Cal Poly hired 16 faculty members as part of a diversity cluster hire for the 2019-2020 academic year.

The university worked to hire assistant professors that would contribute to Cal Poly’s diversity and inclusion efforts through their teaching and research. The program started in the College of Liberal Arts in 2017, expanding to include all colleges.

The new assistant professors in the College of Liberal Arts are Lucy Zhang Bencharit, Deb Donig, Thanayi Jackson, Shanae Martinez and Kylie Parrotta. All five have been heavily involved in research on race, culture and human rights.

Shanae Martinez described the motivation of her research in her community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was previously employed.

“Because my research is about looking at ways to indigenize sites of knowledge production, a lot of my work was revolved around bridging communities with academic institutions,” Martinez said.

Martinez holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Cultural Theory from the University of Wisconsin, as well as a Women and Gender Studies certificate which influences the feminist element of her work and research.

Now that she is here, Martinez said she wants to incorporate the voices of marginalized students into the history of Cal Poly.

“I hope that I can create an outlet for them to be present as part of this larger community so that they’re not overshadowed,” Martinez said.

Dr. Kylie Parrotta originally worked at a historically Black college or university (HBCU) in Delaware before moving to the West Coast to step into the new role as an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Cal Poly.

“I’m used to being in an institution that values diversity, inclusion and equity,” Parrotta said. “This really aligned with my ideals and what I was really looking for in a job.”

Parrotta said she was compelled to work for an HBCU from the research she did on racial disparities in criminal sentencing.

“I thought that my research really aligned with the student body that I was teaching at an HBCU,” Parotta said. “I was really trying to inspire students to get involved in activism, not just to learn about these issues but hopefully try to change some of these issues that impact them directly.”

Parrotta said she hopes to have the same impact on her students regardless of the student body demographics. She believes criminal justice impacts everyone regardless of race, class and gender.

Dr. Thanayi Jackson works in the history department and is an assistant professor of African American history. Jackson’s research interests include politics and race in the United States from 1865, as well as African American activism.

Dr. Lucy Zhang Bencharit was drawn to Cal Poly as a research and teaching institution, especially in the psychology and child development program where she works.

Bencharit’s research revolves around cultural differences around emotion and expressions of emotion. Americans value excitement while East Asia values calmness. When folks coming from these differing backgrounds interact, these differences create “a lot of racial and gender disparities in who gets hired, who gets promoted [and] who ascends to leadership positions,” Bencharit explained.

“So my research at the heart of it looks at how disparities that we see in the workplace can be explained by looking at culture and looking at subtle things like how we communicate our emotions,” Bencharit said.

As an immigrant from China, Bencharit said she found difficulty fitting in at school or social situations.

“Along the way I definitely learned how to turn on the excitement and do the ‘American’ thing,’” Bencharit said. “That really showed me that there are cultural values and things that we take for granted, things that we think are biological and natural, and those things should be investigated.”

Bencharit believes knowing people’s cultural values can unlock the benefits of diversity.

“In a lot of institutions people are focused on recruitment but what they need to focus on is inclusion,” Bencharit said.

Cal Poly’s diversity and inclusion initiative interested Dr. Deb Donig in applying for the position partly due to its connection to the literature she teaches. Donig teaches global Anglophone literature, a form of English-written literature that originates from people and cultures who practice English-speaking traditions in places outside the United States or Great Britain.

Donig’s research focuses on human rights and comparative genocide, which partly stems from her work as a director of the New England Holocaust memorial in Boston.

Donig attributes the start of her journey in the literature she teaches to studying abroad during her junior year of college in South Africa, the country where her family is from. While on the trip, her experiences pushed her thinking about the relationship between narrative and policy and the dangers of creating a collective narrative, detailing how “shared narratives specifically enabled and perhaps blocked some of the most important things that were affecting people’s lives.”

Donig is prepared to promote diversity and inclusion at Cal Poly by taking a step back and listening to the community first to get an idea of what Cal Poly is.

“From my perspective, I think one of the ethical imports of my research is that you don’t come into the culture and tell the culture immediately what’s wrong with that culture and start dictating the terms of that culture,” Donig said. “My first obligation is to observe and to listen, to talk to people who have been here longer and to try and understand.”

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