Faculty Spotlight

Navigating the North Star: Assistant Professor Tatiana M.F. Cruz Receives Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Award

Dr. Jennifer Herman, Professor Tatiana Cruz, Professor Kamille Gentles-Peart, and NEBHE President and CEO Dr. Michael Thomas at the International Women's Day Breakfast and Awards
Dr. Jennifer Herman, Professor Tatiana Cruz, Professor Kamille Gentles-Peart, and NEBHE President and CEO Dr. Michael Thomas at the International Women's Day Breakfast and Awards.

On February 26, the American Council on Education Women’s Network Massachusetts named Tatiana M.F. Cruz, Assistant Professor and Interdisciplinary Program Director of Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, and her collaborator Dr. Kamille Gentles-Peart (Roger Williams University), the winners of the Diversity, Equity, Justice and Inclusion Award. Cruz and Gentles-Peart were recognized for co-founding and directing the North Star Collective, a group of colleges and universities in New England that are committed to faculty racial equity. Cruz spoke with us about reparative justice in the academy, multiracial coalitions in Boston, and her passion for history.

“It was an honor to receive the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Award from the American Council on Education Women’s Network Massachusetts [ACE Women’s Network], especially since we worked really hard to create a meaningful community for scholars of color,” says Tatiana M.F. Cruz, Assistant Professor and Interdisciplinary Program Director of Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. “It is also exciting that people are noticing our initiative, and this gives us a platform to discuss and reimagine DEI in the academy,” she adds.

This particular award honors “champion[s] of change whose vision and contributions are focused on changing structural systems for the advancement of women in Massachusetts colleges and universities.” ACE Women’s Network recognized Cruz and her colleague Dr. Kamille Gentles-Peart (Communication and Media Studies, Roger Williams University) for co-founding and co-directing the North Star Collective, a consortium of 18 colleges and universities in New England committed to faculty racial equity. On March 8, Cruz and Gentles-Peart received their award at the International Women’s Day Breakfast and Awards: Preparing for the Future of Work Through a Gender Lens, held at Salem State University.

Dr. Jennifer H. Herman, Executive Director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, nominated Cruz and Gentles-Peart for the ACE Women’s Network Massachusetts DEIJ award. As Herman wrote in her letter of nomination, the signature program of the North Star Collective is a Faculty Fellowship “designed by BIPOC faculty for BIPOC faculty. This semester-long fellowship offers a nurturing community that promotes racial healing, well-being, and professional development. . . . . . . . Tatiana Cruz and Kamille Gentles-Peart have created an organization that is truly dedicated to systemic change.”

Activating Reparative Justice

In 2020, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) hired Cruz, then a faculty member at Lesley University, and Gentles-Peart as consultants to help amplify their DEI-related work and develop initiatives to support faculty diversity.

“I came to the NEBHE position having grown disillusioned about DEI in the academy,” says Cruz. “I had tried to generate initiatives before, but made little progress in changing institutional culture on my campus. This was an exciting opportunity to make broader transformational change in the region.”

“Kamille and I developed a reparative justice framework that would center BIPOC faculty,” says Cruz. “We aim to acknowledge the harm that has been done to BIPOC faculty in predominantly white institutions that were established without us in mind and that have historically excluded and marginalized people of color in the academy . . . Then, we work to nourish and uplift BIPOC faculty and prioritize their needs. This was the beginning of the North Star Collective (NSC).”

The NSC initiative derives inspiration from the north star that enslaved Africans and African Americans followed toward freedom, as well as the nineteenth-century abolitionist newspaper published by Frederick Douglass. “New Englanders pride ourselves as being progressive and anti-racist, but faculty of color here often feel isolated and devalued,” says Cruz. “So, the North Star Collective reframes the North as what it originally was: a promise of liberation. We are working to create communities of refuge and supportive institutions that attract BIPOC faculty to the region and encourage them to stay and settle.”

The NSC embraces three pillars of reparative justice: transformation, restoration, and nourish and uplift. “We also see ourselves challenging traditional DEI frameworks in academia, which are typically reactive and student-centered: often a racist incident happens on campus and then the university administration responds, students organize, and so forth. But we cultivate deeper conversations and interventions that center on faculty of color and work to support their needs,” she says.

The North Star Collective has a two-pronged approach. First, it supports institutional leaders in their transformative racial equity work by creating opportunities for our members to collaborate, share best practices, and problem-solve. The second is our signature initiative, a faculty fellowship program that has attracted over 200 applicants from the member institutions since it began in 2021. Each year, approximately 25 fellows comprise each cohort. “Now in our third year, we are welcoming faculty from all academic disciplines, early career or recently tenured faculty, and non-tenure-track faculty from our 18 member institutions. We are very intentional about accepting adjunct faculty, because we did not want to replicate the hierarchies and inequities within the academy. Moreover, faculty of color are disproportionately confined to contingent non-tenure-track positions, so we want to make this unique opportunity available to them,” explains Cruz.

