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Building Community and ‘Continuity of Purpose’: A Conversation with Shaya Gregory Poku

Shaya in rust colored coat, smiling and standing in Boston Common, Boylston T station and buildings behind
Shaya Gregory Poku is Emerson’s new Vice President for Equity and Social Justice. Photo/Derek Palmer

Over the summer, Shaya Gregory Poku (she/her/hers) [pronounced SHAY-a GREG-gor-y POE-koo] joined Emerson as Vice President for Equity and Social Justice, where she oversees the intersectional work of the Social Justice Center, Elma Lewis Center, and Healing & Advocacy Collective. She said she believes “in working to create institutional change that is systemic, strategic, and relational.”

A native of California (the Bay Area), Gregory Poku comes to Emerson from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she was Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity & Belonging, and previously served as Dean for Equity, Social Justice, and Community Impact, and Director of the Center for Social Justice and Community Impact. Prior to Wheaton, she was the Program Director of the Social Justice Resource Center at Northeastern University, and has worked leading projects with international non-governmental organization Search for Common Ground, which works to move conflict toward cooperative solutions.

In September, Emerson Today sat down to talk with Gregory Poku about her experience in social justice work, her vision for Emerson, and what brings her joy. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emerson Today: I guess just to start off, what drew you to Emerson?

Shaya Gregory Poku: What I have said a couple of times is that I’m attracted to being part of a community that is helping to shape cultural narratives. I’m very excited about being a part of this creative, vocal community that is a pioneer in arts and communication, particularly because of the role that cultural narratives play in shaping the world that we live in and we operate in every day. And I’m also super excited to be a part of a multi-campus community. I’m delighted to be working as part of that Emersonian community that has this vibrant campus here in Boston, but also a tremendous campus in Los Angeles and one in the Netherlands. All those pieces together are why I’m here.

ET: Have you had a chance to visit the other campuses yet?

SGP: No, but I will go on record and say that I’m going to go to LA this fall and the Netherlands this spring.

ET: Why is this work so important?

SGP: Well, part of the reason why I love working in higher education is not only because we’re actually shaping leaders who are going to continue to transform the society we live in, our graduates are going to come out and be leaders. I think we sometimes forget how few people in the world have a bachelor of arts degree or a BFA degree much less any graduate education. It’s still a very small percentage of the overall larger population in the world. [A]s we have this opportunity to educate people and make critical thinkers who will go out and be thoughtful about who they are in the world and what they do in their communities, we just have such an opportunity to have impact that’s tremendous. … The thrust of higher education is human development, and the more we can do human development well, the better we will be able to support people who can go out and do tremendous work in the world.

ET: What were your own undergraduate and graduate experiences like in regards to equity and inclusion?

SGP: Undergraduate, I went to an all-women’s college [Agnes Scott College].  It is now ranked #1 Most Innovative and a  HEED award winning institution, among its many accolades. I loved it and had some pretty transformative experiences. Did my first program actually where I was supported in bringing an idea to life, and that was, I studied abroad. There weren’t as many Black students who were studying abroad at that time at my institution, and I worked with our Office of International Education to actually do a … panel that was focused on the Black experience of study abroad, and that led more students of color to study abroad. And the mission statement of my institution, and it’s one I still live by, which was that it engages women to think deeply, live honorably, and engage in the intellectual social problems of their time. It was great.

Structurally, however, I realized that the institution at the time wasn’t really set up to do a lot of the student success, a lot of the student coaching pieces. I was not a first-generation college student, as my parents were, but when I got there, I could have benefited from more people helping me make more strategic decisions about what courses I was taking, which ones I was dropping, those types of things. So my undergraduate experience … bolstered my academic curiosity. It bolstered who I was as a leader and as a thinker. But I didn’t really come onto my own as a scholar and as an academic until I went to graduate school and got my first master’s.

My first master’s program at Lesley University was fantastic. This is a little poignant, but I’ll just tell you because I just went to his funeral service. [One of my professors] was a person who really gave me my intellectual voice and who helped me realize that I could think and that I could do scholarly work, and he just passed. Before he passed, he actually gave me a lot of his books that align with both our interests, so in my office right now, I’m literally carrying some of the books that he shared with me that were important to him that used to be in his office and that are now in mine. And that gets back to those beautiful pieces of legacy and of continuity that are distinct in higher education, to have both that continuity of people and that continuity of purpose, but that shifting of who comes through the door.

