Lezli Baskerville, the CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), has overcome many external InhibitHERs in her career. Lezli explains the differences in internal and external InhibitHERs by comparing them to independence and interdependence. During our interview, she said, “Central to overcoming struggle is understanding your individual blessings and core values, such as to walk humbly with God, do justice, and love kindness. It also requires understanding the role you, as an independent individual, play in humanity while acknowledging the interdependence of humankind. There is a South African word, Ubuntu, that reflects our interconnectivity. It means ‘humanity to others.’ Ubuntu is frequently used to depict our interdependence, urging people to understand, ‘I am who I am because of who you are.’
“When we want to create a better world, we cannot let external barriers bar our coming together as one on important matters. We must start by acknowledging our own strengths and weaknesses. Then, finding allies, we must create partnerships while still maintaining our own driving principles. This is the essence of independence and interdependence.”
Lezli’s understanding of independence and interdependence was the result of many life experiences. Born to parents who were deeply involved in economic and social justice movements, Lezli’s life has been steeped in activism. Her father, a charter member of the Montclair Fair Housing Commission and of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission in New Jersey, gifted her and her twin sister books about struggles of people for “simple justice” worldwide. These books focused on the struggles of Africans on the African continent, in the diaspora, and Native Americans to complement what they were learning in school. Both sisters channeled his spirit and passion for social and economic justice into university and into their careers.
Lezli’s pathway took her to Douglass College at Rutgers University, the nation’s only public women’s college. Being accepted into college was exciting, but it wasn’t free—or even close to being affordable. To pay for her education, she worked three jobs. On top of those responsibilities, she was the President of the Black Student Union and took 31 credits per semester to complete a four-year curriculum in three years. As she excelled in academia and employment, she became acutely aware that Rutgers University, the flagship university of the state of New Jersey, did not reflect the richness of the diversity of the state. Why were the majority of her professors at a woman’s college White men? Why were there so few Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous tenured professors and administrators at Douglass and throughout Rutgers University? Her activist roots did not let her look away. Determined to make a difference, she combined her independent judgment with the need to recruit others and build an interdependent team to create a plan of action and address these issues.
Lezli organized a group of students to disrupt the Final Four basketball game. Their goal was to do a sit-in and shut the game down until the university addressed the lack of diversity in the faculty. It was not her first time tackling a structural problem on a large scale, as she played a central role in shutting down Montclair High School for similar reasons. This time, it was on a much larger scale, but she knew that she and her team had what it would take to succeed in this effort at Douglass and Rutgers. She understood that the lack of representation could be an InhibitHER for her future success and would be an InhibitHER for other women.
The day of the sit-in, she was nervous but resolute in her decision. When the time came, she quietly walked down to the court alongside a group of allies with signs. Success! It only took a few minutes for the university to respond by offering a meeting with the president of the college. A few days later, when Lezli stepped into the president’s office, she walked him step-by-step through the challenges with diversity and the negative impact that it was having on women and students of color. Shortly thereafter, she was offered a position on the president’s selection committee for the dean of the college. Together, with the hiring committee, they brought on the first African American woman as Dean of Douglass, Dr. Jewel Plumber Cobb, who became a world-renowned biologist, leader in the field of skin cancer, distinguished professor, and champion for increasing the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. Playing a leading role in getting Dr. Cobb to become Dean of Douglass College helped Lezli to better understand her power to see problems, speak up about them, and effectively work with others to solve them.
She understood in that moment that you don’t need to share the same backgrounds or beliefs, but you do need to share a common vision and goal to work in a coalition with others. Their shared goal—that representation mattered—allowed her to build agreement, and by using her own self-confidence, persistence, and ability to execute, she leveraged the power of a diverse coalition to turn an external InhibitHER into an ActivateHER and gain crucial representation of Black voices in leadership at the college.
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