A Sense of Belonging

The University’s first-ever chief diversity officer will draw on a lifetime of personal and professional experience to make Sewanee a more welcoming home for all who come here. Meet Sibby Anderson-Thompkins.

SIBBY ANDERSON-THOMPKINS was just a toddler when the public schools in Pitt County, North Carolina, were desegrated in the 1960s, but the effects of the court-ordered effort would reverberate in her family and in her personal and professional life for years to come.

Anderson-Thompkins comes from a family of educators in rural eastern North Carolina. Her grandfather was the principal of an all-Black school in which her grandmother was the first-grade teacher. And her father became the principal of an all-Black school in which her mother was a kindergarten teacher. When Anderson-Thompkins’ older sister and brother were sent to a previously all-white school, the reception from some students, teachers, and families was less than hospitable. Anderson-Thompkins’ sister, Michelle, especially, was bullied and harassed. “Often, she would have sand from the playground kicked into her face and her hair because her classmates thought it was funny that the sand would get trapped in her hair,” Anderson-Thompkins says.

By the time Anderson-Thompkins was old enough to understand what her parents and siblings were talking about around the family dinner table, much of the conversation revolved around racial issues and the importance of equal opportunity in education. “My sister sharing her experience really shaped for me my own concerns about interacting with a diverse group of peers,” Anderson-Thompkins says. “It also shaped for me this urgency to address, later on in my career, issues around race and difference and creating spaces where people would feel safe, respected, cared for, and a sense of belonging.”

After a long and groundbreaking career as an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Anderson-Thompkins was recently named Sewanee’s first chief diversity officer as the vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion. She arrives on the Mountain at a pivotal moment, charged with overseeing Sewanee’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts just as the University is beginning a five-year strategic planning process in which DEI will be a major focus. Sewanee will offer Anderson-Thompkins yet more opportunities to apply the lessons she learned around her family’s dinner table, ensuring that anyone who comes to the Mountain feels safe, respected, cared for, and a sense of belonging.

ON HER FIRST DAY as an undergraduate student at UNC, Anderson-Thompkins had another experience that would have a long-lasting impact. She happened to meet the leader of the campus Black Student Movement, and he asked her if she was “getting on the bus.” The student activist group had chartered a bus to Washington, D.C., for the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Anderson-Thompkins got on the bus and never looked back.

A couple of years after that memorable trip to Washington, Anderson-Thompkins was elected president of UNC’s Black Student Movement, and she used the position to advocate for a cultural center for Black students. The students got their center—a single room in the student union. Today, UNC’s students have access to the free-standing Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, a hub for research, scholarship, and art exhibits, and Anderson-Thompkins recognizes that first one-room cultural center as a necessary first step toward a grander vision. “I remember how amazing it was to have that one room that was our space, where we could go meet with faculty and have a dedicated space for us to connect with one another,” she says.

After graduating with a degree in literature and performance studies, Anderson-Thompkins stayed in Chapel Hill to earn a master’s degree in the same field and then started her career at UNC following a brief stint working at a rape crisis center. She worked in the Dean of Students Office as the sexual assault and harassment response coordinator and, because she had been a student leader who benefited from the counsel of mentors, she served as an advisor to student government, the Black Student Movement, and some of the campus’s Greek organizations. “I became that person I’d had, who challenged me and helped to develop my skills as a leader,” she says.

“In the meetings I had with Sewanee’s search committee, with Nancy Berner and Reuben Brigety, I felt like we could finish each other’s sentences. There was a sense of alignment that just got me excited and enthusiastic about doing this work here.”

Working with students who were dealing with various forms of trauma made Anderson-Thompkins realize that she wanted more—a more scientific understanding of student development, and more tools to use in helping others cope. “A lot of the work I was doing was based on intuition, my gut and my heart, but I didn’t have the formal understanding of how you conduct a study or read an empirical article,” she says. “I wanted to be equipped as a researcher.” She left her job to go back to school full-time.

At Georgia State University in Atlanta, Anderson-Thompkins earned a second master’s degree in education research and a Ph.D. in education policy. Her work there focused on the cultural foundations of policy, leadership, and change, and gave her training in ethnography that she would use throughout her career. “When I go into a space through my work, I enter as an ethnographer,” she says. “I’m listening, I’m trying to get a sense of the culture that I’m entering. I’m looking for those trusted people within a community who can serve as a guide for me. So that background really helps me enter into different environments and understand the importance of trust and how communities work.”

After serving as assistant dean of the college and dean of advising at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Anderson-Thompkins returned to Chapel Hill to become the director of the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. The position gave Anderson-Thompkins the chance to work with recent Ph.D.’s as she previously had with undergraduates in student affairs. She guided post-docs onto the UNC faculty and helped make Carolina Post-Doc a nationally recognized model for recruiting, developing, and hiring diverse faculty. She implemented a successful training program for faculty and staff and hired the office’s first director of education, community engagement, and belonging. And she established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council to promote best practices across campus. In February 2020, Anderson-Thompkins was named a special advisor to UNC’s chancellor as the provost for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer.

