Sandra St Fleur: The Equity Advocate

Who We Are Podcast: Sandra St Fleur shares her journey from being bullied as a child to standing up for equity, diversity, inclusion and justice.

Born in Haiti and raised in Boston, Sandra St Fleur is Lesley University's first VP of equity, inclusion and justice. In this episode of the Who We Are podcast, she shares her story of experiencing racism, the kindness of strangers, and why she is working to create a more just and equitable world.

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Sandra St Fleur is first VP of equity, inclusion and justice

Equity, Diversity Inclusion and Justice at Lesley

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is who we are a podcast of Lesley University that's all about people and their passions. I'm Georgia Sparling, and in every episode, I'll introduce you to someone from our community: a student, a professor, a staff member, or alum who embodies the power of the human arts to uplift, heal, and transform

    GEORGIA SPARLING
    Lesley University has always been committed to social justice. It was a tenant of our founder, Edith Lesley, and has continued to be a focus as we develop and grow our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Sandra St Fleur, who as our new Vice President of Equity, Inclusion and Justice will play a vital role in that work.

    [MUSIC]

    Since she can remember, Sandra St Fleur wanted to find some way to be of service to others.

    SANDRA ST FLEUR

    As I was graduating from BC…

    GEORGIA

    That’s Boston College.

    SANDRA

    I wanted to join the Peace Corps and I was told I couldn't because at the time, in the early- to mid-90s, HIV was in full swing. And the belief at the time was that Haiti was the source of HIV and AIDS.

    GEORGIA

    Sandra and her family had moved from Haiti to the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston in 1980.

    SANDRA

    And so, I was told that I cannot join the Peace Corps…I was told I couldn't give blood because of the association of HIV and AIDS with Haiti. That was devastating because I had been in the country by that point, 10 years, more. And here I am trying to be a force for good in my own small way and was essentially told I wasn't good enough. Like, my blood wasn't clean enough, my person wasn't good enough. And they didn't want whatever I had to offer.

    GEORGIA

    Sandra had grown up largely insulated from overt racism up to this point. She remembers first coming to America as a kid who spoke only French and Haitian Creole.

    SANDRA

    I have a vivid memory of my mom teaching me words while on the way to the airport, so that if I got lost I would at least ask for help. So that's probably like my first really vivid memory of transitioning from Haiti to the US. It's my mom coaching me on how to basically be self-reliant.

    GEORGIA

    The family had arrived in September, just as the weather was beginning to cool, the leaves were on the verge of changing color.

    Sandra

    It was the first time that I had experienced seasons changing. And so I really understood right away that this was a very, very different place.

    GEORGIA

    Even so, much remained familiar. In Boston, Sandra’s family lived in a largely Haitian community, she went to a bilingual school where classes were taught in French, Creole and English, and all her friends were Haitian.

    She does remember her friends acting as a shield when other kids at the school heckled her mercilessly on her way home in a language she couldn’t yet understand.

    SANDRA

    They didn’t tease me because of the way I spoke, they teased me because of the way I dressed. My Haitian friends, for a year, they walked me home every day because I was so bullied by American kids. They would follow me and pull on my clothes and pull on my hair and generally make life miserable.

    GEORGIA

    Around this time, Haiti was in the news as refugees fled the country  — often in flimsy boats or rafts headed for America. Sandra remembers being called — quote unquote “boat people.” Her parents were shocked to hear those words come from their young daughter’s mouth, but Sandra says they tried to protect her and her sisters from such outside threats.

    SANDRA

    I didn't really develop an awareness of the American world until I went off to college. I was determined to understand the environment I was living in. And to me, the best way to understand the environment is to understand the written word. And so I got a my bachelor's in English. And then I went on to get a master's in American studies because I wanted to understand the American culture.

    GEORGIA

    Sandra was also beginning to understand America experientially, in both good and not so good ways.

    [MUSIC]

    SANDRA

    The first time I experienced overt racism as an adult is at Boston College because, I'll never forget this — a white man said something incredibly awful and I don't remember the exact words but it was something akin to essentially the reason slavery occurred is because black people were too weak to defend themselves, just something provocative like that. I just remember being so angry. And what I remember most about the experience is all the people around him who were defending him. They would say things like, well, he didn't mean it, you know, you're making a big deal out of it. Why are you making it complicated?

