As Bennett College NC, a historically black women's college, faced the threat of losing its accreditation, Dr. Menah Pratt‐Clarke, VP for strategic affairs and diversity at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, wrote an essay titled “Education in Spite of It All: Black Women's Journeys.” In explaining why young women of color need supportive learning spaces, she reflected on her mother's journey from poverty to a doctorate.
“My commitment and journey in higher ed has always been grounded in a phenomenally deep historical understanding of the challenges that women of color, particularly black women, face in America and how education is in so many ways a key to shifting our life journeys,” says Pratt‐Clarke, who has both a law degree and a PhD in sociology from Vanderbilt University TN. “The opportunity to gather those keys in an affirming and supportive environment that legitimates, calls out and creates visibility for the intersectionality of black women is so critical.”
Pratt‐Clarke has more than two decades of experience working in higher education, with a focus on executing and coordinating large‐scale strategic initiatives that promote institutional transformation. She is also a professor of education in the School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.
The understanding of history is critical for African‐Americans, notes Pratt‐Clarke. Most students in America don't fully learn the history of marginalized populations. Understanding the struggles of a race of people, particularly African‐Americans in the United States, creates a stronger level of determination to succeed in spite of obstacles.
It's “knowing [that] you have the potential to create opportunities for others,” says Pratt‐Clarke. Prior to her current position at Virginia Tech, she was the associate chancellor for strategic affairs/associate provost for diversity and an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign.
Last year, Pratt‐Clarke published her mother's autobiography titled A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America(2018). She hopes her mother's life can be an example and inspire students of color to know they can succeed. The end of every chapter has lessons about race, class and gender in America.
“I hope it can inspire teachers in schools to understand the impact that they actually have on students' lives,” says Pratt‐Clarke. “I also hope it can encourage faculty to be more committed to understanding the impact of identity on educational experiences.” She continues that she hopes the book can provide “the opportunity to help to think about institutional change and diversity and inclusion excellence in more systemic ways to ensure that issues of race, gender and class don't have detrimental effects on the persistence of students in college environments.
“It's critically important as a country we begin to know and understand our American history—the full breadth of it and the continuing legacy of that history on today's communities.”
The work she leads around diversity and strategic affairs is grounded in her understanding of social movements and her theoretical conceptualization of how to lead change to promote equity.
“My career has been this interesting intersection of legal knowledge, legal thinking, but also this academic, intellectual and sociological thinking and [knowledge of] literature,” says Pratt‐Clarke, who majored in English and minored in philosophy and African‐American studies for her bachelor's degree and earned a master's in literary studies.
“I have this lens on the world that allows me to deeply think about and critically analyze social issues,” she adds. “The law degree and my area of focus, which is critical race, feminism and black feminism, is very practice‐oriented. It's about taking intellectual academic theoretical tools and thinking about how they translate into tools to be used for social change and social movement.”
At the point she arrived at Virginia Tech, she felt there was a strong foundation on which she could build to make meaningful change. The university's president, Dr. Timothy Sands, was relatively new in the job. During her interview process, she felt he had a deep and genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The work she's been trying to lead for the campus as a whole has focused on sustainable institutional transformation. What she is most satisfied with is the university has instituted curricular changes. Students at Virginia Tech have to complete a required online pre‐enrollment course on diversity. Beginning this year, students also need to take a class that addresses the critical analysis of equity and identity in the United States.
The motto of Virginia Tech is “Ut Prosim,” which translates to “That I May Serve.” The opportunity to be at a university with that as a core value is critically important for Pratt‐Clarke. The university also has a set of principles of community that grew out of protests from the African‐American community in the 2000s. It's a shared sense of values, respect, affirmation and equity that the institution affirms.
“If you have some core values grounded in a sense of humanity, that's a foundation upon which diversity, equity and inclusion can rest,” says Pratt‐Clarke.
When Pratt‐Clarke arrived on campus, there was only the Black Cultural Center. Now, there are cultural centers for the Latino/Latina community, Asian community and Native American and indigenous communities, and an LGBTQ resource center. These centers create visibility. It's a physical presence that erases the invisibility of marginalized groups.
“These are sustainable things as we go forward as an institution,” Pratt‐Clarke says. “If we can start having these conversations and partnering with white men in more intentional ways, we can start to see sustained institutional change.”