And then my second master’s, at Northeastern University, it was a really great experience for me to think about how it feels to be a working adult, to be a working student. I was a full-time employee, a new parent, and a student, and I had never experienced that before. At that point, it was a really important degree in terms of helping me think through and getting other lenses into the work that I was doing. But it was also a real-life challenge of what does it actually mean to balance and to really grind and to know what it means. Literally writing my thesis overnight in the middle of the night and getting up at 1:00 am. I learned scholarly discipline with my second master’s.

ET: Did you feel like there were structures in place to support you? You touched on this [regarding] your undergraduate experience, but not just as a Black woman, but as a working mother…

SGP: No, I think there were some people who supported me, absolutely. I mean, I pumped milk for my child in one of my colleagues’ offices because we did have a lactation room, but you know college and universities, right, you can’t go from one end of the campus to the other. So I had people. And part of what I love about being in this position is helping to create the structures that are going to outlast people. …When I was coming through college, these kinds of positions didn’t exist. There weren’t actually chief diversity officers who were empowered by institutions to ask these questions and partner with colleagues across the college to  really think about these ways in a holistic and systemic fashion.

ET: You’ve worked on an international peacekeeping initiative and a literacy program for young girls, and then you moved into higher ed. What are the threads that draw all those together and what skills are transferable?

SGP: I’m deeply interested in the questions of empowerment, of agency, of a sustainable social change for individuals and communities. That is at the heart of a lot of the work that I’ve done. And so that’s what ties them together.

And transferable skills – certainly critical analysis. It’s about system thinking. It’s about stakeholder engagement. It’s about conflict analysis. It’s about communication skills. It’s about project management…a lot of work that I’m doing now, believe it or not, it is project management, it’s just at a different scale. And so much of it is about human dignity. So much about the work that I’ve tried to do is about enabling people and communities and systems and structures to be able to live a dignified life. And that’s immensely important to me.

ET: How much of the challenge of this work is generational? And how do you deal with that in an institution where you have very, very young people and then very, very … not young people? How do you bridge that?

SGP: I think there’s a couple of pieces. One, shout out to the movie movie Selma’s song “Glory” by Common and John Legend. John Legend …is one of my favorite artists. And [the song] said, ‘It takes the wisdom of the elders and the young people’s energy.’

I think that the balance is that there are sometimes struggles that have happened before that younger people don’t have context for yet. For example, there was a list of demands that EBONI gave Emerson that’s pretty close to the [Emerson Students of Color] Week of Action demands. And so how do we help people understand those histories?

But at the same time, how are we not limited by those histories? There are lots of critical questions about mental health flexibility in the classroom and self-actualization that young students are asking today that no one did before en masse, and those questions are spot on. So how do we have people work together to hear those? And then sometimes the language is shifted as well, too. Sometimes people are having the same conversation but aren’t poised to be in a situation, in circumstances, where they can actually hear one another and come to that realization.

So much about this work, and it’s answering your other question as well as this one, is a big part of my work is being a bridge builder, and it’s helping create forums, platforms, mechanisms for people to hear one another and to build authentic relationships with one another…. How can we create spaces and opportunities institutionally and across our multi campuses that really create interfaces for people to co-plan, co-design, co-think, and co-problem solve?

ET: Is there an example from a previous institution where that worked out really well?

SGP: Sure. One of them that I will say was at Wheaton, and we had students who were very concerned about transphobia and gender inclusion in the classroom. I worked with student leaders who were part of creating what we call “Creating a Gender Affirming Wheaton: A Guide”. It was a small group of staff and faculty and students who wrote that document and … then I worked with faculty members to help train their colleagues on that document, and then staff members to help train staff on that same document. And then we worked with our policy makers to actually codify some of those pieces into our gender inclusion policies as related to student pronouns, in terms of how we captured pronoun and gender identity information for students, staff, and faculty in our database systems. I worked with human resources on that as well.  We also helped student leaders create trainings for student organizations on being gender inclusive. Lots of people interested in the similar issue and then not everyone being involved at the same time, but everyone helping be part of shaping the work that was ultimately done for the benefit of the institution.