    And at the time, I didn't know that was privilege at play. And I didn't know that was aggression at play. I just didn't know. But to this day, I remember that experience. And to this day, I have a visceral reaction, not because he said those things, but because he wasn't expected to be accountable for what he was saying. And what I’ve learned in almost a decade of doing EDIJ work, typically, what tends to be missing is accountability.                                                              

    GEORGIA

    Let me pause here and explain EDIJ, actually I’ll start first DEI, which stands for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. That might be a more familiar phrase to you. Organizations with DEI initiatives are, ideally, committing to welcoming and supporting a diverse group of people – and that diversity includes race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc.

    SANDRA

    Initially, in organizational structures… The entry point to this was diversity because diversity is obvious. You either have it or you don't. And so because it's obvious, that means it's measurable. And so people started to focus on getting different representations in the room, but they quickly realized that representation doesn’t mean that people's voices are heard, that they have the tools to succeed.

    GEORGIA

    Addressing diversity wasn't enough...

    SANDRA

    So then inclusion became the theme, right? How do we create the conditions for people to feel welcome and to feel included? And so once inclusion occurred, people realized, well, there are structural barriers to promotion, for example. And so we started to look at equity, right? Because we realized having a voice in the room is helpful, but you're not necessarily the decision maker. So what are the structural barriers that keep you from being the one making the decisions.

    GEORGIA

    That’s DEI in a nutshell. But EDIJ adds the concept of justice, which is closely linked to equity. Sandra says the order of words is important. Equity and justice are where we need to begin and end.

    SANDRA

    Then diversity and inclusion sandwiched in the middle gives you a way to evaluate the experience of equity and justice. So that's why I call it EDIJ.

    GEORGIA

    Sandra’s EDIJ work began early in her career in organizational development.

    SANDRA

    Organizational development is really just a fancy way of looking at how things fit together in order to function optimally. And the idea is that if the pieces are harmonized in function, ultimately, you can do really well today. But you can also prepare yourself for the future. So in that work, part of the training is looking for the things that interfere with harmony… things like diversity, things like inclusion, things like structural barriers to equity kept coming up. It's hard to look at these things and act like they don't happen or they don't matter. And I just couldn't act like that was a central theme anymore.

    GEORGIA

    As the university’s first vice president of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Justice, Sandra is tasked with expanding the university’s equity and social justice initiatives, ultimately to create a better university for everyone.

    SANDRA

    All I see is potential. All I see is what's possible. There is such an earnestness to the community's desire to be collectively a force for good in the world. That doesn't mean it's easy. That doesn't mean it's clear. That doesn't mean it's not, at times, really painful. But what I'm inspired by is how purposeful people are.

    GEORGIA

    Since she was a kid, Sandra has tried to focus on kindness and generosity. One story stands out to her.

    [MUSIC]

    Sandra and her family were still new to America and her mom had gotten lost while driving in South Boston.

    SANDRA

    And this is the days before GPS. And so she's driving around, really lost, and a group of people started forming around her car when she stopped at a red light.

    GEORGIA

    She had no idea what they were saying, but she knew they were angry. Really angry. Then something unexpected happened. Two women hopped in her mom’s car and helped her navigate her way back home.

    SANDRA

    The story is not about South Boston, it’s not about Dorchester. It’s really not about the people who swarmed her car. It's really about, for me, the two women who got in that car and helped her.

    And if I do EDIJ work today, it's really because in my lifetime, I've met more people like those two women then I've met people swarming the car. And when I meet people like that, it gives me hope. It’s a reminder that human beings are complicated. Our lived experiences are full of dark spots but also bright lights. And it's just a matter of taking the time to know the person and let them know you so that you can create together a very different narrative.

    GEORGIA

    Sandra is still new to Lesley and starting a new job during the pandemic means her meetings with the community have been limited to Zoom calls, but she wants people to understand who she is and where she’s coming from.

    SANDRA

    There are things that, I guess, are defaults for me…. The idea of taking the time to learn somebody's lived experience and understand it is important, and then how does it inform the work?

    GEORGIA

    In her interactions with the Lesley community, Sandra hopes people to feel heard and that they  know she’s ready to work.

    SANDRA

    I hope people experience me as generous. I hope people experience me as kind. I hope people experienced me as a person whose intentions on the right side of history. And I hope people experience me as a problem solver. Somebody who is really willing to roll up the sleeves, get in the trenches with them, and let’s figure out how to get out of that trench.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening, who we are is a monthly podcast of Lesley University. To learn more about us visit lesley.edu and check out our show notes for more information on today's guest.