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Meet Grinnell’s next Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Schvalla Rivera

Dr. Schvalla Rivera is the College’s new Chief Diversity Officer. Photo contributed by Grinnell College.

Dr. Schvalla Rivera will assume the role of chief diversity officer and associate vice president of diversity and inclusion and senior advisor to the president on July 1. She replaces Dr. Lakesia Johnson, who will return to faculty service. Rivera previously served as the assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion at Southern Utah University.

The S&B’s Wini Austin spoke with Rivera about her work and her move to Grinnell. Their conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.


Wini Austin: To start, I just wanted to ask if you could go over the different positions that you’re taking on [at] Grinnell and what they mean for the administration.

Dr. Schvalla Rivera: As Chief Diversity Officer, that is being an advisor for colleges and procedures for the entire university, working with faculty and staff. I love helping faculty with creative ways of how to diversify their curriculums, working with staff on how to diversify their programming for students. I’ll be working with Human Resources to help with hiring practices and helping Grinnell to become more diverse. So, those are some of the things that I’ll be doing, and advising Dr. Harris and also the new president on, again, policies, procedures, responses to bias-related incidents that may occur on campus or in the community, so those are some of the things that I will be doing, helping to strategically move forward with a plan.

I know that you’ve been doing higher ed admin work for a long time. What drew you to education in the first place and particularly diversity and equity work?

Well, my mom was an educator, specifically special education. So, I was always around people who were teachers on some level in my life, and I just have always been interested, even when I was a kid, in education and also law and policy. It’s pretty interesting that I turned out to have a job that kind of involves both!

My family was also a foster family, so that’s where the diversity and inclusion comes in. My mom – her friends were from all over the world and she encouraged all of us to have diverse friends and to accept and love people for who they are. And so when my mom sat us down and asked if we were on board to become a foster family and help children in need, we talked about it as a family and we were all on board. Our family was involved in training to learn how to care for special needs children, whether that was physically or emotionally. Just being able to welcome kids as a kid into our family, that started my journey. I didn’t realize there was a name for it, I just knew that it was important to love people and make people feel like they have a family. That’s how I was raised, and that is how I approach my work even now.

Considering that there have been so many heightened conversations and a national crisis of systemic racism and white supremacy that we’re all very aware of right now, do you think it will inform any of the work you’ll be doing at Grinnell, change it at all?

Good question. It’s a yes and a no.

I think I will always fight for the underdog, that’s how my parents raised me, and I’m an eternal optimist. But my work has to change and evolve. It can’t stay the same. Diversity, equity and inclusion issues will change. One day, the groups who are oppressed today, they will 100 years

from now not be the same group. There will always be new groups of vulnerable people who need advocacy and need help and so, that is what encourages me and pushes me to continue to learn more and grow in my work. My work won’t stay the same because as human beings, we grow and evolve and I have to be agile enough to evolve with that. …

I think that coming up on this election year, even before Covid and even before George Floyd and the protests this summer, 2020 was going to be a politically and socially contentious year anyway. I have been preparing for that since 2016, honestly, and I knew that that part was going to be on the horizon. I think that I definitely will encourage courageous conversation. Some say “difficult conversations”, but I think we need to be brave enough to address the issue, the social, political, economic issues that we have going on, so that we can be better, and I’m really excited to be a part of that.

What do you think diversity and equity work will look like at Grinnell this year considering the extreme circumstances and how there’s so many barriers to in-person interactions and all of these inequalities have been exacerbated by the coronavirus? Do you have any lessons that you’ve learned this spring that you might bring to Grinnell in the fall?

I can’t give you a full picture of what everything is going to look like, because I haven’t joined the staff yet, so of course my perception and my information … will change as I get more information and experience. But I can say that we have a wonderful opportunity to expand conversation and also learning.

In our training modules for diversity and inclusion and education sessions, I have found that many faculty and staff have felt more free communicating through Zoom, and maybe it’s because they don’t feel judged being in a room with other people looking at them. You know, it’s the fear of “What if I say the wrong thing?” or “What if I’m wrong?” … Faculty and staff are seeming to become more free, because they are at home and they are in front of the computer, and so they’re asking really great questions, at least in my experience here, and they’re participating at a level that I haven’t experienced the entire time that I’ve been here. … I mentioned that to the search committee and that is something that I will continue to do in addition to in-person educational opportunities, continue to offer opportunities to learn via Zoom or whatever online platform we will use at Grinnell.

It’s really interesting to hear that more positive outlook on it. There’s been a lot of discussion here about this idea that colleges have for so long given students a more equal playing field, everyone having access to the same resources – it’s a concern for half of the students learning remotely and having variable internet access and life circumstances.

