Education Opens Doors for Diversity Consultant
Social justice, conflict resolution, and racial identity. Independent consultant Charmaine Wijeyesinghe ’80 (psychology), ’85 MEd, ’92 EdD is known across the country for her talent in addressing these loaded topics in lectures and training seminars. “My dissertation on multiracial adults created a model, a new way of ‘framing’ or understanding racial identity,” Wijeyesinghe explains. “At colleges and universities I speak on the experiences of multiracial people. I also work with counselors, conflict resolution professionals and other ‘helping’ agents to better practice their work through the use of racial identity models and theories.”
Wijeyesinghe says being a social justice and diversity consultant requires knowledge and practice in three areas: content, principles of adult education, and self-knowledge. “All of these are critical, especially since race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are far from neutral topics. Many people focus on the first two areas; fewer on the third because self-knowledge requires looking at our own biases and prejudices.”
Publishing New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development (New York University Press, 2001), the book Wijeyesinghe coedited with Bailey Jackson, associate professor of education at UMass Amherst, was particularly rewarding, she says. “Besides bringing my own work on multiracial people to a larger audience, I interacted with an incredible group of authors (including a chapter on mediation of conflicts by Leah Wing and Janet Rifkin, now dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences) and in fact realized a dream made possible by my education.”
Wijeyesinghe’s parents, who emigrated from Sri Lanka, knew that education would open doors for their four children. “I fell in love with UMass Amherst on first sight when I visited my older sister,” she recalls. “It was a much larger community than I was used to—a big draw for me. I did, however, develop a sense of kinship and connection by being part of several smaller groups: a floor community in my residence hall, the crew team, a research group, etc. It was probably one of the most influential periods of growth in my life. I developed my skills in critical thinking, communication, organization and human interaction and gained self-knowledge and a confidence I’m not sure I would have found anywhere else.”
After graduation, Wijeyesinghe stayed on at UMass Amherst. She became a head of residence in Southwest, began her graduate program, and moved into student affairs administration where she held various positions of increasing responsibility. “In classes, we would actively analyze and debate the nature of oppression in its different forms. At work, specializing in policy development, I witnessed the challenges of implementing things like ‘hate speech’ codes, which on one hand were meant to make the campus more welcoming but on the other were seen as limiting individual rights. I worked with people from different backgrounds, with different styles and preferences.”
Wijeyesinghe developed text for a student code of conduct, negotiated it with campus counsel, presented to the Board of Trustees and trained staff in implementation. “It really helped me understand the nature of negotiating between different stakeholders. I also gained solid grounding in laws related to student conduct, Constitutionally protected speech and behavior.”
Experiences like these fed into Wijeyesinghe’s consulting work that began during her graduate years through “Diversity Works,” designed and run by a collective of social justice educators affiliated with School of Education. But obviously most of the content came from course work, research and faculty mentors, “most notably Bailey Jackson and Pat Griffin. I explored my own beliefs and attitudes towards race, ethnicity, prejudice, gays/lesbians, anti-Semitism, classism, and many other areas and had many opportunities to hone skills in human relations management and group dynamics. As an administrator too, I often was sent out to deliver seminars and training on a range of diversity-related topics. I loved my job.”
But in 1992, after much reflection, Wijeyesinghe left her student affairs post to devote herself fully to completing her dissertation. “It was a painful decision to cut those strings, but ended up being amazingly freeing after so many years. The week I defended my dissertation, Mount Holyoke College contacted me about their open Dean of Students position. A few weeks later, the job was mine.
Two years later, Wijeyesinghe decided to become an independent consultant. “I get to make my own schedule to a large extent, which allows me to be the primary caretaker to my two kids,” she says, noting that her husband Dr. Christian Lietzau, a polymer scientist, also is a UMass Amherst alumnus (G’93).
“At first I worked primarily on issues of race and racism. That’s what clients wanted, and that is where I had the most content knowledge. But after a while, I sensed some burn out due to, I think, having to address primarily white audiences with expectations that I could speak to the experiences of all people of color—which I can’t. I almost took a break, but instead began consulting more on issues of gay, lesbian and bisexual oppression. In this area, being a member of the “dominant” and privileged group, I had to do a different kind of work with myself and my clients. I could speak about feeling guilty, embarrassed, confused and so on as well as my own process of being a heterosexual ally who has meant well but didn’t always do the right things. It gave me perspective that I have brought back to my work with white people and race.”
Wijeyesinghe is active in her community of Delmar, New York, mostly around educational issues. She’s engaged in Mothers Acting Up, a political activist group that is concerned with the health and safety of children. “It’s a nice opportunity to meld my experiences as a mom with my concern for social justice.”
May 7, 2007