Dr. Alfreda Brown embraces difference, paves the way for diversity at Kent State University

Alfreda Brown, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Alfreda Brown, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Molly Adams Reporter

Kent State University’s Diversity Trailblazer Award was recently renamed the Alfreda Brown Diversity Trailblazer Award for her groundbreaking work at the university. 

Presented to Brown Jan. 24, the award recognizes transformative work contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“We do this work solely based on the needs of people and because it is our passion and purpose in life,” Brown said. “It’s not about me and I don’t ever expect accolades … but this, this was incredible. I was honored and I was humbled.”

As a child, difference was not of concern for Brown, but she quickly realized throughout her education that, for some, it was. 

Growing up in Rochester, New York in the 1960s, Brown experienced firsthand the integration of public schools and the struggles that followed. 

As the only black child in her classroom, Brown found comfort in a group of four girls that each experienced the barriers diversity inevitably brought.

One Polish, one Jewish and one living with a disability, Brown realized why they stuck together.

“We were different, and different wasn’t just whether you were black or white,” she said. “These girls were white and still experiencing prejudice.”

Although Brown works to dismantle the barriers diversity presents, she emphasized the importance of acknowledging differences.

“Difference matters and we should recognize this and embrace it, but we cannot allow it to create barriers,” Brown said. “Once we learn to cut across this difference, we can learn from each other, have a great time doing so and maybe, just maybe, meet some of our best friends.”

Following high school graduation, Brown was employed at Eastman Kodak as a stenographer. 

After years of loyalty, the company offered Brown the opportunity for both her and her children to attend college tuition-free. 

At 33 years old, Brown made the decision to attend college at Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. 

“Education was everything to me, and not just the academic aspect, but the idea that I was meeting people who were different from myself and learning alongside them; that was important,” she said. 

Brown earned her associate’s and master’s degree at the university and studied organizational development. 

At the time, the president of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Albert Simone, was establishing a staff council. After volunteering for the committee, Brown eventually earned the position of council chairperson as the only black member. 

While she worked alongside the council and attended school, Brown began to recognize her passion for diversity and higher education and looked for career opportunities in the field.

Coincidentally, Simone shared with the council that the university was looking for someone to fill the position of pluralistic promotion, and Brown was eager to learn more. 

“I had just written my undergraduate thesis on the promotion of pluralism at RIT that Simone had taken the initiative to read, and he told me what I had written was exactly what he was looking for, and that he wanted me in the position,” she added. 

Simone told Brown the position required a masters degree, so in a short 14 months Brown worked tirelessly to earn her masters, and Simone granted her the position. 

“This was a dream come true because diversity meant something to me and I couldn’t wait to find ways to implement programs that would help people facing adversity at RIT,” Brown said. 

Eventually, Brown was named the Chief Diversity Officer and for 16 years Brown worked under Simone, who became one of her greatest mentors.

“Those 16 years were the years I grew into my true self, and Simone and I worked alongside each other to ensure the success and comfort of the underrepresented,” Brown said. 

Brown discussed the relationship she had with Simone and how under his leadership, she was able to become the truest version of herself. 

“He guided and motivated me, and we really learned a lot from each other and together began to understand the prominence of diversity, especially in higher education,” she added. 

When Simone left the university, Brown accepted that it was time for change, and joined Kent State as the vice president for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [DEI].

Brown has served as the first Vice President for DEI at Kent State for eleven years, developing strategic plans aimed to ensure that Kent fosters a nurturing environment and that students are extensions of inclusiveness postgraduation. 

Since the inception of DEI 9 years ago, Brown has implemented various initiatives that have significantly impacted the lives of students, faculty and staff at Kent State. 

“Under Dr. Brown’s leadership, DEI has emerged as a preeminent change agent, developing integral initiatives that champion diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Shana Lee, director for Diversity and Inclusion Leadership. 

Some of the notable initiatives Brown has implemented include the 2010 opening of the LGBTQ+ Center, the installation of the 2011 Equity Action Plan, the enactment of the Provost Faculty Associates for DEI and the creation of the Office of Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services. 

“My philosophy has always been that a passion for diversity has to come from the inside out,” Brown said. “It has to be part of who you are and you have to want to help people, no matter who the person is.” 

Brown prides herself on the personal approach those working under DEI take with students. 

“They have our phone numbers, they can call us when they need, no matter the need,” she said. 

Commended by her colleagues for her commitment to Kent State, Brown has served as a friend to all, Dana Lawless-Andric, a colleague of Brown in DEI, said.   

“Dr. Brown is someone who has always led with her heart grounded in purpose. She listens, she acknowledges, she values and she cares,” Lawless-Andric said. 

Lawless-Andric continued to describe how Brown’s passion reveals itself in DEI efforts.

“This comes through in all that she does in her work – whether it be a formal process such as leading the university’s first Equity Scorecard, or opening her door to anyone in need,” Lawless-Andric added. 

Through DEI, Kent State has developed a staff council and student council that both work to enable action and generate important conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“We are currently doing work on these committees that will bring immense change,” Brown said. “Something I love about Kent State is that there is no shortage of students, staff and faculty that want to help bring about change and this shows through in our committees because those involved share the same passions,” Brown added. 

Understanding one another, working together, and promoting action for change to meet the needs of all students has contributed to the milestones in diversity, equity and inclusion at Kent. 

“We are taking the sting off of being different; we are leveling the playing field,” Brown said. “Kent offers something unique when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion because these three words have become a major part of who we are.”

Fostering an environment that meets the needs of all students, no matter the difference, is something Dr. Brown will continue to strive for through her work at Kent State. 

“Dr. Brown truly believes you must be the change you want to see in the world,” Lee said. 

As a trailblazer for diversity, Brown encourages students, faculty and staff to cut across differences and learn from one another in order to create change. 

“Life offers you so much more when you can help someone else,” Brown said, “and at Kent State, this is something we are doing phenomenally.” 

Molly Adams is a diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected].