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Q&A with Denise O’Neil Green

Ryerson's first vice-president, equity and community inclusion discusses her journey from Chicago to Toronto
By: Will Sloan
April 12, 2018
Denise O’Neil Green

Photo: Denise O’Neil Green joined Ryerson in 2012, and became the first vice-president of equity and community inclusion in May 2017.

Why do you think Ryerson decided to include a vice-president portfolio that focuses on equity and community inclusion?
Over the last several years, I believe the president’s office noticed an increase in engagement from the community on a variety of equity issues. Moving the portfolio from a senior-level to an executive-level position is very significant. I believe that President Lachemi saw this as an opportunity to bring that voice to the table, given its growing relevance in the university environment and important to providing strategic direction.

With your new portfolio came a name change. Why did the department name change from EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) to ECI (equity and community inclusion)?
Actually, Mohamed—President Lachemi—was the one who came up with the idea of ‘equity and community inclusion.’ We both thought it resonated very well with where we were trying to go.

The name change helped to signal a new phase for this office. While equity, diversity and inclusion are still important values, our new emphasis on community inclusion signals greater engagement beyond the boundaries of the campus. It’s about understanding that every group, every equity group and under-represented groups are essential to community inclusion and is part of the city-building aspect of this university.

What are some of the accomplishments of your office that you’re most proud of since becoming the vice-president of equity and community inclusion?
I’m very proud of the work done with Elder Joanne Dallaire with respect to completing the community consultation Truth and Reconciliation report. This report will provide the foundation for institutional initiatives going forward. We celebrated the consultation and distribution of the report in January with the full backing and support of the president and provost.

A second accomplishment is the release of our second Diversity Self-ID Report, titled ‘Our Community, Our Diversity.’ The report covers two years of data—2015 and 2016. What is unique about this report is that it addresses our community’s request to disaggregate the data among women and racialized employees. We’re really looking forward to seeing how our community will respond to and use the information. I believe this report will set the trend for future reports.

What’s a vivid memory or lesson from your time at university?
I went to the University of Chicago located on the south side of the city, and it is the same university where former President Barack Obama taught law. I have lots of vivid memories. The University of Chicago was the place where, for the first time, I recognized I was a minority. If you know anything about Chicago or Chi-town, there are many African-American neighborhoods in the city.  On the south side of Chicago where I grew up, it was mostly African-American—I went to an African-American high school. So, when I got to the University of Chicago, I learned I was one of the eight students in the entering class of 1981 who were Black, and my entering class was over 800 people. I would sit in a classroom and be the only Black person, and that had never happened to me before. That was quite strange for me given the community I came from. However, I took that experience and many like it to move outside my comfort zone and connect with others to create different circles of friends and communities.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received as a student?
When I was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, I was finishing my dissertation, and I would do revision after revision after revision. One of my mentors from the University of Nebraska, Dr. John Creswell, said to me, ‘Denise—a good dissertation is a done dissertation.’ So, I heard the message loud and clear: when it comes to work, get it done!

As a student, what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
I went to Princeton for my master’s, and I applied for their program when I was in Chicago. I had a hold on my account because there was a bill I wasn’t able to pay just yet, and because I had a hold on my account, I couldn’t send my transcripts to complete my application. I had to find a way to resolve that problem. After talking with several people, they told me to go to the registrar’s office and ask if they would be willing to lift the hold. So, I took a deep breath, found out who the head of the registrar’s office was, and basically poured my heart out, and said, ‘I’m going to make sure I pay the bill. I’m working this summer to make sure I make enough money to take care of it… but I really need you to take this hold off so I can complete this application.’

So they took the hold off, I believe, for 24 hours, and I was able to purchase my transcript and have it sent off. All was done, all was well with the world… I still had the bill to pay, but I made sure to pay it, and I was really grateful they were willing to do that. What I learned from this experience is that you should at least try even when it seems impossible.

What teacher or professor had a profound impact on you?
When I went to high school, just about all my teachers were African-American, so I had many role models to look to. There was one teacher, Dr. Lucille Patterson, who was always there to encourage me in so many different ways. She was the one who encouraged me to do public speaking—to take the plunge and get into, not acting per se, but things that required interpretation of poetry or other ways of speaking to an audience. She also encouraged me to write, which was something no one else ever told me to do. Our teacher-student relationship influences me to this day, because she was always affirming—and helped me sharpen—my talents and skills.

