A meaningful conversation with the creator of CANR’s ‘You Belong Here’ campaign

A question-and-answer session with Shedra Rakestraw, who was the interim assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for CANR from February 2020 to September 2020.

Shedra Rakestraw
Shedra Rakestraw, former interim assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for CANR from February 2020 to September 2020 and creator of the "You Belong Here" campaign.

Editor's Note: Shedra Rakestraw was the interim assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) from February 2020 to September 2020. She started with Michigan State University in November 2018 as the executive assistant with marketing responsibilities within the CANR ODEI. Rakestraw has since left MSU for a new job.

It didn’t take long after first working with Shedra Rakeshaw to learn it wasn’t about her goals – it was about our goals. It wasn’t about fulfilling the objectives of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it was about working across the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and campus-wide to foster and support a community where everyone feels welcomed, accepted and heard.

Our conversation quickly shifted from “How can ANR Communications and Marketing [my unit] help the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [Shedra’s unit]?” to “What can we accomplish together to improve experiences for MSU students, staff and faculty?”

Rakestraw is the creator of “You Belong Here,” an initiative started in 2019 to instill positivity, acceptance and kindness, among many things, within not only our college, and across the university.

I talked with her via Zoom to discuss her thoughts on the campaign and it’s recent modified messaging, “You Belong Here. Still.” in light of the novel coronavirus and the switch to remote learning for students. Here’s a portion of our conversation.

HW: What’s most inspired the direction of your career choice?

SR: I was on a mission trip in Nairobi and Kenya, working and volunteering on the land, when I thought about how precious the land is and how fortunate we are in the U.S. My teacher told me two days before leaving Africa, “You stand out in this group. What you’re doing today, is not what you’re supposed to be doing. But you need to figure that out.”

After I returned back home, I was visiting a childhood friend whose parents asked what I did for work? I told them that I worked in marketing for John Deere – “You know the big green and yellow farming machinery?” Her mom asked, “What do you really want to do?” I told her I really wanted to be connected to land and to the people. My undergrad is in agricultural sciences [Alabama A&M University]. I really want to learn about agriculture and land, and how essential it is our lives. Being accepted in the master’s program for public policy at Northwestern University was a big commitment and my goal.

HW: You’ve since graduated with your master’s degree from Northwestern University?

SR: Yes, I received my Master’s in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) with a specialization in data analytics on June 19, 2020. It was exceptionally important as it was Juneteenth. 401 years ago someone prayed and asked for generations from now for this to be a testament of my ancestors not giving up on me or themselves. And there are still many more to come after me.

HW: So, you were working full-time at MSU and earning your master’s degree online from Northwestern?

SR: People would say, "Oh, how are you doing it [learning remotely]?" Well, how are we all doing it now? What was so special is that the program was already structured that way – you can take hybrid courses, or only distance learning or in-person, if you were in the Chicago area.

If I can tell anyone something right now, it’s so silly for me to just sit back and say to students, “Oh, hybrid learning or distance learning is so easy,” but it’s not. Especially when you’ve been structured for the classroom from a traditional standpoint. To me, the schools of professional study for MMPA provided an opportunity to embrace the experience and get to know my professors who are part of the communities they’re in -- some on United Nations committees. So, it is for professionals who are working still and don’t have the time to be the traditional graduate student. The experience was enormous because many people you meet bring, diverse and different attributes to the table that you can learn from.

HW: The You Belong Here campaign – tell me a little about how and why that came about?

SR: When I came onboard, Dr. Quentin Tyler was a year and some change into his new position as associate dean of DEI for the College. He knew my experience in marketing and branding from MANNRS [Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences] when I was on the board with him. He was the president and I was historian. He was very familiar with what I could bring to the table.

He wanted a message because he has an open-door policy. There was a gray-brown, tannish door in the office. He wanted to have it painted – and I said you should have a message and brand campaign connected to it.

You Belong HEreIt was key for me to gain the respect from all my counter-partners and all the associate deans. I’m always thinking about the community support – just making sure that people feel like they’re involved. You’ve worked with me, I’m always thinking about OK what role can you play because I don’t want it to be focused just on me. And the process was just brainstorming.

It curved from “You Are Welcome Here.” “We Welcome You.” “Sense of Belonging.” That’s what student services is using now. We thought of the "You" and the "Belong," but then we wanted to know that individuals truly feel like they belong. It was more meaningful to use Y-O-U when you using pronouns, you make a connection and that’s what we were trying to make. That’s where the “you belong” came from.

