Answering the Call
Compassion, Humility Guide the Leader of UMD’s Hate-Bias Response Program
Running the university’s Hate-Bias Response Program (HBRP) calls for generous measures of empathy, resilience and persistence, and colleagues of Neijma Celestine-Donnor say she embodies all three.
The core mission of HBRP, in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, is focused on providing responses and support to those impacted by hate-bias on all levels. Working with a range of campus partners, the program also offers training and education on how individuals and teams can respond to hate-bias incidents.
Known for her uncommon ability to listen to, then communicate to others the experiences of victims of hate-bias incidents, Celestine-Donnor is committed to advocating for a more compassionate campus community.
“When I bring Neijma to meetings with me, I wonder if people understand how amazing she is as she’s speaking, because she’s so humble,” said Cynthia Edmunds, interim chief diversity officer. “She brings every bit of her heart into what she does with such care and grace, and for that I am always grateful.”
Celestine-Donnor talks with Maryland Today about what hate-bias is, how people can effectively counter it and what motivates her.
What led you to this kind of work?
My expertise is not only in diversity and inclusion, but also in trauma. As a licensed clinician, I’ve worked with people who have experienced racial and identity trauma, as well as those who were victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and rape. That really influences how we do the work here, because we try to do everything from a trauma-informed lens.
I think part of my interest in it is my multiple identities. I’m a black woman, and I’m a first-generation immigrant. I’ve always been in these spaces and places where I was the one who was on the receiving end of what, at times, was terrible treatment. So, I’ve always felt that it was my responsibility in this world to ensure that other people had a sense of belonging, because I didn’t always have that. I wanted people to feel supported and that they weren’t alone in their struggles or any trauma they experienced because of their identity. I try my best to always bring compassion, care and accountability to the work. I think in almost every meeting I’m in, you can hear me say, “We must center the experiences of those most impacted.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
No day is “typical,” but I’m usually providing individual and systematic advocacy and support for students, faculty and staff who are impacted by acts of hate-bias. This could involve anything from listening to and validating someone’s experience or advocating for systematic change. On any given day, I am collaborating, consulting and providing expertise to academic units and other university departments on how best to response to an incident that occurred in their department. I also serve as chief adviser to the Hate-Bias Response Team, and since we are fairly new, I spend a lot of time with the team figuring out ways to become more visible, as well as to ensure that responses to hate-bias incidents are effective and impactful.
What does hate-bias look like?
It could look like a number of different things. Hate can be someone writing the n-word on the white board outside your room, or it can be someone who’s committing genocide. We talk about the pyramid of hate and how it can be really extreme—like genocide—or it could be a slur or a word, but those are both hate. On college campuses, we see hate in many different forms including verbal slurs, hateful messages or assault.
I think people have an image of what hate looks like. It’s kind of like how we think that a kidnapper is going to be someone jumping up from the bushes, but it can be anyone. We really want to provide information that it doesn’t have to be someone who’s running around in a hood belonging to the KKK. It could be anyone and it could be anywhere.
What services does your program offer?
If there’s a hate-bias incident, someone will submit a report to the hate-bias response website, and then we will assess it. The response is really guided by what the impacted party wants, so we have a conversation with them to ask them what support will look like for them and what will be most helpful for them. Some people may want to be connected to mental health services, some people may need academic advocacy, some people may need residential advocacy, some people may want to have a mediation meeting, some people may want us to talk to the perpetrator if we know who that person is.
How do people respond to mediated conversations?
Those who have been impacted feel validated and heard as they have an opportunity to say, “This is what you did, and I need you to hear that.” For some, not all, of the people who have committed the acts, it can be a teachable moment. I think it can be really powerful to hear how your actions have impacted someone, when you hear it from the impacted person as opposed to me or somebody else telling them. I think bringing both parties together in this way and utilizing a restorative approach has been successful because it focuses on repairing harm while making accountability active. We definitely hope to do more of this within the program.