In June 2021, Anderson-Thompkins was honored with a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the most prestigious distinctions for faculty and staff at UNC. “In my experience, no one models community and inclusion better than Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins,” Chief of Staff to the Chancellor Amy Locklear Hertel wrote in nominating Anderson-Thompkins for the award. “She has led our work to build a campus community in which faculty, staff, and students feel that they belong and are equipped to thrive.”

A month before Anderson-Thompkins was given a Massey Award, UNC’s board of trustees declined to offer Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured position on the university’s faculty. Hannah-Jones had been appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the two people who had most recently held the position had been offered tenure. Hannah-Jones authored the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which examined the legacy of slavery in America, and her hiring had brought a backlash from some conservatives. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins joined a handful of professors of color at UNC who left in the wake of the Hannah-Jones tenure denial and has said that the incident was a catalyst for her departure.

“I love UNC,” Anderson-Thompkins says. “My son goes to UNC now, and my brother, sister, and I all graduated from UNC. But this work is very difficult, and you cannot effect change without strong leadership that’s committed to these issues. I wanted to be somewhere that I would know for sure that I have the support of senior leadership.”

She says she found that leadership at Sewanee. “In the meetings I had with Sewanee’s search committee, with [Provost] Nancy Berner and [Vice-Chancellor] Reuben Brigety, I felt like we could finish each other’s sentences. There was a sense of alignment that just got me excited and enthusiastic about doing this work here.”

ANDERSON-THOMPKINS EMPLOYS a useful shorthand for describing the three legs of the DEI stool: “Diversity is who we are. Equity is what we do. Inclusion is how we feel.” Diversity, she explains, reflects different identities, whether they’re related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, gender expression, age, religion, or the intersection of identities. Equity encompasses the actions that make people feel included or excluded. And inclusion is about whether individuals feel a sense of connection and belonging in a community.

At Sewanee, Anderson-Thompkins will assess the University’s programs and practices—including the recruitment of faculty, staff, and students—to identify barriers that limit progress in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She’ll partner with students and other University offices to support a welcoming and inclusive campus climate, and coordinate leadership campus-wide to ensure that DEI initiatives are integrated throughout the University.

“I have been so impressed with all the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and activities [at Sewanee], but I think my role will be to bring coordination and build a real infrastructure that brings all of the great energy and effort together in a more cohesive, meaningful way,” she says. “There is an opportunity here to think about the way we want to express and demonstrate the commitment of Sewanee in this area.”

“It’s demonstrating care, demonstrating a willingness to reach out and take a personal approach to welcoming people here, inviting them in, and saying, ‘We want you to come here because you’re going to be supported.’”

When it comes to recruiting more students and employees of color—an area Sewanee has struggled with—Anderson-Thompkins believes that rather than focusing on numbers, the University first needs to build the kind of community people want to join. “Whether you have 20 people or 2,000, it’s about how people feel,” she says. “That means really making a concerted effort to make sure those who visit us, who choose to join us, have a positive experience. It’s demonstrating care, demonstrating a willingness to reach out and take a personal approach to welcoming people here, inviting them in, and saying, ‘We want you to come here because you’re going to be supported.’”

That means building a more robust multicultural affairs program and a more active multicultural center. It also means formalizing the informal resources that answer some important questions for prospective students and employees of color: Where will I find my community? Where will I go to church? Where will I get my hair done? At UNC, Anderson-Thompkins says, students had access to the “Black Pages,” a compendium of answers to the questions Black students were asking. “My team and I are really trying to answer those types of questions so that we’re prepared to recruit more broadly,” Anderson-Thompkins says. “It’s about connection, and it’s about feeling like I’m safe and I’m going to be able to come here and thrive.”

As the University embarks on a strategic planning process that will include an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the University’s ongoing Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation will help inform Sewanee’s DEI efforts with a historical perspective. Anderson-Thompkins sees great benefit in that. “The Roberson Project lays the foundation for how we go about this work,” she says. “One of the challenges I see that other institutions are having, especially institutions in the South, is reckoning with their own history around race and slavery. What I am seeing here is that whether it’s the senior leadership, the Sewanee community, or the Board of Regents, everyone recognizes that we’re going to have to work harder to make this into a place where, let’s be frank, more African Americans and other underrepresented groups feel like they belong. I see a willingness to engage with this history and not be limited by it.”

As Anderson-Thompkins’ work gets underway on the Mountain, she outlines a few of the areas she’ll be focused on: Using feedback from recent campus-climate surveys to inform her office’s work in looking systematically at policies and practices; making sure the University is able to respond to reported incidents of bias quickly and effectively; and offering training to give people the tools they need to understand issues like structural and systemic racism and to manage their own biases. But she also notes that working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion requires the efforts of an entire community. “I find there’s a lot of enthusiasm and support from colleagues,” she says. “But it’s not just the job of the chief diversity officer. It really has to be everyone’s responsibility to pick up these issues from where they sit.”