Virginia Tech’s Office for Inclusion and Diversity welcomed more than 300 talented and accomplished women for the seventh annual Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National Conference earlier in April.

The two-day conference offered women-of-color faculty, university administrators, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students a unique educational and professional opportunity to network, engage, and learn with peers from around the country. This marked the third year the national conference took place at Virginia Tech, with attendees traveling from New York, Chicago, California, Texas, and beyond.

The conference featured an open day keynote address from the Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, social justice activist and daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Rev. Naomi Tutu works on racial and economic reconciliation issues across western North Carolina with the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village.

Tutu reminded women to always be authentic and to value their worth in society. She asked the audience, “How do we in our daily lives as faculty of women in higher learning make impactful measures that change our lives collectively?”

Aída Hurtado, professor and the Luis Leal Endowed Chair of the Department of Chicano and Chicana Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke to the crowd the next day as the closing keynote. Hurtado, whose area of research is gender equity, has made major contributions to Chicana and Chicano studies, as well as national and international scholarship on issues of gender and race.

Her work touches on feminist theory, representations of ethnic and racial groups in the media, social identity, and equity issues in education. During her presentation on women empowerment, she shared her experience and the experience of others, as one of the speakers during the 2018 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. 

"There is no such thing as a private sphere for people of color except that which they manage to create and protect in an otherwise hostile environment,” Hurtado said.

The conference honors the achievements of women of color with the Zenobia Lawrence Hikes Award, named in memory of Virginia Tech’s beloved colleague who served as vice president of student affairs from 2005 until her passing in 2008. The award recognizes a woman of color with a distinguished career in higher education demonstrated by scholarly endeavors or administrative and professional accomplishments, and a commitment to advancing the development of young women of color as they pursue their education and prepare for careers in the academy and beyond.  Barbara Lockee, professor of education at Virginia Tech, and Tracy Y. Espy, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Pfeiffer University, were the 2019 award recipients. 

Throughout her career, Lockee has been dedicated to fusing her academic work with knowledge empowerment for people of color. As a doctoral candidate, her dissertation provided a hypermedia template for Native American language preservation programs. She used the template to produce an elementary language learning program for the Eastern Band of Cherokees at a time when Cherokee language was in rapid decline.

Espy has been an exemplary administrator and mentor to women, and to women of color in particular. She led the way in earning key university accreditations and made significant gains in achieving fair and equitable compensation for all faculty. Her efforts led to a 33% increase in the salaries of minority faculty and a 59% increase for women faculty, due in part to her efforts to promote women to higher faculty ranks.

Other notable speakers included: Professor Wilma L. Santiago Gabrielini, acting chancellor of University Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus; Shanna Jackson, president of Nashville State Community College; Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College;  ​and Joy Gaston Gayles, professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University. 

The attendees had the opportunity to engage in thought-provoking and interactive workshops on personal branding, effective writing, how to build communities, and much more.

Although the conference officially ended on April 12, some of the attendees signed up to attend a post-conference Academic Writing Retreat provided by InkWell Academic Writing Retreats, ​facilitated by Michelle Boyd. The retreat offered scholars structure and strategies that help them manage the challenges of writing for extended periods of time. Additionally, it served as an incentive to increase productivity and satisfaction.

“I’m thrilled that Virginia Tech has been extremely supportive in hosting the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National conference for the past three years,” said Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity. “This conference was envisioned as a unique and sacred space for women of color in the academy — a place for being renewed, reminded, reinvigorated; an opportunity to recommit and to be reminded why we started down this path in the first place and why our presence matters.

“We have an amazing pool of powerful diverse women in the academy whose voices and intellect matter," Pratt-Clarke continued. "We aim to empower and equip these women through education, networking, and leadership training. Our day-to-day commitment to social justice work is ongoing. I am deeply for grateful for community, collaboration, cooperation, and sisterhood.”

Conference participant, Cynethia Bethel-Jaiteh, assistant professor with the University of Louisville School of Nursing, shared how excited she was to attend the event as a first-timer and truly appreciated the thought-provoking workshops and a true sense of belonging.

“I never thought of myself as an asset," she said. "Normally we work because we have to work. We never really promote those things that are passionate and important to us that will actually help us to brand us.​"

The conference ended with a big reveal for the 2020 conference. The eighth annual FWCA Conference is scheduled for April 20 – 21, 2020, with keynote speaker, Patricia Hill Collins. The conference theme is “A Celebration of Intersectionality and Women of Color Re-Defining the Academy.”

Collins is a Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is also the former head of the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati and a past president of the American Sociological Association Council (ASA). She was the 100th president of the ASA and the first African American woman to hold this position. Collins' work primarily concerns issues involving feminism, gender, and social inequality within the African American community. She first came to national attention for her book "Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment," originally published in 1990.

If you missed this year’s conference, click here to view some of the photos.  

To learn more about the upcoming happenings with the Faculty Women of Color, click here to visit the Facebook page.