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Graduation 2003

Angela Davis

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Angela M. Davis is the director of the Residence Life program.

Angela M. Davis: ‘This is my university’

By Anne Bromley

Angela M. Davis joined the English department faculty in 1975, began working for the Residence Life program three years later and now directs it. A graduate of Lincoln and Cornell universities, she also teaches a class on African-American women writers. In this interview as part of Inside UVA’s “Voices of Diversity” series, she reflects on diversity issues at the University over the past 28 years

Q: What made you want to come here and stay here?

A: U.Va. was the type of place I needed to be, because white schools were starting to recruit women and African-American students. They needed to have faculty who looked like them, who had their perspective.

After three years, though, I was making plans to leave, but John Casteen [dean of admission then, U.Va.’s president now] suggested I talk to Robert Canevari [former dean of students]. Robert said, “There’s a need for you here. Think about applying for this assistant dean position.” So I applied for the job, I got it and I’ve been here ever since.

Q: What kind of diversity efforts have you been involved in?

A: One of the things Robert wanted me to do was to diversify the Residence Life program. I’ve always tried to incorporate all perspectives [in residence staff training]. I tell my students of color, “This is your university, you have to act like it, you have to be active, to be engaged.”

Other building blocks for me … [were] in 1978, I directed and produced the first African-American play in Culbreth Theatre, “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” For many years, I did diversity workshops with faculty, bringing panels of students from their department to talk to them. I started Culturefest in 1985 [part of Parents Weekend]. I helped organize the University-wide apartheid simulation in 1990.

Q: What kind of diversity issues come up in the residence halls?

A: In resident staff training, we give them hypothetical scenarios on issues like alcohol and substance abuse, suicide and mental health, and diversity. They’ll watch the senior staff role-play, say, someone who’s been sexually assaulted and how you deal with that. One of the typical problems we see is someone will say, ‘My roommate has a Confederate flag on the wall.’ We tell them to ask questions about it. If you get an honest answer, you can give an honest response. It gets the people talking.

Q: Are students different these days in their experience of diversity?

A: Yes. Students are coming out of more diverse experiences, so they expect that here, and that’s appropriate.

What I see as the next big hurdle, unfortunately, is still the privileged white students – and I’m not criticizing. It’s because they haven’t had to go through a minority-perspective lens in which to see the world. But they’re going to have to soon, because the world is much more diverse than this place.


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