We have been having those conversations here, and those conversations are going on around the country. Access and opportunity – those are very important. I think that part of my role is to shine a light on those disparities and to help create those opportunities, whether that is working with regional internet service providers to ask them to give discounted or free internet access. That’s what’s going on down here, many of our service providers gave free internet access to all students until the end of the semester … and they extended it for summer courses. So, having those conversations with partners in the community and also on campus to strategize with how we can serve vulnerable populations, let’s identify them and let’s try to meet their needs. I will be a part of those conversations.

What drew you to Grinnell?

I actually am a graduate of a liberal arts college. I went to a women’s college, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. … So I have a love for the liberal arts. I love the challenge of it. I love that my faculty members challenged me and it made me want to dig into my books and research so that the next college I could come back and carry on the conversation. I love that environment that’s created at liberal arts colleges, and I look forward to asking those hard questions and us looking for those not easy answers together. I love that! I love the challenge of it, and I will challenge you as students, faculty and staff to think harder. It’s not a judgement when I ask questions.

If you get to know me, I honestly am curious about the thought process, and that goes into equity and inclusion because I like to assume good intentions. So if I ask someone why they think what they think, I’m trying to learn more so that I can understand their perspective, because I want to understand truly how and why they think what they think.

I am familiar with the Associated Colleges of the Midwest because I worked at Cornell College, your neighbors to the East, in the past, and I had an opportunity to meet some of your faculty and some of your students at various events, and Grinnell has an excellent reputation and I’m really excited to work with you.

Well, thank you for joining us.

Thank you! So if I can ask you, what do you love about Grinnell, what do you like about it, and what keeps you there?

Well, I think what originally drew me to Grinnell was I am from the East Coast and I came [from] a very academically competitive atmosphere, and when I was talking to students at Grinnell, I felt like it was a place that had more of a collaborative environment. I really felt like it was a non-judgmental place where it was just a bunch of really curious people coming together. It’s been really lovely to get out of my comfort zone. And I’m an anthropology major, so that’s been a really interesting field to be in here.

That’s awesome. One of my majors was social science, so I studied a little bit of all the social sciences, and I loved anthropology and it’s so interesting.

If I was going to get another doctorate, I would actually love to work on creating a new major, because I don’t think it exists. I love, of course, diversity, equity and inclusion, and I love religious studies. So I would want to study biblical anthropology because it gets into, you know, unmasking how systemic racism is in religion, particularly how it has infiltrated Christianity, but it wasn’t always that way. I study it on my own and I look at the Bible from a historic and anthropological standpoint, and it’s so fascinating and encouraging and I love to have conversations with people about it to let them know that, yes, people who look like you are a part of our religion. What we think about as Christianity, these false pictures and stuff like that, and so I would love to have a major or doctorate in this creative subject that I like to call biblical anthropology.

Wow, do you have any recommendations? What do you use to research that?

I just use my cultural lens. There are a lot of preachers in my family, so when I study I have a map that I pull out. When it [the Bible] names a city, I like to get a visual picture of, this is where this is in the world and this is what the people look like, and I try to erase images from my mind, so I encourage you to do that. When you talk about all of these different places, think of it outside of a Eurocentric viewpoint and your mind will be so open.

I think a lot of people that have walked away from Christianity because they don’t see themselves in it, they don’t see themselves because they are seeing Christianity through a Eurocentric and also, frankly, racist viewpoint. They’re not seeing a historically accurate version of what they’re reading on paper.

And it’s the same thing for gender! I love studying the powerful women leaders in the Bible. They exist. I’m doing a study right now with a group – we’re studying Deborah and Esther. Esther, from a political science point of view, is brilliant, but how many people look at it that way? It’s because we look at it from a male patriarchy and also from a very Eurocentric point of view. But if you step out of that side of that, there’s amazing things that you can discover.

You know, that’s reminding me, I took a course called Religion, Philosophy and the Good Life this semester, and we read [Christian philosopher] Rowan Williams, who just kind of tears apart the idea that the sexuality that’s written about in the Bible would condemn homosexuality at all … I think with biblical anthropology, there’s so much there.

If you think about gender, and being nonbinary, if you think about the people they called eunuchs a long time ago, and how they held advisory positions and they moved in and out of society, so what we think of as a new concept today existed thousands of years ago. These people were recognized in society. They had a third gender. So, yeah, we need to look at things from a new viewpoint. And that’s what I love to do! I love to ask questions.

Well, it’s been wonderful talking to you and getting to meet you, Dr. Rivera.

Well, thank you, and I look forward to meeting you on campus whenever that is going to happen.

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