Thus far, five Simmons faculty members have been awarded the North Star Fellowship. Cohort I included Associate Professor of Practice and Doctor of Social Work Director Jacqueline Dyer and former Simmons Assistant Professor of Public Health Felipe Agudelo (now Assistant Professor and Associate Director for Diversity and Inclusion at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine). Cohort II included Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science Rebecca Davis Stallworth and Assistant Professor of History Yunxin Li. Cohort III includes Social Work Adjunct Professor Myrlene Jean-Venant. Cruz hopes to expand the visibility of the faculty fellowship among Simmons BIPOC faculty and continue to build connections across the different NSC cohorts here on campus.

In addition to a grant for professional development and tailored workshops to support their advancement and holistic wellness, NSC faculty fellows also participate in writing retreats and in virtual writing groups to prioritize their scholarship and write in community, as well as reflection circles to promote racial trauma healing, and other communal activities that foster a sense of belonging. “To see so many faculty of color feeling valued and welcomed in our spaces is a beautiful thing,” remarks Cruz.

“Co-directing the North Star Collective has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done professionally,” says Cruz. “It also has been a wonderful collaborative experience; I had not met Kamille before our NEBHE appointment, but we work so well together and have since become good friends and ‘sister-scholars.’ As an historian who often works alone in the archives, I appreciate my collaborator and the entire North Star community.”

Rewriting Boston’s Racial History

Cruz specializes in mid-twentieth-century United States history. As a Latina who grew up in Boston, she felt the influences of Black culture and Black history all around her. This rich environment led to a fascination with African American history, which inspired a dissertation that explored how racially segregated communities came together to support one another in Boston during the Civil Rights Movement.

Cruz is transforming her dissertation into a book, now under contract with University of Pennsylvania Press for their Politics and Culture in Modern America series. “This project, tentatively titled Deep North Uprising: African American and Latinx Identity, Community, and Protest in Boston, is the first book that performs a comparative analysis of African American and Latinx community organizing in Boston. Whereas previous studies on civil rights in Boston focus on desegregation and the busing crisis of 1974, my work challenges the dominant narrative by tracing decades of social movements and grassroots organizing on the part of Boston’s African American and Latinx communities. I argue that these groups often forged overlapping racial and political identities and formed as multiracial / multiethnic coalitions, coming together in solidarity to address their collective struggles over poverty, education, housing, and beyond. As a scholar, it is very gratifying to tell the stories of marginalized peoples,” says Cruz.

Moreover, Cruz’s book project complicates simplistic understandings of Blackness in Boston. “Boston is often construed as a Black/White binary type of city. But in actuality, many racial and ethnic minorities reside here. We also have diverse Black communities that reflect the expansive nature of the African diaspora and include Afro-Latinx people or mixed-race Latinx people,” explains Cruz. “I am interested in revealing this more obscured racial history of Boston, especially since this city was so invested in the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of resistance.”

Being Called to her Craft

As long as she can remember, Cruz has been drawn to history, storytelling, and personal narratives. “However, it took me a while to recognize that being a historian was my calling, since most of my childhood history courses were very whitewashed and focused on dates, names, and rote memorization,” she recalls. “Studying history in college was mind-blowing for me, because I could take so many courses on African American history and be mentored by amazing professors of color who were leading scholars in the field.”

During her studies, Cruz also learned more sophisticated research methods underpinning history and historiography. “I began to see how analytical and interpretive history can be. I love primary sources as well as historical monographs, especially since the discipline of history includes a storytelling aspect.”

Not only does Cruz love working in archives, but she also is working to create new archives. “My kids call my work like that of a detective because I spend so much time investigating materials in the archives. When you find something that shifts your thinking, it’s such an exciting discovery,” she explains. “Since many of my historical subjects were never featured in archival collections, I became an oral historian to document the experiences of marginalized groups and fill in these archival gaps.”

For those aspiring to be scholars, Cruz underscores the necessity of passion, mentorship, and funding. “Being a professor may seem like an appealing prestigious career for ambitious students, but it’s not very glamorous. While I felt that I was destined to teach and was passionate about African American history, graduate school is very difficult and a long road; in many fields it takes 5–10 years to complete a PhD. Then, if you do finally finish and defend your dissertation, you face a very competitive academic job market with only a few jobs in each specific subfield nationwide. Most newly minted PhDs have to make difficult decisions to live in less desirable geographic areas or do not land tenure-track jobs at all,” she says. “I was lucky to secure a job at Simmons, an institution that is not only in my hometown of Boston, but that also aligns with my values and supports both my teaching and research goals.”

“My advice for students interested in pursuing a PhD is to do so only if you are truly passionate about research and your field of study,” counsels Cruz. “And if you do decide to embark on this journey, be sure that you find a program that is a good fit where you will be affirmed and where you will have reliable, supportive, holistic mentors. Go to a reputable institution that supports your research goals and offers you full funding packages to complete your education, as well as helps you cultivate other skill sets in case a career in academia does not materialize or you decide being a professor isn’t what’s right for you. Being agile is a great asset. Ultimately, those who do become professors need to maintain a passion and strive for a balance between teaching, research, and service. I am lucky to be at a place like Simmons where I feel my work in all three areas is valued.”

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Kathryn Dickason