Meet New Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steve Vásquez Dolph, PhD
June 14, 2023
Assistant Teaching Professor of Global Studies and Modern Languages Steve Vásquez Dolph, PhD, was recently appointed to the role of Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the College of Arts and Sciences. Learn more about him in this Q&A.
Can you tell us a little about your background and academic career?
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share about myself and my vision for the position! In terms of my background, I was born in Queens, New York, into a family of recently arrived immigrants from Colombia. I identify as Latino and as a first-generation or “new” American. When I talk about my nationality, especially with other Latinx people, I resist the suggestion that I am “Colombian-American.” I don’t feel that hyphenation. In the story I tell about myself, I am a child of the diaspora. I connect most immediately with other people who don’t feel comfortable in a fixed national identity, or whose sense of homeland is uncertain.
Academically, my story reflects this diasporic self. I earned a BA and an MA in English, and then went on to get a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese Studies. In my master's program at Temple University, I connected with the translator and scholar Lawrence Venuti, and later went on to publish three translations into English of novels by Juan José Saer, an Argentine novelist who wrote beautifully about the landscapes and communities surrounding the Río de la Plata.
In my PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, after some twists and turns, I had the fortune to work with Sonia Velásquez, who mentored me through a dissertation on the relationship between scientific and literary writing in late 16th and early 17th century Spain. Poets, playwrights and novelists in early modern England were developing what today we would call an “environmental consciousness” in their writings, and some scholarship had been done about that. What I did in my dissertation was shift the conversation to popular contemporary Spanish writers like Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote “Don Quixote.”
What are some of your research interests?
One of my graduate fellowships during my PhD program was with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, and this is where I started doing community-based education and research, which is my focus at Drexel. This was also when I began reading more carefully and intentionally about climate change and environmental racism, and how these structural forces were shaping the lives of migrants and other marginalized people. At the same time, the graduate fellows in the Environmental Humanities program were facilitating an oral history project in Lower Eastwick—a neighborhood deep in southwest Philadelphia with high vulnerability to flooding—in conjunction with municipal development work happening there.
This was a formative experience. As I read more about Philadelphia’s disastrous “urban renewal” track record, and then observed the Lower Eastwick neighbors’ intense resistance to the flood mitigation strategies that were being proposed, I became more skeptical about the place of researchers in this work. Drexel’s critical role in the ongoing transformation of West Philadelphia is a hot topic these days, and rightly so, but the relationship between urban universities and the redevelopment is also historical, and not just about real estate. The “urban renewal” thinking that has done so much harm to communities of color has always been a co-production of university researchers and city planners. As a beneficiary of this system and this history, I was and continue to be implicated in this story.
My interests now are an attempt to reconcile this relationship. It just so happened that my first days as a faculty member at Drexel in 2017 coincided with the landfall of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, a Category 5 storm that decimated the archipelago and killed thousands of people. Numerous journalists, artists and scholars working in the wake of the storm came to a similar conclusion that others had in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2010—that the “disaster” was primarily political: decades of underinvestment resulting from an extractive, neocolonial economic structure. In 2018, I started developing a partnership with Plenitud PR, a community agriculture organization there, and a year later we ran our first Intensive Course Abroad (ICA) to their farm education center. Everything I’ve worked on since has, in some way, emerged from this partnership.
What are some of the classes you teach in the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages?
I teach a range of courses, from Elementary Spanish lectures to a graduate seminar for the Urban Strategy program. The bulk of my academic work takes place within our Spanish minor, where I teach courses on topics like sustainability, migration and translation. The curriculum for our minor program is organized around four key areas: Language for the Professions; Identities and Communities; Power and Resistance; and Language, Media and Society. We graduate minors who have not only the functional language skills and the intellectual training to succeed in a range of globalized professions—from law to medicine to development—but also the intercultural competency to do this work ethically and purposefully.
Over the past few years, I have taught advanced courses in both Spanish and English. One pair of courses is about the social and political fallout of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. These courses, “After María” and “Disaster and Resilience in Puerto Rico,” alternate as pre-requisites to our ICA at Plenitud PR, which takes place during winter break. My courses about migration, “Deterrence, Refuge, Sanctuary” and “Sanctuary Cities,” were developed in collaboration with Philly-based immigrants' rights organizations like Juntos and Puentes de Salud. Over the years, we’ve partnered with a range of cultural organizations.
Most recently, I’ve been working with local organizations Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram's Garden, Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Garden and Norris Square Neighborhood Project to develop an immersive, land-based course called “Food and Land Security in Philadelphia.” Unlike my other courses, this one is taught primarily by leaders in these organizations, whereas I serve mostly as a facilitator, helping students to integrate the experiential and theoretical elements of the course into their own academic and professional development.
How do you incorporate civic engagement and community-based learning into your teaching?
