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Black History Month Profiles: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Specialist Jeff Perkins

April 25, 2022

Jeff Perkins, Noodle’s first DEI specialist, started his academic journey intending to be a magazine editor, with no plans to work in higher education. But that all changed when he took a role as a College Adviser with the Missouri College Advising Corps. He served for two years within the Kansas City Public Schools system at Southeast High School — his mom’s alma mater — as the inaugural College Adviser there helping first-generation and low income students of color with college access work. Jeff discovered his passion for supporting students in creating new futures for themselves —he tells people that it was his students who made the decision for him to pursue a career in education. He continued his education at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), earning his Masters in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis there, and went on to various roles in higher education, always with a primary focus on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, community building and college access.

Meet Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Specialist Jeff Perkins

“Finding my community gave me permission to be authentically myself. It allowed me to stop hiding and feel seen.”

What elements or traits does a great leader exhibit?

I think what makes a leader great is having a strong sense of empathy for others. A great leader is someone who can connect to the humanity that exists within us all. Having compassion as well as confidence to be authentically yourself; that’s greatness. I also think a great leader is someone who recognizes their power and influence to make sustainable change wherever they are. Someone who understands we’re all teachers and learners. I am committed to being a forever student of life. If you’re not learning, you’re not able to lead well. 

When you think of great leadership, who comes to mind? Why?

This question makes me think of my mentors and creative heroes. Mentorship has been the most important model of leadership for me. Dr. Jonathan McElderry, Dr. Stephanie Hernandez Rivera and Velma Buckner are some of my mentors and favorite people in higher education! Dr. Amalia Dache helped me fall in love with research and taught me how to ask critical questions. A lot of my fraternity brothers and closest friends who are also in higher education are great leaders. I think about my literary heroes, such as Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marlon Riggs, and bell hooks. Beyoncé is my favorite artist in the world. The thing that all of these people have in common is being great storytellers. They are able to connect to the real experiences that people have gone through historically and currently. I think that being able to use storytelling as a vehicle of change is what great leadership uses and needs. All of my mentors, good friends and heroes have this ability. I also think great leaders have the ability to be models of possibility for others. Working in higher education it’s been so important for me to see other BIPOC, LGBTQ and working class people in leadership roles. One of my favorite quotes by Marian Wright Edelman says “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Representation goes beyond what we can quantify–it’s about transforming the landscape of leadership itself.

How has your personal leadership style evolved over time?

My leadership style is driven by creativity, relationship building and community. I used to think leadership was about the individual, but for me, it’s about a feeling of connectedness to others too. I also think my personal leadership style has evolved from shying away from owning that I’m a leader to having the confidence to say “I’m a leader”. I’ve realized that you gain nothing from playing small in the world. You just get a fraction of what you deserve. 

What is it about your background or career experiences that successfully positioned you for your role at Noodle?

I come from a resilient and loving working class family from Kansas City, Missouri. My mother and grandmother raised me and provided me with access to opportunity—even though they didn’t always have it themselves. My mom went back to school when I was in middle school to get her Bachelors and Masters degrees. She remains my greatest model of possibility. My mom always taught me to be creative and encouraged me to dream big. I’ve focused primarily on diversity, equity and inclusion work within my higher education career. Working directly on campuses with faculty, staff and students around fostering inclusion, understanding challenges for certain communities as it relates to diverse issues and more has been the focus of my work. Many of the practices I’ve helped individuals within higher education understand can be applied everywhere. I have been able to create various social justice curricula that touch on concepts such as intersectionality, bias, anti-Blackness, gender, cultural and structural violence, inclusive practices, and more. I’m a strong facilitator and I’m able to explain sometimes dense theoretical concepts in a variety of ways, to a variety of people who see the world through different lenses. 

How do you support the success of your team?

As the first ever DEI Specialist at Noodle, I believe I will be able to support an already great work culture here at the company. I’m a person with many ideas!  Fostering intentional and sustainable DEI initiatives for everyone to utilize and feel included is the goal. DEI is a shared effort that involves everyone, not just those who are historically marginalized. I am looking forward to supporting Noodle’s commitment to DEI. I want to first help foster some great inclusive practices that can be modeled across teams at Noodle, such as promoting productive communication around these concepts, understanding how and where bias shows up, and supporting our ever growing Employee Resource Groups! I’m just getting started here and I know I’m not doing this work on an island—there are many here that are dedicated to the success of our collective efforts. ‍

Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places or experiences. 

I have spent my whole life surrounded by people from many different backgrounds and experiences.  But growing up as a Black queer person I often felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere. Going to college helped me understand the importance of finding community. I learned there that I wasn’t the only one who felt that sense of isolation. Finding my community gave me permission to be authentically myself. It allowed me to stop hiding and feel seen. My career has allowed me to give that same gift to other young LGBTQ people of color. There is so much diversity within our community that is often erased or misunderstood. It can make you feel isolated but, being within my community has been a constant source of strength, knowledge, and joy. Recently, I was the closing keynote speaker for the 2021 Show Me Pride College Summit hosted by several Midwest institutions including my alma mater, Mizzou.  I was able to use my skill of storytelling to speak about the importance of community, understanding the diversity that exists within it and creating spaces for yourself to be authentic. Being able to share my story with higher education leaders and students resonated deeply for me and helped me to see how I have been able to use my life experiences in my work to support others. 

What are some of the most effective tools in your leadership arsenal?

I’ve shared my tools around storytelling and facilitation, and would add my ability to make others feel valued. For me, as I think about the broad work of DEI, one important piece is ensuring others feel valued in their work. Especially if they come from historically underrepresented and undervalued communities. Being from some of those same communities, I’ve been in spaces that didn’t truly value me or my voice and that helps me to empathize with others who share that experience. It also helps me to connect with others outside my experiences as well because humility is essential for empathy. Empathy and humility remain effective tools for me, especially doing DEI work. Humor and creativity as well! I love to make people laugh. I love creating new ways for people to learn!

Tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.

I’ll share two things. I’m a collector–I love collecting vinyl records and books but I love collecting FUNKO Pops! They’re bobbleheads of different characters and people, and I have about 50 of them. I have an Alex Trebek–rest in peace–one because I’ve always wanted to be on Jeopardy. The second thing I’ll share is that as much as I love people and am driven by relationship building, I’m definitely an introvert. I love the relationship I have with myself the most and need a lot of alone time to hang out with Jeff! 

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