Landing the Interview: Belonging and Inclusion with Shanita Wilkins (EML’18) and Mackenzie Meadows (MiM’23)
Mackenzie Meadows (MiM’23) speaks with Shanita “Shani” Wilkins (EML’18), the chief diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) officer for the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Inspector General, to discuss how individuals and organizations can become more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible.
Behind Shanita “Shani” Wilkins’ impressive title is the tale of an impressive life. Having grown up on a family farm selling fruits and vegetables roadside and an immense love for dance and choreography, the horticulturalist-turned-executive once dreamt of a career as a dance choreographer. However, her mother and grandmother recognized and nurtured her budding leadership qualities, preparing her for her first job, at the age of 16, with the Secret Service.
After spending 28 years with the Secret Service, eventually serving as the acquisition program manager for the Technical Security Division, Wilkins briefly worked for the National Football League before joining the DOJ to actualize her passion for DEIA.
“People have their own definition of DEIA, and it revolves primarily around race,” Wilkins says. “However it includes not only recognizing racial differences, but also other aspects of these individuals—their physical abilities, thought processes, and backgrounds. Really the whole person and what they bring to the community that may not be considered in spaces.”
She draws her passion from her own childhood experience, not as an African American girl, but as a girl born with an underdeveloped ear. The difference in size was so prominent, she says, people often stopped, stared, and asked questions.
“Everyone at some point in their lives has felt like they didn’t belong, or didn’t matter, or weren’t accepted for who they really are,” she says. “It wasn’t until I went to school that I was confronted with feeling inadequate, not accepted, and not a part of a group. I recall how distanced that made me feel. How horrible it was to be othered,” Wilkins explains.
“It wasn’t until middle school that my hair grew long enough to cover my ear. And even though it did, I always felt like an imposter. I never ever forgot that. It would be awesome to say that the story of discrimination ended there, but those experiences were just replaced with being treated differently as an African American woman.”
Wilkins’ work focuses on how people are treated in organizations and how to institutionally repair justice. Her role includes providing resources and education to the community workforce and examining the systems that define the organization’s culture.
“My job is to expose that tendency of not examining your mindset and behavior. To get people to look beyond themselves and see people for who they are,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to provide training, resources, and dialogue to facilitate those thought changes. And to assess practices, systems, and culture that perpetuate the same notion. No one should have to work twice as hard to get what is available to everyone. They shouldn’t have to feel left out of opportunities or feel like they can’t contribute because of a difference they have.”
As chief diversity officers increasingly are becoming members of the leadership within institutions, Wilkins also looks back to her dancing days and the importance of the choreography of DEIA as the position and its responsibilities evolve and grow.
“My work incorporates people of different walks of life, experiences, and personalities, just as a dance choreographer utilizes dancers of varying sizes, abilities, and talent to present a dance of diversity that still works in unison,” she says.
“Building an organizational culture of community where people feel valued, supported, respected, and whole is the overarching goal of CDOs,” she adds. “Creating an environment where justice prevails gives everyone a chance to be successful. The little girl who didn’t feel accepted or valued, and felt like she didn’t belong, is here to make significant changes to turn that around, one organization at a time.”
This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2023 Magazine.