Please welcome the newest member of the Matthaei-Nichols team, Ivana Lopez-Espinosa. Ivana joins us as the DEI manager (diversity, equity, and inclusion). She most recently worked at the Edward Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan, where she was the equity audit co-lead. In this Q&A, Ivana talks about what led her to Matthaei-Nichols, what DEI means to her, and what she hopes to bring to our organization.
Please talk about the personal and professional journey that led you to the DEI manager position at Matthaei. What spoke to you about the job?
My passion for social and environmental justice developed from a young age however it wasn’t inherent. Growing up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with my identities and community, I became painfully aware of the injustices embedded within education, health, and daily life. I have wrestled with my existence as an undocumented DACA beneficiary, queer, Mexican woman in predominantly white and socio-political conservative spaces. My lived experiences allowed me to develop a curiosity for how the world functioned and why people are the way they are. Ultimately, this led me to studying sociology, and later higher education.
To be transparent, I didn’t know DEI careers in higher education existed. It wasn’t until I started working with the Chief Diversity Officer at Gettysburg College that I became aware of DEI in higher education and the impact that these positions had in moving towards justice-centered environments. This opportunity was pivotal to my professional career and personal life. During this time, I worked alongside amazing student activists, staff, faculty, and now alumni to challenge the existing structure of Gettysburg College. Before joining Matthaei-Nichols, I served as the equity audit co-lead for the Edward Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan. This experience allowed me to interrogate community-university centers and think about the equity that is necessary to have long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.
I was very excited about the DEI Manager position at Matthaei-Nichols because it combines my love for community, knowledge, and the earth while utilizing my power and privilege to advocate for equitable justice. The opportunity to question value structures and position equity and justice as catalysts to build the organization’s future spoke to me the most as I applied for this position. It is important to incorporate DEI into an organization’s infrastructure because it means that the organization values and is actively working to combat larger systems of oppression.
DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, is something we hear a lot about today. What does DEI mean to you, and why is it important?
This is a great and complicated question for a plethora of reasons. To me, DEI means understanding the oppressive and exclusionary foundations of society in order to create spaces that strive to eradicate systemic and structural oppression. In my experience, DEI is not enough and it is a term that institutions of higher education have adopted without questioning the intersections of power and oppression—which is necessary to thoroughly understand diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI is important and long overdue. As I continue to do DEI work in higher education, it is important to me to uphold equity as central to advancing social change and incorporate justice and accessibility. Recognizing DEI within all facets of an organization is crucial to advancing social and environmental justice. Although DEI is focused on student/staff programming, it is important that DEI is embedded within all aspects of our organization from policies and practices to community and visitor engagement. DEI can be scary because it challenges how we were taught to understand the world; my goal is to work with members of Matthaei-Nichols to exist in comfortable discomfort and to make DEI digestible and a part of our everyday lives.
A DEI manager is a first for Matthaei-Nichols. What do you see as your role in the context of a botanical garden, one that is both a public space and a university department?
I envision the role of the DEI Manager at Matthaei-Nichols as functioning in multiple capacities. When we think about our organization as a public space, it is important that the DEI manager understands community and visitor experiences from the lens of accessibility, knowledge creation, and storytelling. As a university department, it is critical to embed DEI within the infrastructure, such as policies and practices, and culture. We are an ecosystem and it is important that we recognize the role that everyone has in flourishing an environment that values diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and justice.
What are some of your first priorities for Matthaei-Nichols as DEI manager?
That’s a difficult question because I don’t want to come off as ranking priorities, there is no goal more important than another one because they are all important. I’d say my “first” priority is listening; it’s exceptionally important to gain a thorough understanding of the existing relationships, tensions, norms of interaction, and student/staff/community level of comfort. Without understanding the multiplicity of power dynamics at play and constraints, it’s difficult to approach DEI work in a meaningful way.
Having the perspective of a DEI person really opens the door to a lot of possibilities. What do you hope to bring to Matthaei-Nichols that we might not have thought of before?
DEI work rarely involves coming up with “new” ideas, but rather tapping into the existing infrastructure and conversations already happening within communities outside of our own and adapting our resulting long-term strategies to reflect those needs and make Matthaei-Nichols more equitable for all. I am excited to be able to weave DEI into all of our areas, from our internal to external projects. I am looking forward to critically analyzing the organization to improve our accessibility and foster endearing, sustainable relationships with a variety of community organizations and Anishinaabeg communities.
Engagement with all of our communities would be a big part of our DEI efforts. You’ve said that your passion for community engagement began at the Painted Turtle Farm in your hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Please talk about Painted Turtle Farm and how that experience inspired your later and current work.
I cannot emphasize how important La Tortuga Pintada is to my passion for community engagement and food justice; however it is important that I mention that the Painted Turtle Farm is not my driving force for community engagement, but rather Casa de la Cultura. Casa, as it is colloquially called, is a community organization that works with the Painted Turtle Farm. The farm itself is a project where families from Casa can participate. Casa is focused on promoting and advocating for the cultural rights of immigrant communities through community activities and collaborations with governmental, academic, and community partners. Although they are separate organizations, they are both closely connected with the work that they do. I hold the Painted Turtle Farm close, and Casa even closer, to my heart because it was one of the first projects that catapulted both organizations into what they are today.
The Painted Turtle Farm is an organic student garden at Gettysburg College that was founded in 2005-2006 as a result of a senior project. My involvement started in 2013 when the farm turned into a community garden for food justice. I had the opportunity to watch my parents, specifically my mother, and several community members become leaders in developing a space for our undocumented/mixed-status families. Witnessing the challenges and barriers, as well as successes, that community leaders face when working with colleges and universities inspired the work I do today. There is so much knowledge and passion that communities have that is often overlooked or devalued when working with privileged institutions such as a college or university. My time working alongside amazing community leaders drives me to interrogate how and why colleges and universities work with communities, and how to best honor and respect the knowledge and power that exists within the community.
What’s your favorite nature activity?
My favorite nature activity is kayaking or hiking! Growing up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I didn’t have access to bodies of water to kayak often, however I had endless amounts of trails. I have had the opportunity to go onto Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to kayak, and there is nothing like sitting in the middle of the lake and breathing. I would love to be able to travel across the United States with my parents and brother to hike the national parks. There is a tranquility that overcomes me when I am surrounded by the beauty of our world.