BY ANNAMARIE WIRE ’22
Mount Holyoke’s first chief diversity officer Kijua Sanders-McMurtry began her work with diversity at an early age. Raised in Pasadena, California, her parents were activists who belonged to an organization that was in part responsible for the founding of Kwanzaa. “I really feel like my parents being in this very radical organization, [that was] honestly misogynistic in the way it treated women, made me really question and interrogate [...] differences, culture and diversity,” she said.
Sanders-McMurtry described her childhood as “tumultuous.” She dropped out of high school. “My father was incarcerated and my mother was a single mom,” she said. “[My father] died when I was 18. When I was about 20, I picked up and moved to Georgia.” Her father had always wanted her to go back to school, and, eventually, she did. “He was always in the back of my head,” she said.
Sanders-McMurtry graduated from Georgia State University at 27 and quickly found a passion for diversity work. “As an undergraduate, I worked in financial aid, and I became really interested in how students have access to education,” she said. “Ironically enough, I also studied cultural science surrounding sexual assault, not knowing I would eventually become a Title IX coordinator.”
Despite her extensive exposure to diversity-related issues, Sanders-McMurtry said that she realized the true importance of diversity when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay college student was murdered in a violent homophobic attack in Wyoming in 1998.
Shepard’s death shocked the country and triggered a national reckoning about what homophobia really meant for those who experienced it, and Sanders-McMurtry was no exception. “For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a way I was participating in the silenc[ing] and erasure of queer people,” Sanders-McMurtry said. She explained that Shepard’s death made her truly reckon with her own position in society. “As opposed to the disadvantages of being a black person, what are all the real privileges I have?” she asked herself.
“[Shepard’s death] was when I became a driving force doing the work within myself, starting my own journey and examining my unconscious and, if I’m being honest, my conscious biases too,” she said. “After that, I really fell in love with the work. That was the seed.”
That “seed” of passion for diversity and equity work eventually found fruition at Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Georgia where Sanders-McMurtry worked on everything from residential life to founding community centers on campus. One such community center focused on leadership and innovation, and the other centered around inclusion and diversity; she also created an inclusion policy for transgender and non-binary students at Agnes Scott.
“When Mount Holyoke called [...] I wasn’t looking for a job,” Sanders-McMurtry said, but “Mount Holyoke just seemed so interesting. The students were so passionate, so outspoken, just resisters [...] I have a huge, huge, huge capacity for love, [so] it was hard to leave my family in Atlanta, but I’m having fun. I think this campus is great.”
Sanders-McMurtry’s passion for diversity work was evident as she talked about the programs, policies and other events she is working on at Mount Holyoke. “We’ve been very busy,” she said with a smile. “We’re trying to do this big series around trans inclusion, sort of like a 10-day event on supporting the trans and non-binary people in the community [...] I always take these [events] that are supposed to be a week and then make [them] longer.
Her plans for Mount Holyoke also include a social justice healing retreat, efforts to increase diversity of political thought on campus and possibly teaching classes on civil and social rights. “My huge dream is to take students on a civil rights tour of the south and up to Washington D.C. to the Holocaust museum and also to the African-American Museum,” Sanders-McMurtry said.
“On the other side of my is policies and procedures. I like to use the example of winter break, which is built around Christmas,” Sanders-McMurtry said. “If there are not the same kind of equitable practices that allow all students to practice their faith, then we need to examine those procedures and think strategically about how to change that culture.”
The policies she wants to implement have to do with more than just faith. “If there was something I say that I could do everyday, it would really be helping people that have broken down with communication, helping people that intentionally or unintentionally harm someone else heal that rift in ways that are not harmful for the other person,” Sanders-McMurtry said. Underneath the surface of all the procedures, policies and programs she hopes to implement lies a deep spirit of empathy. “I also want to help people that have been harmed to voice their concern and come up with ways for healing,” she said.
“I am not the diversity police. I am very much a person around restoration and thinking really critically [about] how we bridge our differences,” she said. “Sometimes that makes people [feel] really good about the work I do, but other times, people are like ‘Why are you so understanding about everything?’ I don’t think I could do this work from a place of not trying to understand,” Sanders-McMurtry added.
Sanders-McMurtry also aims to create three new committees that address various aspects of student life in the community. These include a Title IX group focused on making student voices heard on issues of sexual harassment and assault, a 504 team working toward better accessibility on campus and a gender inclusion committee.
“I’ve always been interested in making sure students had a voice,” she said. “This is your collegiate experience. Our promise to you is that you will have a good four years here, and we have to deliver on that promise. So, I feel like students have to be a part of that conversation.”