James E. Page Jr.’s path not only to working within the field of diversity and inclusion, but also to being considered a global thought leader in this area may appear to some as serendipity.
For Page, the work is very personal. “People bring their whole selves—as students, faculty, staff and guests—to their time at a place like Vanderbilt. In many cases, these individuals live in the environments they are experiencing,” he said. “It is unrealistic to say to someone, ‘I need you to disconnect yourself from whatever identities you are carrying,’ as all of that comes with you. It is an essential component of how you experience your environment and how others may initially view you and shows up in your everyday life.”
Page was appointed vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer for Vanderbilt University in August following a yearlong national search. He leads the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
Essential to the fabric
An engineer by training, Page balances an analytic, quantifiable approach to diversity and inclusion with a strong record of designing programs that foster engagement, boost productivity, shift cultures and yield tangible returns while furthering the goals of equity, respect and mutual understanding.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer technology from Purdue University and an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. His 20-year career includes roles in systems design, human resources, government relations, community engagement, technology and health care.
Directly prior to joining the Vanderbilt community, Page was vice president and chief diversity officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. His work there not only promoted diversity and inclusion, but also increased patient safety and global engagement and advanced the institution as a whole. He believes that when the values of equity, diversity and inclusion are implemented in an authentic way, they become an essential component of long-term success, providing a competitive advantage that distinguishes world-class organizations.
“The power of diversity, inclusion and equity within organizations arises not when it is an afterthought, but a well-integrated operational necessity—when at the end of the day people say, ‘I don’t know how I was able to accomplish this work without these critical cultural competency skills,’” Page said. “What we are striving for is to get to a place where our use of inclusion and cultural competency skills is so ingrained that we could not imagine doing otherwise, and where diversity and inclusion are understood to be essential to our shared success as an organization.”
Page said that Vanderbilt’s strong commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and desire to infuse these values into the fabric of the university are a big part of what drew him to the community.
“Vanderbilt is an exceptional institution,” he said. “The tone truly starts at the top, and Chancellor Zeppos’ commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of the boldest and most genuine commitments that I’ve seen from any chief executive. His desire to align these values with the strategic plan of the university will ensure Vanderbilt succeeds not only today, but tomorrow and beyond.”
Agency and empowerment
Equity, diversity and inclusion are not just aspirations, but essential components for Vanderbilt in achieving its research, teaching and service missions, according to Page. A key part of doing this, he said, is creating a space where every person feels welcome and respected and understands how they uniquely contribute to the shared mission of the Vanderbilt community.
“Our responsibility as a university is to break down those barriers—to knock down the ivory tower that exists and say, ‘if you desire it and if you put in the work, you can succeed here. You can be engaged and happy here, and it’s not limited based on your financial situation, where you come from, or what language you speak,’” he said. “We must ensure that every single person within our university community is shown respect, knows they are valued, and understands how they are part of making Vanderbilt great.”
Page attributes the definition of diversity to which he ascribes to his late mentors, Thurmond B. Woodard and Roosevelt Thomas, the latter founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity. Both are considered by many to be pioneers in the diversity field.
“Diversity is simply differences and similarities outlined by complexities and tensions,” Page explained. “However, what we want to do is be a place that is not only diverse, but also inclusive. Diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance. Another way to put it is: Diversity is being invited into the house, whereas inclusion is being asked to help rearrange the furniture in the house so that it fits you.”
Family and inspiration
Diversity and inclusion may be Page’s missions, but family is his touchstone. He and his wife, Jeresther, a passionate educator, are the parents of three children whom Page said inspire him every day. If you visit the Pages’ home, you’ll often find the family playing games, enjoying nature, laughing and eating meals prepared by James, who prides himself in cooking complex dishes.
“The most important thing I would want anyone to know about me is that I’m a really, really proud dad,” he said. “My wife and I were high school sweethearts and have been on this amazing journey together. My family is the reason I work as hard as I do.”
Page also noted the impact that his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have had in forming the person he is today. Page said he spent much of his youth listening to and learning from all four grandparents and his maternal great-grandmother, who lived to age 107.
“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “What someone like Great-grandma Mary endured as a negro woman born in 1880s America has made the privileges I enjoy today possible. Her strength, suffrage, tenacity and hope allow me the honor to make someone else’s journey better.
“My parents are still together to this day, and the strength they had to raise five boys to be master’s-educated in a neighborhood where most people didn’t get their undergraduate degree is truly the American dream,” Page said. “It inspires me and provides an example and a path to hope in the face of ambiguity, fear and institutional racism.”
Page has wasted little time partnering with others at Vanderbilt to make the campus a more equitable community. Together with Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente and Vice Chancellor for Administration Eric Kopstain, Page helped launch an institution-wide strategy in late August to make Vanderbilt a more conscious, respectful, safe and equitable place for women. Their integrated and collaborative approach will study and address key issues facing the broad array of women at Vanderbilt.
Page insists that while he helps set a tone and vision around institutional equity, diversity and inclusion, he does not “own” EDI at Vanderbilt. “Our success will ultimately depend on the commitment, engagement and trust of each member of the Vanderbilt community,” he said. “We won’t always agree, but our institution was founded as a place for the respectful exchange of ideas and viewpoints. We must hear other viewpoints so that we can come up with better solutions.
“What I know for sure is that we’ve got a big job to do here, and we need every single member of our community to be fully engaged and committed so that we can do it unlike any other place in the world.”
To learn more, visit vu.edu/james-page.