Part of the University of Wyoming's mission is to value and nurture diversity. But that's hard to do when the university struggles to attract and retain faculty and administrators of color. To help, Dr. Emily Monago was hired as UW's chief diversity officer three years ago.
"I couldn't have made a better decision or a better choice," said Monago.
She loves her work and the perks of living in Laramie.
"I have a wonderful view of snow capped mountains," said Monago. "It's just beautiful."
But when the job announcement went out she almost let it pass her by.
"It was a colleague of mine, and she said, 'Have you read this job announcement at the University of Wyoming? It sounds like everything you've been talking about.'" Monago told her, "I saw it, but I didn't read it."
Monago didn't read it because as a Black woman living in a diverse part of Ohio, it was hard for her to imagine moving to Wyoming.
"It's just like, how does life work there when I'm not going to see many people who look like me or find the things that I'm used to finding easily?"
In her role as chief diversity officer, Monago has heard similar concerns from people of color considering jobs at UW. It's hard to move to a new place and realize the pharmacy doesn't carry makeup for your skin tone in its beauty aisle or there's no one who can cut and style your hair.
"It doesn't feel very welcoming," Monago said. "And it's not on the radar of a lot of people."
But when Monago arrived in 2017, her job was to change that and get inclusivity and diversity on UW's radar.
Study after study have shown that diversity leads to more creative and innovative thinking. McKinsey & Company's 2015 study of more than 1,000 companies in 15 countries found that businesses with more diverse leadership were more likely to have above average profits. Diversity was included in UW's strategic plan with innovation in mind, and Monago added because it benefits all students, including those who are White.
"Our students are going to work all over the world, and they are going to have to engage with people outside of the state of Wyoming," she said. "So it's very important that we provide those opportunities for cultural competence; to develop that."
But UW still has a lot of work to do. Monago said the student population is more diverse than faculty and staff diversity.
"13 percent of UW students are under-represented racial minorities, but only 10 percent of employees are," said Monago. UW Professor Jacquelyn Bridgeman said Wyoming's reputation doesn't help.
"A lot of folks equate us with places in the South and white supremacist places," said Bridgeman. "And then you throw in the Matthew Shepard incident on top of that."
Bridgeman directs UW's school of Culture, Gender & Social Justice, and serves on a campus committee to improve recruitment and retention of faculty of color. She's Black and grew up in Laramie.
"We're actually more diverse . . . than we were when I grew up as a kid," said Bridgeman. "It's actually changed quite a bit."
Yet racism prevails, and Bridgeman said unless Wyoming deals with that, it will continue to drive talented people away.
"It's a huge issue. We lost one of our really good faculty members. He moved to New York. He loved it at the university. He felt included, it was great, he loved his job, he had lots of good friends." But Bridgemen said, "his kids were getting bullied at Laramie High School."
Bridgeman said her colleague moved to protect his family. This is just one example of many told to Wyoming Public Radio.
A 2019 campus climate survey revealed that 17 percent of respondents had considered leaving because their children or a member of their household have not felt welcome or included in the local community.
Dr. Monago said her office is also working to address racism off-campus. She said a community engagement committee has done things like partner with local schools to address bullying. But change takes time. Monago said that's why UW needs to be upfront with new hires about the challenges they're likely to face.
"We don't want to sell something that doesn't exist, so we thought it was very important to put together our own type of onboarding and welcoming packet," said Monago. It's for all employees, but it has information in there specifically for communities of color."
That includes the location of the closest African and Asian markets in Colorado and suggestions for Black barbershops and where to get braids. "There also had to be that honesty there, that you will run into people who haven't been around much diversity, and maybe don't care to be around much diversity," Monago said.
Given that reality, she said ongoing support is critical. Last fall UW launched several employee networks. Christi Carter coordinates the effort.
"The employee networks create that environment for people to come together, talk about issues," and Carter said that happens through "social gatherings, community building, professional development, and mentoring."
There are currently six networks: for African American and Black employees, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Native American and Indigenous people, LGBTQ+, LatinX, as well as a women's group. And Carter said an additional network for people with disabilities is starting up.
"It created that place where it was safe," said Carter. "It's okay to share frustration, and you are not alone."
Jacquelyn Bridgeman knows from growing up here and working at UW that a sense of support and inclusion needs to extend beyond campus.
"Especially in a place like Wyoming, I think it's going to have to almost be a statewide effort," said Bridgeman. "It's easier for us to recruit at the university if the rest of Wyoming is inclusive and supportive."