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Belk Center’s Trailblazers Project Highlights Stories, Achievements of Community College Leaders of Color

W. Dallas Herring Professor Audrey J. Jaeger with Pitt Community College President Lawrence Rouse

As an African American man, Pitt Community College President Lawrence Rouse said there have been many times on his journey to executive leadership when he felt as though his story was not heard. 

Now, he is one of many North Carolina community college leaders of color whose story will be preserved thanks to the Trailblazer Profiles project from the NC State College of Education’s Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research

“We believe that through highlighting and documenting the work of these executive leaders, we will recenter the conversations around who we recognize as important in the history of the community college system in North Carolina and highlight the urgency and opportunity for community colleges to develop and hire presidents who reflect the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the students in the communities they serve,” said W. Dallas Herring Professor and Belk Center Executive Director Audrey J. Jaeger during an appearance on EdNC’s Awake58 podcast.  

The Trailblazer Profiles are part of the Belk Center’s North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) History Project and are intended to highlight and celebrate the work of Black, Latin*, Asian and Indigenous community college leaders, with a focus on current and former community college presidents. 

The project began after Jaeger was awarded the W. Dallas Herring Professorship in 2020 and, through a collaboration with graduate students, began learning about Herring’s life through more than 700 boxes of information in the NC State archives.

This experience, she said, helped her realize the importance of documenting the stories and experiences of more leaders in the North Carolina Community College System.

Belk Center staff– including doctoral candidate Erin O’Quinn, research associate Dre’Sha Singleton and former John M. Belk Impact Fellow Kenzie Bell— began conducting interviews with community college presidents of color to build the Trailblazer Profiles, six of which have already been published online as of Nov. 30. As profiles continue to be released through the spring of 2022, they will also be archived by the University of North Carolina Southern Oral History Program

“We need diverse voices engaging in constructive dialogue. We need the most diverse, talented individuals stepping up to take on leadership roles. Community colleges educate the most diverse students and their leadership should represent that diversity,” Jaeger said during the podcast.

The need to diversify the leadership pipeline is crucial, as a recent survey of community college leaders conducted by the Belk Center showed that The North Carolina Community College System is currently lacking in diversity among its presidents.

Data showed that nearly 75% of community college leaders in the state identify as men while 88% identify as white. NCCCS data shows that only 56% of the more than 525,000 students enrolled in North Carolina community colleges identify as white while nearly 40% identify as a person of color. 

Sharing the journeys and stories of leaders of color, Jaeger said, will have impacts that extend beyond just the community college system. Diversifying the leadership pipeline, she said, matters to the K-12 education and business and industry sectors who employ workers prepared by community colleges. 

“We recognize there is room for continuous improvement in elevating an understanding of equity and explicitly integrating a focus on equity across our existing work at the Belk Center,” Jaeger said. “By elevating the stories of leaders of color, we acknowledge the immensely hard work of these individuals.”

Editor’s Note: The term Latin* refers to individuals that may have been classified as Latinx, Latino, Latina, Latine or Hispanic. The term is intended to be respectful of the various linguistic groups that comprise this racial/ethnic identification and is sensitive to a variety of gender identities.