ET: What does a good day look like in this job?

SGP: Every day is a good day. I mean, a good day is when I’ve been energized by working with different groups of stakeholders across the campus, when I’ve been able to actually reply to my emails and stay on top of my emails, when I’ve been able to work on something more systemic and project-related, but also when I’ve been able to build new relationships or learn something new or sustain something integral. I think that the dynamism of my days is part of what makes for a great day.

ET: What do you hope to see come to pass this academic year?

SGP: I think one of them is certainly… and this came out in the [Beyond Racial Equity] recommendations and it’s something that we’ll continue to see, and it’s something I heard quite clearly in my interview, is that there’s more of a need for universal design and alignment in strategic planning and thinking about how do we really leverage the deep bench of resources that exist here at Emerson to move work forward?

There’s great work that’s happening here in the Social Justice Center.  There’s great work that’s happening in Enrollment Management, and there are Student Success offices, and there’s amazing work that’s happening in Academic Affairs with the Internationalization and the Equity team. And there’s great work that’s happening in Student Affairs, but they’re not yet always fully in conversation with one another despite the important creation of Making Emerson IDEAS.  So how are we really leveraging those opportunities and creating more of them to create synergy and to deepen our impact?

For me, starting to have more of those conversations where we’re identifying [that] these are our priority areas, and this is how we’re all working in concert separately, but collectively, with clear accountability measures for how we’re moving those pieces forward across all three campuses. And how are we really bringing in people from LA and Kasteel Well and others to those pieces? … Because if things aren’t coordinated, then it’s difficult for people to be able to point to where are we in our process and where are we in our progress. And I want people to be clearer about what we’re trying to accomplish, where we’re going, who’s doing it, and how we’re doing it together…

Another area of success to me will be interacting more with alumni as well. I think they’re an important part of the Emersonian community, and I really hope to be able to do that more as well. 

ET: What’s been the biggest surprise since you’ve arrived at Emerson?

SGP: I didn’t realize I had to swipe in everywhere I went. And my second day, I left my ID to go to lunch, and then I had to go to ECPD. That was a big surprise.

But I think the warmth of the community has been a surprise to me. I think the breadth of the facilities… I’m someone who’s walked around the Boston Common and gone to see performances before through ArtsEmerson, but I never really realized how much Emerson had a footprint and how spectacular some of the facilities were here. So that’s been a surprise to me as well.

And also the new signage. … which also didn’t exist pre-COVID — fantastic.

ET: Where do you find joy?

SGP: I find joy, a lot of joy, in my family and in that role. I find joy being a part of a community like Emerson and being a part of a community of people who are committed to thinking about bettering our society and our community. I find joy in reading and learning new things, hence, higher education. I find joy in trying new things for the first time. I find joy in breathing, and by breathing, I mean pausing and being present and in noticing and experiencing how exciting things can be with fresh eyes and fresh perspective. I find lots of joy in museums and traveling — lots and lots of joy in traveling.

ET: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

SGP: Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacey Abrams. And I’m someone who thought that I was pretty literate about civic engagement and about our voter processes and all those types of things, but in that book, she does such a fantastic job outlining where we still have gaps and points of breakdown in our electoral processes in terms of giving people the full franchise. It was poignant for me to learn those things from her, and it’s just written in a very compelling way.

Another book that I have read recently that I enjoyed… it’s called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, and it’s by … Peter Felten, John Gardner, Charles Schroeder, Leo Lambert, and Betsy O. Barefoot …That was really a tremendous book because it was a very short text and it was very concise, but it also laid out very practically the types of things that, particularly liberal arts institutions, should be laying out. And I love the fact that there’s a rich liberal arts tradition here at Emerson, which of course has been bolstered and buttressed by the Marlboro Institute and our alliance with Marlboro College.

ET: What’s one thing that you learned today?

SGP: Oh, I learned about the undergraduate SGA and their new initiative to try to support using sustainable laundry detergents. They’re trying to get vending machines to be able to use these sustainable sheets and use them in the residence halls, and they’re going to be having a launch for that in October. I thought that was really cool. That’s another really great example of these young adults [being] brilliant. With coaching and mentoring and the coaching and mentoring that they give us, there’s not much that we can’t do.

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