Civic engagement is at the center of my teaching practice. It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my career to have been a faculty fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement for the past four years. Being included in this community of scholars, students and practitioners has given me an intellectual home, and has grounded my teaching and research in a relationship-based approach to higher education. In my role as a fellow, I support the Lindy Center’s initiatives around student leadership, faculty development and curriculum design. If anyone reading this has been feeling lost at Drexel or in Philadelphia, wondering where "their people" might be hiding, I would encourage them to connect with the Lindy Center.
The approach to engagement and inclusivity that is exemplified by the folks connected to the Lindy Center has shaped everything I do as an educator. Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has profoundly impacted our students, and not just academically, the kind of teaching happening around that space has been a lighthouse in a storm. It’s helped me understand my job as a form of care work, in solidarity with folks inside and outside the academy who embody the identity of caretakers. These relationships have also given me the capacity to speak frankly and openly in my classes and elsewhere about the structural and personal harm that students of every stripe experience daily in a range of spaces, despite being the university’s most important stakeholders.
Any time I am tasked with a leadership role, I try to shape the space or the project around inclusivity, shared decision-making and collective ownership. Being a community-based educator has underscored the value of collaborating with people who are very different from me, and whose perspectives are shaped by decades of experience living in close proximity to the most critical problems in our world. It’s been humbling. Every day is an ego check. I hope I can continue to work and grow in this way as an associate dean for the college.
What are your responsibilities as Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
This role is somewhat new in the college, and in fact relatively new in academia. Many of these DEI roles were designed during what seemed like an emergency, though the conditions that make this position necessary are of course longstanding. I think my primary responsibility is to work with my colleagues in the dean's office to make sure that DEI continues to be central in our attention as we collaborate with leaders across the college and the University to design policies and programs that will shape the culture of the institution for years.
That's broad strokes. In practical terms, I am part of the college's leadership team, which includes the dean and the other associate deans, as well as directors of finance and administration, recruitment, advising, marketing and communications and institutional advancement. Together, this team provides guidance and insight to the dean regarding the design and implementation of every aspect of life and work in the college. Over the past few weeks that I've been in the role, I've met collectively and individually with most of these colleagues to learn about the shape and reach of their positions, and to understand how we can be collaborative in our roles.
I am also the point of contact for other DEI leaders across Drexel. This group supports the Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to deliver on the long-term DEI directives woven into the University's strategic goals. My role is to steward the college's partnerships with community organizations, industry leaders and other universities to align with Drexel's DEI priorities. As the University charts a path towards a culture that is anti-racist and anti-bias, it's also my responsibility to understand and solicit the expertise of the college's faculty who understand these issues intimately.
Why is it important that the College of Arts and Sciences has this role?
Speaking from experience in civic engagement, our work isn't merely to learn with students and partners about the nuances of urgent social issues, or to help them be more capable, resourced actors in the public sphere, backed by the best research and the best connections. It's also to cultivate the inner conviction and collective power to disrupt the harm happening all around them. We live in a political climate of mistrust and misinformation. That's no secret. What may be missed by our colleagues who don’t spend much time in the classroom, talking about these issues, is that many students are afraid. They're afraid to talk about reproductive justice. They're afraid to talk about gun violence. They’re afraid to talk about trans rights.
This fear does not exist in isolation. For faculty and staff, it's connected to broader anxieties about the precarity of labor in higher education, and the encroachment on intellectual freedom by reactionary forces in our culture, especially in social media. I don't think it’s an overstatement to say that, increasingly, it can be a professional or even a personal liability to engage in teaching and research that, for example, seeks to understand the persistence of anti-Black violence across our society. This uncertainty can produce self-censorship, and even reticence to speak forcefully in response to harmful discourses and institutions.
Even or especially for those in our community whose everyday work does not have an immediately apparent DEI connection, this position is important. Part of the job of DEI leaders is to help make these connections more visible and more tangible in every discipline, and across every facet of university life. You don’t have to belong to a marginalized group, or work with these groups, to be invested in positive change. We have the responsibility to help everyone see the ways that all of us are implicated in the task of making the university a safer and more welcoming place to work, learn and grow.
What are you most looking forward to or hoping to accomplish in this role?
I've spent the past six years at Drexel working most closely with students in the classroom setting. In that time, I've learned a lot from them, and not just about their academic and professional aspirations. Because our courses are discussion-based, I've also learned a lot about the ways in which they feel vulnerable, or even disconnected. But I've also accompanied a full generation of students from their first year, through the pandemic and on to graduation. Many have developed an enviable level of resilience and insight.
In my experience, this is one of the most authentic qualities of the Drexel experience. Anyone, given the resources and support, can find the public purpose of their work, and see themselves as participants in a vibrant and diverse community. It’s literally on their doorstep. My time as a faculty fellow has shown me that many educators, researchers and administrators are just as interested in finding this sense of belonging and meaning. I'm most looking forward to spending more time connecting with colleagues who are on this same trajectory, and who might be seeking this kind of community.