Meet the TIAA Difference Maker 100 being honored for their work in their communities
Sophia McGee co-founded the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding (CERRU), a diversity education center that provides nonviolent communication tools to bridge social differences and create a more equitable society. The center is based at Queens College in New York City. The university is located in what’s been described as one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world. Queens College students report ancestries from 145 different countries, and about a third are born overseas. Almost half speak a native language other than English, including some 90 unique languages. A student body like this positions Queens College and CERRU as an unparalleled laboratory for diversity.
I come from a hybrid background—both as an academic in International Relations and before that as a performing artist. The common thread is my relentless curiosity about what makes people tick. As an artist, you want to understand why a character behaves in certain ways—what their background and environment is and to make sure people can empathize with their point of view. That’s also the foundation of my academic work and pretty central to what we do at CERRU; we strive to understand how to make leaps of faith across different ethnic, religious, racial, and even political differences.
I’ve been involved in CERRU from its beginning in 2009, but in the last year and a half since I became director I’ve been working to make it a diversity- and inclusion-based training center. Students—historically marginalized students especially—need more than academic instruction to thrive while they are in college. We want to give them the communication, de-biasing, and conflict-resolution skills that they will need to be successful in an increasingly multicultural country and world. We know that these skills are transferrable into whatever career they choose, and that they will utilize them to represent themselves clearly and faithfully with respect to their identities, to be empathetic and understanding of difference, and to create truly diverse and inclusive spaces around themselves.
The core of what we do is student training. We run two student fellowships, one of which is our Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Fellowship. Students learn how to facilitate non-violent dialogues that hone skills on engaging with difference. Additionally, students are given nonviolent tools to engage with incidences rooted in bias, such as microaggressions. Our second fellowship is our Social Change Fellowship, where students learn about community organizing and project development for social change initiatives—and get a budget to implement programs. One of our Social Change Fellows formed a collective that focused on using art to engage the public on social issues.
Because this is a second career for me, retirement planning was a concern. I was starting out with student-loan debt, was married and had a young child. The ability to be able to plan for retirement is incredible. TIAA has a representative who comes to campus every year, and I always meet with him, because I want to make sure I’m on track. There’s a great deal of pressure to be a really successful parent, and a successful professional contributing to the future of one’s discipline. Having a financial plan has been exceptionally helpful in my being able to turn my attention to these other things.
Our challenges at CERRU involve making sure we are reaching all diverse groups, and that we’re truly inclusive. We always want to make sure that the program includes all points of view. In addition, about a year ago we realized that we were having trouble with “reach,” so we expanded our training beyond the two student fellowships, and we now do training programs open to anyone on campus and in the community.
We are lucky in that we are sitting in the midst of one of the most diverse campuses in the country, in one of the most diverse communities. We have the ability to act as a pilot for what might be possible in other communities as the country continues to become more diverse. To that end, we are currently looking at how our model might be transferrable to other college campuses here in New York and across the country.