I asked around to see if people felt a sense of belonging when they arrived. What I found out, even from some employees, is that some were hesitant to say, “we have a sense of belonging.” That’s where you start the conversation and talk about “why you don’t feel like you belong?” It’s what we hear in the news, or see on-campus, witnessed on-campus or even read on-campus when it’s blocking, discriminating people based on their ethnicity, their diversity, attributes and all.

HW: What does Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mean to you?

SR: When I think of diversity, I think of the different personalities that we all have that we can collectively bring to the table. Of course, what we see on the outside. We see what we look like – our eye color, our skin color, our ethnicity – you assume the ethnicity, you assume the sexuality or the gender type, but you forget about their diverse thoughts.

I think about diverse thought more than anything. Diverse thought comes through the experiences we all have and the mysteries we all experience. If we follow the mystery that is for the better of us; then we discover the experience that brings us that diverse background. That’s what diversity means to me – like what people experience, what they bring to a circle, to a conversation to a community. What I can learn from them because I don’t know everything and they don’t know everything. The way to learn is to collaborate with one another. Communication is big with me when it comes to diversity.

Equity is fairness, of course. Fairness where it suits each individual to their needs. We can’t satisfy everyone. You can have options available to people for them to make their own decisions and not for us to make decisions for them. I don’t want to make a decision that doesn’t meet their needs because I don’t know them and I don’t know how they are going to react in that situation. Fairness and allowing them to select their own options.

Inclusion definitely means to me that making a sense of belonging for people. That’s inclusion. If we know how to create a sense of belonging for people. You will know that people are very generous and respectful, if they feel like they belong. The connection there brings the diversity and equity together because you’re creating a sense of belonging.

HW: You’re clearly passionate about your work. Given the current situation in the world in particular with regard to the pandemic and the state of unrest and violence, is there anything you’d hope to accomplish with the campaign, especially this fall as students start classes?

SR: Yes, that’s a really good question. I really connect to purpose. When I came onboard with MSU in 2018, I sought purpose. I wanted to get people engaged and make it fun. The next phase is having the conversations and that’s what we doing now. We are having those conversations because of what is happening in the world and you have to bring it to the forefront. When we have those conversations now about “You Belong Here. Still.” It’s more about how one can become a champion in the You Belong Here space and create a sense of belonging. How can you make sure you’re not excluding people and allowing voices to be heard?  How can we continue creating that urgency of people feeling like they belong and making it very equitable for them?

What I am happy to see, since I come from the corporate world, is that what you create in corporate belongs to the company. I don’t ever see the “You Belong Here” campaign belonging to me. I see it belonging to MSU as a whole. I’m excited to see that MSU Student Services picked up the “You Belong” message that was my ultimate goal -- seeing that the university pick it up. I understand how at a university but we still know where it started at. I’m happy having the advisors participate and listen as well.

If anything, I would want people to utilize it in their own departments, pick it up and put it into practice. Create a sense of belonging in their own areas for themselves, their counterparts, their supervisors and their students. At the end of the day, respect the human being because we’re all human beings.

This is a movement and it’s about humanity because you can’t have humanity without a sense of belonging, and you can’t have a sense of belonging unless you have humanity. They’re connected so I’d love to see each department in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources use it to create that sense of belonging and use that message for their community.

HW: Anything else you think would be important to note either about yourself, the campaign or the future?

SR: People should really understand the services and resources Dr. Tyler has put in position for us to be creative, as employees and students. He is so passionate about people and he thrives off of that and not just that, the betterment of others. He wants to see people achieve their goals. Working with him, because I’ve known him for some years because of MANNRS, but allowing me to have the creativity space and not have my thoughts or creativity not be captured and censored has helped me to grow into the person I am today -- the woman I am today. The Black woman I am today.

I want people to know that the door is always open in ODEI -- no matter who’s in the position or no matter how busy people are. We make time for what we want to make time for who we want to make time for. At the end of the day, Dr. Tyler really makes time for everything and everybody, no matter what. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to see but it’s very gracious of him because it’s expanding himself and inspiring you to want to do more, and inspire others.

HW: What kind and lovely words of wisdom. Thank you for your time, Shedra. It was a pleasure getting to know you better. The work you, Dr. Tyler and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is inspirational and meaningful.

SR: Yes, it is. It really is. You know learning people is hard; it’s challenging. You think you have it down, but you don’t. But the beautiful thing is you grow from it, even if it’s not something you necessarily want to do. You can share those experiences and apply them to new opportunities whether its volunteering, applying for a new job, and you can share it with others.

People love stories. If you can share a story – listeners and readers will gravitate to you.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at gianiod1@msu.edu or call 517-355-1855.

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