‘That’s Something for Me to Run To’
Personal Journey Informs Professional Mission of New Director of Bias Support Services
It’s been a long time since Van Bailey was sneaking masculine clothes out of his conservative and religious home and changing out of a dress on the way to school.
But even as a transgender Black man now working as the new director of Bias Incident Support Services (BISS) of the UMD Office of Diversity and Inclusion (and offering styling and fashion consulting on the side), Bailey believes his own understanding of sexuality and gender is still evolving.
“That’s one of the things that connects me deeply to students,” he said. “You don’t always have to have all the answers. How you are right now is OK.”
A veteran of student affairs work, Bailey is going to be at the forefront of helping students negotiate those challenges, even in a setting where it’s easy to assume that an educational environment has already lessened the vestiges of bias and racism.
“Higher education is no special system,” he said. “How do we begin to institute ways we can address that harm, be transparent about the harm that is happening and create different ways for folks to find healing?”
It’s a journey that Bailey knows well. He grew up in an Apostolic Pentecostal household in North Carolina and found it difficult to reconcile his upbringing with questions about his gender and sexual identities.
“I didn’t have a ‘coming out.’ I kind of had a ‘forcing out,’” he said. “As much love as there was in that household, there was a lot of bias. There was also a lot of misunderstanding.”
A mentor successfully connected Bailey to admissions officers at Denison University in Ohio, where he initially studied theater before switching to English and Black studies. While college was overall a positive experience, he was also disappointed by how many productions were made up of all-white casts or with limited roles for Black actors (“I was literally cast as a slave in one of the plays”). He became more involved in campus activism and by senior year was president of the Black Student Union. Seeing few mentors in higher education who looked like him, he thought, I’ll have to be that person.
After graduating from Denison in 2005 and earning a master of arts degree in higher education and student affairs from the Ohio State University in 2007, Bailey became a community director at California State University, Northridge and then assistant director for education at University of California-San Diego, overseeing outreach for the LGBT Resource Center. Bailey then went on to be the inaugural director for BGLTQ Student Life at Harvard and the LGBTQ Student Center at the University of Miami before his most recent post as assistant dean and director of diversity and inclusion at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. For two-and-a-half years, he supervised advocacy and retention programs for first-generation and undocumented students, student support services and community outreach.
“He’s able to build trust and buy-in,” said Josh Kinchen, associate director of LGBTQ+ resources at the George Mason Center for Culture, Equity and Empowerment. “(Constituents) trust the process.”
Bailey wants to go places where he thinks he can help, and that includes UMD, which experienced “trauma and pain” from the on-campus murder of Bowie State student and Army officer Richard Collins III in 2017.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s not something to me to run away from. That’s something for me to run to’,” he said. “I see the hard work that has gone into really trying to address systemic barriers and harm that happened on campus.”
Bailey’s humility and openness will be just as important as his experience in creating diversity centers from the ground up, said Georgina Dodge, UMD vice president for diversity and inclusion.
“Van has a deep understanding of higher education and campus cultures and is able to help students unpack their situations within those contexts,” she said. “One of his recommenders lauded his work specifically with undergraduates due to his ability to ‘sit with people in distress.’”
Starting in February as director of BISS, Bailey leads the response and support efforts for campus hate-bias incidents through proactive training, education and data collection. He is also interested in building coalitions across athletics, Greek life, the Counseling Center and student organizations, as well as holding workshops and teach-ins so faculty, staff and students have the opportunity to be vulnerable and are empowered to have difficult conversations on their own.
The university partnership with Black student leaders and the dashboard tracking progress on issues from increasing Black faculty to growing the number of Prince George’s County students admitted to UMD is the sort of transparency and work that Bailey hopes to continue.
“I am interested in building braver spaces around the campus,” he said. “It’s an exciting time and opportunity.”