Assistant Vice President and Director of The Butler Center Paul Buckley is very clear about his office’s goals.
“We want every student who graduates from this place to graduate with their human dignity intact, and with a greater understanding of themselves, the other — whoever the other is — and the world.”
A complex task, for sure, but that’s just the nature of the business when your primary business is acting as a hub of diversity, inclusion, intercultural exchange, equity, and empowerment for the Colorado College community.
Established in 2014 and named for one of CC’s earliest African American alumni, Ellis Ulysses Butler Jr. ’40, The Butler Center is a paradigm shift from its precursor office, the Office of Minority and International Students (OMIS).
As Mohammad Mia ’16, who serves as a Butler Center “Heads of State” representative to student government, explains, “I think OMIS was inclusive for minority and international students, but it was mainly focused on, ‘OK, the minority and international students aren’t as happy here as they could be. … Let’s make sure they feel included.’
“The Butler Center is more about creating and fostering an inclusive campus,” he says. “Definitely far more strategic in creating more comprehensive approaches that are focused on a lot of things — from housing, to food options, to mentoring services, to many different layered approaches to understanding the needs of students of color and students on campus — to ensure that it’s not just a Band-Aid solution, but a comprehensive one.”
“Where there’s tension, we move toward it,” Buckley says. “We see that as where the work is.”
It’s the type of work that Buckley has been doing for two decades. Before CC hired him in June 2014 as the first director, the higher-ed professional had held a variety of leadership positions in academic, student, and multi-cultural affairs, most recently as assistant dean of undergraduates at Dartmouth College. Buckley earned his doctor of philosophy degree from Syracuse University’s School of Education, where his emphasis was on cultural foundations of education
“The sweet spot for me is doing diversity work,” Buckley says. “Being our best selves always involves being our best to others, giving our best to others.”
The process of it, he adds, is a journey — a word he likes to use a lot because he thinks it’s important for individuals and institutions to have a sense that this is challenging work.
“It cuts across the grain of what America is, right? When we talk about diversity and inclusion, it’s futuristic work so we’re working toward some kind of an aspiration, which means change,” he says. “And change, though we may want it, it’s hard. People want change, but people do not want to be changed.”
Change, as he continues, always involves some level of discomfort, but it’s necessary and opens avenues to self-reflection.
“One of the things we learn from a process of change is that we are incomplete. And that can be challenging because we thought that we were complete. We learn we’re not perfect. We learn that we can improve. And we get clarity about our identity. We realize our identity is shifting.”
It’s a place the campus has found itself after an incident that occurred last fall involving racist posts by CC students on the popular social media app Yik Yak. As Buckley explains, while what happened on Yik Yak was certainly in and of itself hurtful to some members of the CC community, and created a lot of confusion for the entire community, that event is not singular — instead it’s a reflection of many other things happening on campus.
“It reflects some ideologies within our community that we had not faced,” Buckley says. “It reflects how well people felt they had to mask in face-to-face interactions. And how anonymity allowed for some freer expression without thinking about consequences.”
The Butler Center found itself in a unique role, he explains: responding to those who were hurt, and also engaging the campus to better understand itself and to understand that there are some issues to work through. They did this primarily through open dialogue sessions to help model healthy communication and offer opportunities for reflection and healing.
“When there are moments of tension on campus,” Buckley says, “it is our role to facilitate an understanding of that tension to help educate around the dynamics and the issues that created that tension, as well as to help us work through it. We do not seek to mask it or to cover it up or to sweep it under a rug.”
Buckley’s day-to-day activities include everything from meeting one-on-one with students, faculty, and staff, to brainstorming with the other three Butler Center staff on how to engage the campus, to mentoring and advising one of 15 cultural, political, and artistic student “Butler Groups.”
The newest group, AMUN, is named for the ancient Egyptian god of creation; the acronym stands for Artists and Makers of Undying Nobility. Co-founder Tia Phillip ’18 explains that it was the Yik Yak incident that pushed her and four friends to organize this group specifically for those who identify as people of color and creatives or artists.
“I and one of the co-founders, we looked at each other and said, ‘I don’t know how to talk about what it is that I’m feeling.’ And so she wrote a song about it. I made a short film about it. And we didn’t share it with anybody but each other. But it was nice to be able to express in a way that was expressible,” Phillip says. “We wanted this space to be able to be creative and expressive in a way that might not be easily understood or easily communicated using our words.”
The Butler Center’s work also involves facilitating institutional-level change. Take, for instance, inclusive language on campus. Recently a collaboration with Human Resources allowed students, faculty, staff,and alumni to make changes in their identity categories in CC’s main database Banner, particularly around race and gender. One example is the switch from a male/ female-only selection to the option for an individual to identify as male, female, nonbinary, or transgender.
Buckley smiles when asked what the best part of his job is.
“This is work that is about relationship and community building. So it’s work that is not only for the present, but it’s also for the future.”