In November 2019, Yemi Mahoney became IU East’s chief diversity officer and special assistant to the chancellor. Mahoney’s higher education career spans over two decades, where she worked in a variety of departments such as financial aid, New Student Orientation, sexual assault education, and student union administration. For the past 12 years, Mahoney has immersed herself in diversity and inclusion work. Raised to be conscious of social issues, Mahoney cites her parents as inspiration.
“Both of my parents are from the deep south and were always reaching out to others,” Mahoney said. “And they taught me we shouldn’t care about the color of someone’s skin, but the content of their character. And now that I look back on it, I can say that was profound given what some of their experiences were. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, and went to predominantly White catholic private institutions, and it taught me how to be culturally fluid. My father also taught me that just because I am a woman, that shouldn’t stop me from doing whatever I wanted to do.”
Mahoney attended Northwestern University as a first-generation student experiencing a wide variety of cultures outside her social sphere. She attended classes where she learned about social inequalities, sociology, and gender studies, eventually graduating with an undergraduate degree in Organizational Studies in 1993.
“My parents from a very early age instilled in me and my brother attending college was something we were going to do,” Mahoney said. “It’s something I worked hard to instill in my own two children. I think that as an African American person, we have to instill in our children—and this comes down from our ancestors—that education is a vehicle for social mobility. And I think that my experiences and my family are a testament to that.”
In 1998 Mahoney worked in the admissions office at a private K-12 school on Chicago’s west side. Many of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the school had a 95% college attendance rate. Working there allowed Mahoney to witness the power of caring teachers and administrators, high expectations, a demanding curriculum, and an excellent student body. However, Mahoney eventually relocated to the Midwest and sought employment in higher education hoping that it would provide her with more opportunities.
Although her positions within higher education did not always tie in with social issues, Mahoney always found a way to involve herself with causes and programs that did. She involved herself in workshops and institutional committees dedicated to diversity work and built relationships with students from underrepresented groups.
“At some point, I finally said to myself,” Mahoney said. “‘You know what, this is not something I want to do on the side, this is something I want to focus on. This is what I’m passionate about.’ I never saw myself doing it, but when I think about where I am today, it makes perfect sense.”
As a chief diversity officer, Mahoney leads the efforts that support IU’s goals of fostering an equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.
“I liken my role to that of a choir conductor and not a soloist,” Mahoney said. “I manage multiple talents at one time, constantly balancing concerns, constituents, and opportunities to advance the institution as a whole. Fostering an inclusive environment is everyone’s responsibility, but I serve as the “point person” in the process. In terms of specific responsibilities, I facilitate cultural and educational programming, lead strategic planning efforts, and coordinate assessment initiatives. Additionally, I am an advocate and resource for students. I have an open-door policy where they can stop by to chat informally and seek assistance with academic, social, or cultural concerns. I work with faculty and staff to help identify ways they can become more culturally competent and I am the chairperson for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.”
“I feel blessed to do work I am passionate about, and that allows me to feel like I am making a difference in the world,” Mahoney said. “I enjoy working to raise awareness about issues and to create spaces where people feel valued and heard. And I like building relationships, in particular with students. They are the reason I have my job. They are the reason this institution exists. They guide, shape, and inform my work. They are complex, awesome beings who have taught me a lot about higher education, life in general, and myself.”
According to Mahoney, factors such as IU’s academic reputation, numerous course offerings, community engagement, and campus life activities attracted her to the position. The sense of authenticity, community, and collegiality during her interview, as well as the prospect of working with IUE Chancellor Kathryn Girten, “sealed the deal.”
“I felt that the institution was serious about the issues of diversity and inclusion,” Mahoney said. “It was extremely important for me to find a place that was truly committed and not just paying “lip service” to these ideas.”
In addition to her job as a CDO, Mahoney is excited about the many developmental opportunities IU has to offer which will allow her to grow and gain new knowledge during her time at IUE.
“I’ve worked at a handful of different campuses, and it’s not like that everywhere,” Mahoney said. “It’s so exciting to know that there are so many things I can take advantage of and I think it’s a testament to the commitment IU has to develop the people in its community and it’s just great. I want to keep learning and growing and developing.”