A shakeup in UW–Madison’s Student Affairs late last year elevated the department’s focus on inclusion, diversity, and equity, and placed that focus in the hands of former Multicultural Student Center director Gabe Javier, who is now associate vice chancellor for student affairs in the area of identity and inclusion. In his new role, Javier oversees the Multicultural Student Center, Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, International Student Services, McBurney Disability Resource Center, and University Veteran Services, all of which were previously under the Division of Student Life.
Javier said elevating these student identities in the organizational chart and putting them all under one umbrella is a big step.
“For the institution to say we need to support coordinated efforts about how we work with students across identities is really important,” he says. “These units who work with students from underrepresented minorities … the structure has it such that you work together.”
“When we reorganized Student Affairs, we saw that our identity-based departments serving underrepresented students needed greater support and leadership alongside their peers in student health and well-being, leadership and engagement, and advocacy,” says Lori Reesor, vice chancellor for student affairs. “The new identity and inclusion area that associate vice chancellor Gabe Javier leads is now better positioned to coordinate and heighten our equity and inclusion efforts throughout all of Student Affairs. Gabe provides a necessary, senior-level perspective, not only on those efforts within our organization, but more broadly with colleagues across the institution.”
Javier says it’s important to remember that students arrive on campus with multiple, often intersecting, identities, and that it’s often not easy to say which identity is most important.
“From [my first day] at Madison, nine years ago, it became really clear that people wanted to be more active in the conversation about intersecting identities in their lives,” he says. “I tried to be very upfront and very candid and honest about my intersecting identities and how I feel those intersecting identities have informed my practice, my philosophy, how I moved through the world. I identify as the son of immigrants. I’m a gay man. I have a non-apparent disability. I identify as a Catholic and certainly as a person of color. So all of those things, they rise and fall in salience and importance to me. Understanding that anyone with multiple identities, one thing may be more important to them than the other at any given day. And that’s okay. We want people to understand and embrace the complexity of their identities. And so we, as practitioners, have to do that, too.”
Being comfortably with — and even embracing — complexity and ambiguity is an important part of his work, Javier says. When it comes to issues like race, ethnicity, and gender, there are often just no easy answers.
“Comfort with ambiguity is actually like a mark of high cultural competence,” he says.
Javier says he learned to be comfortable not knowing all the answers, in part from his Catholic faith, which also provides him a strong foundation in social justice.
“Looking at a situation or a question and discerning an answer through the lens of my values is very rooted in my faith and religion,” he says. “And I’ll be the first to say, whatever the perfect Catholic is, I’m probably not that. But none of us are really supposed to be the perfect Catholic or the perfect religious person. And I think the other piece that practicing faith and religion has helped me to do is to be comfortable with ambiguity.”
Part of that ambiguity comes from the fact that social attitudes toward differing identities is constantly shifting.
“My 10-year-old niece has a classmate that is nonbinary. She and I have talked about that, and that just wasn’t the experience of 10-year-olds even five years ago,” Javier says. “I think that one of the challenges of this work is you have to future-cast and forward-think about what students will best respond to and what their needs [will be] two, three, four, five, 10 years down the line. But there’s always going to be acute incidents and issues right in front of us. It’s important but also really hard to deal with both of those things.”