A Quaker who attends at Swarthmore and Central Philadelphia Monthly Meetings, Terry Nance, Ph.D., has been a part of Villanova University’s faculty for over four decades, working actively to build diversity, equity, and inclusion among students and within the University’s systems. In July 2020, she was named the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), while continuing to serve the institution as Chief Diversity Officer.
With Terry, there is also a spiritual dimension to her work. In general, Friends hold spiritual growth to be an essential part of life, and they value education as integral to both knowledge and a sense of wholeness. While Terry’s academic career began in communications, that need for spiritual depth helped shape her focus when it came to addressing painful realities of inequality. Terry’s work is deeply informed by her Quaker beliefs, and this framework has been helpful as she leads the Aequitas: Presidential Task Force on Race to assess Villanova’s campus’s racial climate.
How has being a Quaker impacted your views?
I think one of the things I have always said is that because I am on a number of different Quaker boards, I have learned what it means to be a good administrator at my Catholic institution.
The process of discerning the will of the committee, or the group, for the good of the institution is so important. Also, understanding the place of faith in education is so important. I really think that this is what I learned by being on Quaker boards. It’s helped me in my job.
The other thing is…the sense of being guided by a spiritual presence. It is difficult when you’re the only person in your institution who has your job title. I’m the Chief Diversity Officer, and for a long time, my office was me, and maybe one or two other persons. We have now grown beyond that. It is important for me to have a guiding spiritual presence in my life, especially as I do the work of equity and justice in my institution.
For me, that’s what it’s meant to be a Quaker. Also, many times, to remember that there is that of God everyone, even when they’re working my last nerve.
What is your hope for the future generations in the community, and how is change best facilitated?
My hope for future generations is that they recognize the role of race in what is around them.
Today we are really understanding that saying “I don’t see race” is actually problematic. It is denying an essential part of a person. I hope future generations understand the role of race in all that they do. And then, with that understanding, see the role of race in creating inequitable outcomes that we must address. If we mean to move toward a culture that affords equal and equitable opportunities for everyone, then we must start by honestly seeing the inequities around us.
What does being a Quaker mean to you?
It means being in a personal relationship with God, the spiritual being. I could even say, ‘being in a relationship with the spiritual side of me.’
I think there’s so much going on the outside, so much noise in the world. In my work, that ‘outside” is often coming at me. And not always in the friendliest fashion! So it’s very important that I am able to take time, center, and ask: What it is that I am doing and why I’m doing it? And to never forget what is located inside a person.
As an educator focused on diversity, what motivates you your drive for change?
I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. I know that is so true.
My great grandfather was enslaved in Virginia. And, as the story goes, this ancestor (named Jeff) was a large light-skinned black man who was given a job in the big house to stay with the children and guard the children. That meant that he often would go to classes with the children, and as a result, he learned to read.
That was an offense, and for his offense in learning how to read, he was thrown into an ox cart and shipped off to rural Mississippi to work in the fields. As the story goes, it wasn’t all bad, because there he met Mariah.
Mariah was known to be very feisty and got herself in lots of fights, and she got thrown out (by her enslavers)…and she was also in the oxcart.
What was interesting was that Jeff taught Mariah how to read and write, and they were ultimately married.
So you can see education was very big in their lives.
My grandfather actually placed into Alcorn State College when he was very young (still in High School); that was the way it was, then. So I’m actually a third-generation college graduate!
Even though my family did not have wealth, we always had education. The role of education in life is very dear to me. I know that it has made the lives of my family through the generations not only bearable but rich with knowledge, tradition, and reverence for what has gone on in the past.
I want to be able to share that, especially with the students I see today. In many ways, they are enduring many of the same oppressions that my ancestors did.
I look at my teaching not only as a vocation but as the debt that I owe to my ancestors.
As a culture, as a nation, we need to recognize the importance of education. It is a powerful motivator to me and for others as well.
2020 started an impactful conversation about race and how it has shaped American society. How do you see the community continuing the dialogue?
Well … the hope is that we’re able to have a conversation that moves from platitudes to authentic emotion and experience. I think one of the things that we have to guard against is the script “I know I’m a good person. I know that you know I marched and picketed for all the right causes.”
Antiracism asks us to go even deeper than those actions. Antiracism asks us to look hard at what we believe and to recognize that there is racism inside of us; it can’t help but be there because the culture that taught us … nurtured us, has racism in its roots.
Recognizing that becomes really important.
I have been very moved by Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist and the fact that he actually begins his book by looking at himself and calling himself out, you know, and saying, “this was racist inside me:” I think that that’s that’s the way to move the conversation forward.
Too often, I have been in conversations where people are telling me what I feel as a black woman!
Maybe what I would conclude here is that what I would hope–as we move from 2020 to 2021–(is that when it comes to) the dialogues about race, we learn how to be quiet.
To sit in stillness and listen.
Not just with our ears, but with our whole hearts! With our whole spirits! Listen to the experiences of those whose stories are not our own. If we can do that, we can truly begin the journey toward authentic empathy.
Part II of the interview will run next week.