Searle Center hires first assistant director for diversity, inclusion


Source: Omari Keeles

Omari Keeles, the inaugural assistant director for diversity and inclusion at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Keeles said he will focus on fostering inclusive learning environments and listening to students.

Alan Perez, Assistant Campus Editor

Years after Omari Keeles left the University of Miami, students still told educational and psychological studies Prof. Laura Kohn-Wood how much they enjoyed his class on black psychology. Keeles would meet with them individually, review their work extensively and devote hours to creating his syllabus, Kohn-Wood said.

“As a long-time professor, I’m kind of like, ‘What are you doing? That’s taking too much time,’” said Kohn-Wood, who is a member of Keeles’ doctoral dissertation committee. “It really just came from his passion related to his intellectual interest, but also his desire to make sure that students were able to engage in material about diversity in a way that hadn’t existed before. He just wanted to ensure that they had a high quality experience.”

Keeles will bring that passion for education when he joins Northwestern next week as the inaugural assistant director for diversity and inclusion at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. The Oakland, California, native comes from a background of extensive experience in education, psychology and equity.

Bennett Goldberg, director of Searle and assistant provost for learning and teaching, said Keeles’ expertise and experience will make him an effective leader in fostering inclusive classrooms at NU.

Searle created the position after recognizing the importance of creating learning environments that serve the needs of students from marginalized backgrounds, Goldberg said. Professors and teaching assistants, he added, were also requesting assistance in that effort.

“Faculty seek out and don’t have access to professional training and how to do things like have difficult conversations that end up with deep learning around tricky issues having to do with race, gender and sexual orientation and citizenship,” he said. “It’s a commitment that the institution is making to creating inclusive learning environments.”

Students from marginalized and non-affluent backgrounds are more likely to face barriers and problems with their sense of belonging — sometimes even moving to a different academic field — said Keeles, whose research focuses on how students adjust to the environments of predominantly white institutions.

Especially at time when demographics are shifting across both the University and the nation, Keeles said it’s important to understand that all students benefit from inclusive classrooms.

“We definitely are living in a very changed society,” he said. “We need to prepare our students to enter a society that is going to be extremely diverse — in terms of background and where people are coming from — and able to move society forward in a way that’s going to be progressive for all.”

Keeles is adequately prepared for his new role, one that seems “tailor-made” for him, Kohn-Wood said. He is passionate about issues related to race, access and equity, she said, and was interested in the combined workings of identities before “intersectionality became a buzzword.”

In Miami, Keeles worked with Kohn-Wood’s research team to host the national Black Graduate Conference in Psychology and coordinate an afterschool program in a nearby neighborhood. At the University of Michigan, where he will soon receive a doctoral degree in education and psychology, he served as a graduate student mentor and scholarship adviser for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

At NU, Keeles will spearhead efforts to foster inclusive learning and teaching, including hosting workshops and discussions with faculty. Keeles will also conduct original research on inclusive learning and teaching initiatives, such as diversifying the University’s curricula and developing relationships with the University’s diversity and inclusion administrators, as well as those in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

Keeles said he plans to listen to students’ concerns and needs to gain an understanding of how Northwestern students’ identities can affect their experience. He said he hopes to support students so that everyone who went through the rigorous admissions process to get to NU has the chance to succeed once on campus.

This won’t be Keeles’ first time in Chicago. As a student in Michigan, he frequently made trips to the city, which he enjoyed for its diversity and large number of professionals of color. As for his time outside of class, Keeles said he’ll visit some restaurants, and try to understand how the University fits in to the climate of the city.

“I’m a big foodie, I love food, so experiencing all the great restaurants in a larger city than Ann Arbor is something that I definitely look forward to,” he said. “Also with all the great universities in the city of Chicago, the kind of intellectual stimulation that’s here on a social level … is something I was really looking forward to moving to a more diverse city.”

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