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Starting courageous dialogues

Asking the right questions has become one of Rumay Alexander’s greatest tools as she works to make Carolina a better and more inclusive community through her new role as special assistant to Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

Rumay Alexander leans against a wall with UNC campus in the background
Rumay Alexander was recently named special assistant to Chancellor Carol L. Folt. In her new role, Alexander is focusing on integrating initiatives across campus to accelerate diversity, inclusion, and family and work-life balance. (Photo by Jon Gardiner)

Rumay Alexander loves questions.

Her favorite one has always been “Why?”

The simple word leads to explanations, which can become understanding. But at the very least, it begins a discussion.

“It’s those kinds of questions that will allow us, as a community, to become more inclusive,” Alexander said. “It’s not that you have to know everything, but it’s about how we work on ourselves and have enough self-awareness to say ‘You know, I need to ask some questions because more than likely, unintentionally, I’m not thinking of something.’”

Asking the right questions has become one of Alexander’s greatest tools as she works to make the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a better and more inclusive community through her new role as special assistant to Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

Appointed as Folt’s special assistant last November, Alexander — who also serves as the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the School of Nursing — is using her new role to integrate initiatives across campus to accelerate diversity, inclusion, and family and work-life balance. She is working closely with the University’s Office of Workforce, Equity and Engagement, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and the Office of Student Affairs, among others.

“Rumay brings a deep understanding and an experienced perspective on how we can more effectively establish an inclusive community for every one of our students, faculty members and staff,” Folt said. “She already is bringing together organizations from across campus to assess current programs and develop new initiatives to fill important gaps and advance our University.”

Already the diversity lead for the Schools of Public Health and Dentistry, and the Chair of the Faculty Committee on Community and Diversity, Alexander’s new position is the most recent stop in her long journey of building inclusive environments.

Navigating Tennessee

Alexander grew up in the small western-Tennessee town of Humboldt, where white and black residents were divided by a single train track. There, she quickly learned how to read her environment — and to build a personal grit that would help beat circumstances designed to set her up for failure.

As a sixth grader, Alexander begged her parents to let her and her younger sister join the 25 African-American students who would integrate the local all-white school. Although her parents were nervous – they well knew their daughter’s knack for confronting wrongs – they ultimately agreed.

“I was walking into a very dangerous space,” she said. “I was navigating that space as somebody who was intentionally educated inferior to my white counterparts.”

Not only were older students physically abusive — sometimes pushing the middle-schooler into lockers or down the stairs — Alexander said she was put in a situation created to make her fail in the classroom as well.

For years, Alexander had been learning by using outdated textbooks — the ones passed down to her school after the all-white school received updated books. She immediately went from an honor roll student to D’s.

It took her a year of staying up until 3 in the morning, then getting extra help from teachers, before she caught up with her classmates.

But she did.

“This is what you’ve got to do,” she remembers telling herself at the time. “You just have to do this if you are going to achieve your hopes, dreams and aspirations.”

After high school, Alexander attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She went on to receive a master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and then a doctorate in education from Tennessee State University.

“I loved everything about what nurses did,” she said. “That was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’m a nurse and proud of it. … I’ve taken care of patients and advocated for them, I’ve been at the bedside, I’ve been a nurse supervisor and I’ve been faculty.”

A huge chunk of Alexander’s work also has been in the public policy arena. In 1981, she became the senior vice president of the Tennessee Hospital Association. As the only nurse, the youngest vice president and the only person of color in the association, Alexander was a triple-minority at the white-male dominated organization.

There, she made her next big push into creating inclusion.

“When you have been considered ‘the least and not one with legitimate standing on the rungs of humanity,‘ you can speak about the lived experience and impact of such a label,” she said.

Representing those who provided hands-on care, Alexander’s job was to bring the needs of the nurses’ and others care providers’ concerns to the forefront of hospital issues.

“My position was often one of ‘How do I help [the association and its members] understand they’re not being inclusive or that there are other perspectives to consider?’” she said. “They were very well-meaning, very smart and intelligent individuals, but what you don’t know, you don’t know. Part of my job was to put the wicked questions on the table and allow a safe way for people to respond and then to facilitate the courageous dialogues around intended and unintended consequences. “

Fostering human flourishing in Chapel Hill

For 21 years, Alexander ignited those inclusive conversations with the Tennessee Hospital Association. Then in 2003, she brought her skillset to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Alexander has served as the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the School of Nursing for more than a decade, leading diversity programs such as retention of faculty, students and staff, and a diversity discussion series.

“I believe that success is transferable,” she said. “If something works over here, what parts of that can work in this place? My worlds all blend. I will pull from all those places and all those experiences.”

And now, what worked for her in Tennessee and in the School of Nursing is being put into practice campus-wide: making sure everybody is represented in decision-making and having what Alexander calls “courageous dialogues”.

These dialogues, she said, begin with asking questions and learning to understand perspectives outside one’s own.

“Most people, when you ask them about diversity, they give you the dimensions of diversity — how we differ,” Alexander said. “That becomes race, ethnicity, physical abilities, gender, sexuality and you can go on and on. But that’s how we manifest differences often referred to ‘diversity of presence.’ I define diversity as holding multiple perspectives without judgment. It’s the judgment part that gets us in trouble.”

By coming to a better understanding of what people know and what they don’t know, Alexander said, positive strides can be made. That’s why she hopes viewpoints from throughout the Carolina community can help mold diversity goals — and make an impact on the retention and recruiting of minority faculty and other coordinated initiatives across campus.

It all begins by using her favorite question: “Why?”

“My overarching goal is ‘human flourishing,’” she said. “That’s for faculty, that’s for staff, that’s for students. When we better understand, we can help others flourish.”