Debra J. Perez

Debra Pérez on the True Meaning of Inclusion and Equity

What do the words “organizational culture, inclusion and equity” mean?

A healthy organization and culture is inclusive of the entire community — it represents and creates opportunities for the just and fair inclusion of everyone. In an inclusive culture, each individual can participate and contribute their full potential. 

A healthy organization is also self-reflective. We must always be asking ourselves what did we learn and how can we do better. In my mind, assessment and accountability must also be part of any diversity, inclusion and equitable agenda. 

The definition of equity is context-specific but it is not equality, where everyone gets the same treatment. Rather, it pays attention to power, privilege and oppression and makes sure that those that are not included, are; those that have been historically ignored are seen; and those that are excluded are included.

What inspired you to work in the area of organizational culture, inclusion & equity?

I've been doing diversity, equity and inclusion work my entire career. I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done poorly. I believe that diversity is a core strength of any organization, that a diverse organization has a much greater potential for excellence and effectiveness but only if it is inclusive and equitable. There's a large evidence base for the value of inclusion. This includes everything from better decisions made by more diverse groups to increases in profits from more diverse organizations.

I’ve been asked why diversity isn’t in my title. Too often diversity is ill-defined or exclusive — meaning that a diverse organization can be numeric, cosmetic or superficial, but not inclusive or equitable. You can have diversity without inclusion, and what we’re trying to achieve is an inclusive culture. 

What inspires me is making a difference in the lives of others. I have long been committed to advancing social justice, work first in non-profit work and then in philanthropy. I started mentoring and coaching programs for scholars of color and LGBT scholars of color to advance their research and support them in staying in higher education. I've also done a lot of mentoring specifically for mid-career women and people of color interested in public sector leadership through National Urban Fellows. What's so great about mentoring is the opportunity to use one’s power to lift up others. I often tell my mentees that the best thing about having power is giving it away. We all have the potential to give back as we move forward.

On the more personal side, I am inspired by creating a future where my 33 nieces and nephews can live in safe world fully expressing all their identities.  

"I’ve been asked why diversity isn’t in my title. Too often diversity is ill-defined or exclusive — meaning that a diverse organization can be numeric, cosmetic or superficial, but not inclusive or equitable. You can have diversity without inclusion, and what we’re trying to achieve is an inclusive culture."


Why did you decide to work at Simmons University?

As a graduate of a woman’s college (Douglass, Rutgers University), I know first-hand the critical role of higher education in building the future leadership for the country and the world. There's nothing more important in today’s political, social and cultural context than strong, vibrant, educated and civil leadership. I'm convinced that educating women builds a better world.

Simmons University is a leader in social justice education and in leadership. I see a world in desperate need of civil, strong, community-centered leadership. I believe being a part of Simmons will give me an opportunity to support the future leadership of the country that reflects the richness of our heritage and leverages the wisdom of multiple identities. 

What is your charge at Simmons University?

Simmons has been very clear about prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion work and has committed resources to establishing this office as well as centralizing its work as one of the top priorities for the Strategy 2022. Our job will be to operationalize the 2022 goals and objectives and to ensure that we achieve the five-year outcomes. In addition, and simply put, I aspire to make Simmons University the most inclusive campus in New England. 

Part of that culture change means that Simmons will empower staff, students and faculty to be their best selves and to achieve their greatest potential. One of the many phrases that I have heard and read about Simmons is “we are at our best when we put students first.” I believe this is especially true of our under-represented students. 

I’m delighted to have a committed team working on these matters, and look forward to adding an additional team member. With that said, I also want to note that we can’t do this work alone. Social justice work requires equity and equity is all of our work to do. It’s the University’s work — to be done at all levels. Every person at Simmons should feel responsible to make us the most inclusive campus in the region. It’s an institution-wide effort that will take time but there are immediate things we can do to make people feel included. 

What are you most excited for in your new role at Simmons?

I'm excited about learning from and working with the students at Simmons. They have so much to teach staff and faculty about advancing a social justice agenda and being intentional about being inclusive. I recently met a student activist who spoke of their experience here at Simmons and how hopeful they were about making Simmons a place where the trans community is valued, recognized and rewarded for its contribution to this community and to broader society.


"I believe being a part of Simmons will give me an opportunity to support the future leadership of the country that reflects the richness of our heritage and leverages the wisdom of multiple identities."


How do you understand the words “privilege” and “intersectionality”? 

I’d say privilege is the power to change things, but not doing so. And there’s a broad spectrum of people who have privilege. Intersectionality is important to understand as it’s looking at our various identities and recognizing the impact of how they intersect. As a Latinx cisgender woman of color from the LBGTQ community – my experience is informed by more than one identity. Also, my identity is strongly influenced by being a first-generation college graduate.

If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

Unstoppable! If you have purpose, nothing can stop you. One of my favorite quotes is from Sage Patanjali: 

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” 

This speaks to the power of possibility. Seeing what no one else sees as doable and doing it. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be barriers or challenges, there always are. It means seeing  your way forward despite them. I often tell my mentees, whether you believe you can or you believe you cannot, either way you're right. 

What’s your favorite book?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It inspires me to believe that everyone has the potential to realize their dreams as long as they believe they can. The universe will conspire to help achieve all our desires. I've seen this happen in my life. It's happening right now. 

Tell us one fun fact about yourself

I'm a pretty good salsa dancer and learned how to lead. 

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