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RapidChat: Jesse Bernal

"Some of my earliest observations of communities, including my own, facing marginalization and a lack of opportunity shaped my commitment to social justice and equity." So says Texas native Jesse Bernal, who will be joining Grand Valley State University as vice president of inclusion and equity at the end of this month. 
Jesse Bernal

"Some of my earliest experiences and observations of communities, including my own, facing marginalization and a lack of opportunity shaped my commitment to social justice and equity." So says Texas native Jesse Bernal, who will be joining Grand Valley State University as vice president of inclusion and equity at the end of this month. Get to know him in this week's RapidChat.
Rapid Growth: Welcome to Michigan! What area of Grand Rapids did you decide to settle down in and call your new home?
Jesse Bernal: Thanks! I have received so many very warm welcoming messages and kind offers to assist during the transition from across Grand Rapids and West Michigan. I am honored to be joining such a thriving and growing community. My partner, Bryan, and I are taking the full transition slowly. He’s a special education teacher and will be staying back in California with our dog, Bailey, until the end of the school year. When they arrive we'll search for the right place and area. I know there are lots of great places to choose from, but we are open to suggestions! My mom is planning to join us as well; so it will be very nice to have family along on this new journey. For the time being, I'll be on my own in downtown Grand Rapids.
RG: Are you from California originally? Where did you grow up?
JB: I am originally from a small town in South Texas – Placedo. It is a mostly Mexican immigrant community; that’s my cultural background as well. My mom and her siblings were migrant farm workers growing up so they traveled across the country most of the year, but she settled and raised my three brothers and me where she grew up in Placedo. Most of my family is still in the area so I get back as often as I can.
I moved to California when I started college and spent about a decade in Santa Barbara for undergraduate and graduate school and working for the University of California in pre-college outreach and first-year transition programs. I spent some brief time in California’s central valley initiating an educational outreach program at California’s most diverse UC, in Merced, and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to support UC systemwide diversity efforts at the Office of the President.
RG: How did you first hear about this opportunity with Grand Valley State University?
JB: GVSU has been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion efforts in public higher education for the last decade so I have known about the campus for a while. It is one of the first public universities to institute a portfolio-structured and senior-level chief diversity officer model. As such, it stood out as an example for the development of diversity structures elsewhere, including UC. The university’s pioneering work in campus climate assessments put the campus back on my radar recently. Dr. Sue Rankin, a national expert on action-oriented campus climate projects, was a consultant for both GVSU and UC on recent assessments and this connection encouraged me to explore the opportunity with GVSU.
RG: Coming from the West Coast in California, what are some of the challenges you expect to face here in West Michigan in such a vastly different community?
JB: There are challenges and opportunities in all of our communities, and the biggest challenge I might face moving to West Michigan is learning more about the community culture and norms. It’s a similar challenge I faced when I moved to California from Texas. However, in my line of work, I really appreciate the diversity of experience and approach I find wherever I go, and only hope I am able to contribute to the evolving culture and diverse community in West Michigan.
While Michigan may be less racially and ethnically diverse than California, there are real opportunities to support equity and inclusion for the state’s still quite diverse communities. This includes, but certainly is not limited to, continuing the efforts to remedy inequitable representation of African Americans in higher education and other institutions and meeting the needs of the growing Latino population in West Michigan.
I will also say that, on a statewide level, I have some concern about the state’s ban on gay marriage. Family is very important to my partner and me so we look forward to working with other advocates and allies in continued efforts to support LGBT inclusion.
RG: What inspired you to take this path in your career?
JB: Some of my earliest experiences and observations of communities, including my own, facing marginalization and a lack of opportunity shaped my commitment to social justice and equity. I mentioned that I grew up in a small, mostly immigrant community and that my mother and her siblings were migrant farm workers growing up. So, we struggled. For those who graduated from my high school, college opportunity was limited, because awareness was limited. When I started college, I began to question why more people from my communities weren’t there with me. I usually thought: Why am I the only Latino in this class? Why aren’t my brothers here with me? Why did I feel like I was the only person who struggled financially?
I also came out to my family and friends in college. Going to a very conservative undergraduate school, I felt that I had to hide my identity on campus. This led to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
At the same time, I recognized and continue to recognize the power of education to really transform individuals, as it did for me, and how educational opportunity can shape and reshape entire communities. This was something I wanted to be a part of – the transformational work of education – and ensuring more opportunities for underserved communities and supporting the success of all our communities through inclusion and equity.
While continuing my education outreach and equity work for the University of California, I pursued graduate training at UC Santa Barbara’s School of Education. There I focused my studies and research on affirmative action and equal opportunity policy and law, diversity and equity in higher education, Critical Race Theory, social justice education, and student development and engagement. While a graduate student, I was appointed to a two-year term as student Regent for the UC Board of Regents, which provided an opportunity to weigh in on, create, and advise on policies at the highest level of the university, and collaborate on state and federal legislation. I participated in working groups on revised admissions standards, review of state and federal budget priorities, and worked on LGBT and undocumented student inclusion efforts. This background led to my eventual hire to support UC systemwide diversity initiatives.
RG: What sort of day-to-day activities does the Vice President for Inclusion and Equity do at GVSU?
JB: Initially, I plan to do a lot of listening. I hope to talk with many members of the GVSU and broader West Michigan community. It is important that I get to know more about the opportunities and challenges in our community, and better understand the experiences and perceptions of all members of our diverse university.
It is important that I know more about the culture, but also recognize and learn from the long-standing diversity champions at GVSU and in West Michigan who have led equity and inclusion work for decades. My efforts will build on the groundwork they have set, and will welcome wholeheartedly the perspectives, participation, and leadership of all members of the community.
The Division of Inclusion and Equity is charged with providing a rich, inclusive, learning and working environment that attracts, retains and supports a diverse community of students, staff and faculty. The next phase of these efforts includes working to ensure equity is embedded across the campus and ingrained in all of our functions and decision-making, that it remains relevant and innovative, that we strive to eliminate inequities and advance access, and create a campus climate that is welcoming and inclusive for all.
We all have a stake in this work, so building relationships and enhancing collaboration and coordination across campus and West Michigan will be essential to position GVSU as the model for equity and inclusion among public, regional, comprehensive universities.
RG: Do you have any goals you hope to accomplish for the university within your first year there?
JB: Leadership at GVSU understands the importance of equity and inclusion as central to its success. As such, the campus maintains a strategic priority to advance inclusion and equity. A primary goal for the year will be to support the campus in further developing this strategic priority. This will require many robust conversations to better understand opportunities on campus. A key outcome of these conversations will be the development of a strategic plan for the Division of Inclusion and Equity, which will guide our efforts to support the wider community’s strategic priorities over the next several years.
RG: What about personally?
JB: Personally, supporting a successful move and smooth transition for my family are important for me. I also hope to be very involved in the greater Michigan community, and very much look forward to opportunities to contribute to progressive dialogue and efforts off-campus. In addition to cultural and service organizations, opportunities for personal and family faith development is important to me so finding an affirming church community will be part of the transition. Of course, contributing to interfaith efforts throughout the community will also part of this personal work. I also hear learning how to drive in snow and icy conditions should be on my list of personal goals!

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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