to go somewhere else where I can take my talents and infuse it into the work at a more organizational level than I was able to do here.
MN: What are some ways that students can continue to push for inclusivity at Cal Poly?
AH: I think the students are doing what tends to create change in higher education, which is letting your voices be heard. Speaking their truths. Speaking about the experiences they’re having on campus. Really pushing for campus leadership to be more attuned with what is happening on campus. Taking the time to understand, to hear and to validate the voices that are coming forward and talking about their challenges and concerns.
We have some really great leaders on this campus who want to make sure that people’s experiences are positive and that people are successful here. I’m just not sure some know exactly how to do that. That’s where the rubber meets the road. They may have the desire and intent to create a culture of inclusivity and well-being, but we all have work to do in how to make that happen. When we get to the point where everyone takes that time to be introspective and figure out what their role is, that’s when Cal Poly can move forward.
MN: You are arguably the highest-ranking black woman at Cal Poly, and a significantly small number of faculty and staff who are people of color hold high-ranking positions here. What are some ways that Cal Poly can increase diversity in faculty and staff?
AH: The challenge is that faculty of color tend to be used more often because since we need to diversify, we value that voice at the table. But then we don’t validate or value their time. Then they are working twice as hard as their colleagues to try to help diversity because they are passionate about it and they don’t want to see it dwindle.
So they become very involved and it becomes taxing on them. That’s why everybody has to understand their role and responsibility in doing this. They have to be able to understand the biases and stereotypes that they hold so that they can check them. That’s when we can finally move in the direction where everybody is accountable for doing the work.
MN: What are some of your recommendations for the campus community as a whole to increase inclusivity and diversity?
AH: The gist of my recommendations have to do with keeping the process moving forward. Unveiling the Diversity Strategic Framework this year as something tangible that people can see will help move toward a direction of being more diverse and inclusive.
For students, I think the tip is to keep the dialogue going. Continue to ask questions, continue to seek action. That’s really going to be critical especially given the newfound student voice at Cal Poly, which we haven’t seen here before. Where students are actually speaking up and speaking out.
I think that that actually speaks to an enhancement in the campus climate right now, the fact that student activism is where it is. That there are students that are no longer afraid or concerned about sharing their voice and speaking out about these issues. Again, everyone has to be involved in it, but the dialogue is critical.