On Sept. 20, Ken James will move to a newly created administrative role at Muskegon Community College to help lead the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy. To James, that means serving four distinct constituencies: students, faculty and staff, the community at large, and businesses. A leader in promoting organizational diversity in West Michigan, James most recently served for three years as the director of inclusion at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. He’s held similar positions over more than two decades at the city of Muskegon, Hackley Hospital, Grand Valley State University and Meijer Inc. James recently spoke with MiBiz about his new role and priorities that continue his DEI mission.
Why did this job — and moving from business advocacy to higher education — appeal to you?
I was attracted to the role because of the vision that (President) Dr. Nesbary and the board have set forth for this role. There are four pillars that Muskegon Community College operates under as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion: cultural awareness, cultural competency, organizational strategy, and community outreach. When I think about my experiences and industries I worked in around DEI — to be able to hone all of that and put it behind those pillars from a community stage, it’s the perfect alignment of my skill set and where the organization is going.
Why was this position created?
There’s a vision of the board of trustees to make sure MCC is preparing its constituents to be ready for a global world. When I look at it, I see stakeholders and constituents of MCC being students, No. 1. But it’s also faculty and staff, the community at large, and businesses. To prepare those four constituency areas through a DEI lens in itself is a return on investment. We’ll attract and retain students, we’ll be an employer of choice, we’ll be an asset and resource for the community, then we’ll work with our businesses to make sure they’re thriving and retaining talent.
Many organizations across a variety of sectors are developing DEI strategies following the social unrest of the past 18 months. What does it take to create and implement an effective DEI strategy in an organization?
It’s getting beyond buzzwords. We hear diversity, equity and inclusion a lot. I define diversity as the differences that make each of us unique. … When working with a public-facing institution like Muskegon Community College, we have to leverage that diversity because there’s a richness in that. Equity means everyone has the same opportunity to contribute. Inclusion is leveraging that so we can be a strong organization. That’s why we’re seeing organizations gravitate toward DEI because there’s an ROI, a return on investment — or as I say, a return on inclusion.
Where do you see the needle moving in West Michigan when it comes to inclusivity?
Right now, I think DEI is on a lot of people’s awareness meter — we’re trying to leverage that. There’s a lot of conversations, some of them are very challenging conversations. But having these conversations (positions) these organizations to compete.
I have some ideas and vision for MCC, but before that I want to do a listening tour to see what everyone’s interpretation is. I want to get that cohesion together, figure out where to go, then be eager to implement and combine my ideas with the listening tour.
What are some of your ideas for this position?
For students, it’s maximizing attraction and retention. For faculty and staff, the big goal is for MCC to be an employer of choice, or a destination employer, to make sure we have a culturally inclusive organization. For the community, it’s providing assets and training opportunities for the community at large. For the business community, I want to work and walk alongside businesses so we’re preparing the next generation of the workforce to remain competitive in the region and globally.
How have the past 18 months affected your outlook as an expert in diversity, equity and inclusion?
I think the ability to initiate dialogue is what has been paramount. A lot of times, it’s just having the conversation. I’m a big proponent of having dialogue and discourse. I stay away from debate and argument. I share facts and data. How do I initiate dialogue around race, or how can I start these conversations without being vilified? These conversations are happening. We need to be poised to have these conversations, then learn and pivot to move forward.