What is your hometown?
Chicago, Illinois. Chi-Town!

What was the last book you read?
The Truth About Stories
by Thomas King. I thought it was a very interesting book. It’s about how stories really set the narrative and tone for the culture we want to have whether the story is accurate or not. Stories can portray particular people as champions or legends and completely overlook or make invisible those who made the difference. King’s book really helped inform the work I do, because narratives and stories are very important for truth-telling, and leading and directing an organization.

When and why did you decide to do the work you’re doing now?
I didn’t necessarily plan to be an executive-level equity officer—these kinds of positions didn’t even exist when I was growing up. But I always had a knack for getting myself involved in projects that would help support the community, and help elevate the importance of education. When I was in eighth grade, I was recruited into this program called Upward Bound, which is for first-generation students whose parents didn’t go to university. Really, I had no idea about what university was, but the longer I participated in this program, the more I saw the importance of education and how it transforms lives, families, and communities.  I think it was a natural trajectory for me to continue in education, and change these systems so that they benefit everyone.

What attracted you to this opportunity at Ryerson?
My family had travelled to Toronto during my doctoral program, and we’ve visited periodically. I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to work in Canada? Canada has its own kind of swagger going on.’

When I saw the ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education for the job at Ryerson, I showed it to my family, and we were very excited. I felt the position itself actually spoke to me—I thought it said, ‘Denise, this is your job.’ My whole family agreed I should apply.

When the position came around, I didn’t know anyone at Ryerson. But Ryerson was the university willing to create this new kind of role and that was a big plus for me.

You’ve been at Ryerson since 2012. What’s the best and/or most surprising thing you’ve learned about Ryerson in that time?
Initially Ryerson’s location in the heart of downtown Toronto was very surprising to me because I’d never visited the campus before. But since I’ve been at Ryerson, the best thing I’ve learned about Ryerson is its growing reputation as a city-builder, innovation university and one that is leading in the area of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Of all your personal and professional accomplishments, which ones are you most pleased with, or meant the most to you?
I’m going to go with a personal accomplishment. My family is here with me, and I strongly believe that our being here helps my husband and I provide our children with better opportunities. Both are now in their twenties.

I love the United States—that’s where we are from. There are a lot of challenges in the United States, obviously, and I think that given where things are going, this is absolutely the place where I want my children to be. One day they may decide to go back, but we’re very happy here. We became permanent residents in December 2015—I think that was a great accomplishment—and we’re all looking forward to becoming citizens.

What app or technology do you use the most?
Oh, it’s so sad—it’s my iPhone. It’s like an electronic tether.

Favourite movie?
The Wiz
! Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Michael Jackson, and Ted Ross.

Favourite place to travel?
Strangely enough, I like going to Ann Arbor, Michigan—even though that’s where I spent my doctoral program at U of M. I just love the place. There are lots of trees, and the feeling there is very nostalgic for me. If there was a place my family would move to if we were not living in Canada, Ann Arbor is probably where we would live.

What are your favourite things to do in your spare time?
I love listening to music. I love rhythm and blues, hip-hop, rap. Jill Scott, Erykah Badu… I can always listen to them and they always provide a really good vibe. I also love watching action and sci-fi movies, and even Marvel movies every now and then. Skip the melodrama and all that. Back to the Future—that’s one movie I can watch over and over.

What’s the one thing you’d like the Ryerson community to know about you?
I want people to know that I’m very approachable. Even though I’m a vice-president, I’m still the same person. I just feel that now that I am a vice-president, I might have a few more tools to help get some things done.

What is your vision for the office in the years to come?
My vision for the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, is that it’s no longer seen as something new, but has become an integral part of the university’s DNA. The way we look at policy development; the way we develop our curriculum; the way we go about hiring; the way we engage students—that it has truly become part of the fibre and culture of the organization.

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Denise O'Neil Green appointed university's first vice-president, equity and community inclusion