Terminated: This DEI Director Was Fired After Challenging the Status Quo

Terminated: This DEI Director Was Fired After Challenging the Status Quo
Tabia Lee, a founding member of Free Black Thought and a former director of the Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education at De Anza College, poses for a photo in Washington on July 6, 2023.(Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times) (Tabia
Jan Jekielek
Jeff Minick
In a recent episode of "American Thought Leaders," host Jan Jekielek spoke with Tabia Lee about her heterodox approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the difference between classical and critical social justice, and what it means to practice genuine inclusion. In 2021, Ms. Lee was hired to direct De Anza College’s Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education, and to reduce the wokeness of the institution. Two years later, she was terminated for her support for classical social justice and her inquiry-based approach to DEI.
Jan Jekielek: I read your article in Compact Magazine where you describe your experience as the DEI director at De Anza College. You were hired because the administration was worried that things had gotten too woke, and you were invited to come in and deal with that. How is your DEI approach different from the one that dominates today?
Dr. Lee:  After a rigorous interview process, I was selected to be their faculty director for the Office of Equity, Social Justice ,and Multicultural Education. During the interview, they said, "This DEI office is a little too woke and we’re looking for someone to rein that in." When I asked what they meant, they said, "When faculty visit that office, they’re often accused of being racist. They’re told that they’re practicing racist pedagogy, that their teaching and their beliefs are wrong. It makes people uncomfortable, and they don't want to use the office as a resource."

I came into the position with a classical approach to social justice. My office mates and some of the people in leadership were working from what I identified as critical social justice. The two are very different in terms of their outcomes for society.

For example, classical social justice manifests things like equality of opportunity. That's very different from critical social justice, which emphasizes equal outcomes.

I would add that woke sees racism as systemic and present in every interaction. When our academic senate was drafting a resolution on racial healing, one of the lines was, "We acknowledge that America is a systemically racist country, and that it's founded on white supremacy.

I said, "I'm one of the people saying we're founded on fairness and equality. We can debate whether we've lived up to that, but to say we're founded on white supremacy and that racism is everywhere and systemic, that's problematic.”

That was the path I took, bringing people together to talk about what we mean by certain terms, so that we could all get on the same page and best serve our students. Even with different perspectives, we could identify some points of commonality.

Mr. Jekielek: I wish more people took that approach.
Dr. Lee: In an academic institution, we should be engaging colleagues with diverse viewpoints. That's how we sharpen ourselves as individuals and as an institution.

We had a women, gender, and sexuality center on our campus. The coordinator for that office was saying that white faculty felt uncomfortable coming there.

My team and my supervising dean said, "What are you going to do about it?" They said, "We're not going to do anything. This is how we've structured this office. It's for BIPOC. That’s who’s welcome here." BIPOC means Black, indigenous, and people of color. I told them, "From my perspective, we're a public school. Anyone should be able to come to the center. It shouldn’t be about race."

Once one of the staff said, "Stop what you're doing right now. What you're doing is white speaking and whitesplaining. You're being a white supremacist." Everyone else on the team had these smug looks on their faces. From that moment on, every action I took was a confirmation of their idea, "She's a white supremacist."

I thought, "How dare they call me that? I'm a black woman, and I'm being called a white supremacist.” That had never happened in my entire teaching career. Not only that, I had never seen teachers calling each other names that way.

I’ve always told my students that to be a successful, they needed to be on time, to be objective, and to be curious. Now those qualities are relegated to whiteness. What does that say about the people promoting this? That people of color are not those things? That we’re not supposed to be objective or on time?

I didn't want to talk about being a victim and oppressed, or about grievances. But we're being made to focus on that because a small minority are intimidating bullies. They’re subverting the system to advance this toxic ideology.

Mr. Jekielek:  What’s next for you?
Dr. Lee: When I decided to go public, I conferred with my mentors. They told me, "If you talk about this, you won’t get another tenure track position in California. You’d have to move to another state."

I had to weigh that, because I have a family and all the things I'm working on career-wise. And the consequence is that I’ve lost a lot—my job and livelihood, and the tenure track position.

But what I've gained is so many people saying, "You inspired me to ask about my equity policy. You inspired me to go into my child's school and ask to see that curriculum, and to make a Public Records Act request if people aren't forthcoming with the information. You've inspired me to push back." To me, that’s worth everything, because that is what it’s going to take to get our nation back.

Mr. Jekielek: What would be your suggestions to anyone concerned about these realities in our society today?
Dr. Lee: I would love to see us embrace intellectual humility, the idea that no one has all the answers. No one has the magic solution. We need to get back to learning from one another, being able to disagree with someone, but still working with that person.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show "American Thought Leaders." Jekielek’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009, he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He was an executive producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."
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