New AVMA officer dedicated to providing opportunities for all

Latonia Craig has long been an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion
Latonia Craig, EdD
Latonia Craig, EdD

Latonia Craig, EdD, will step into a new role for both her and the AVMA this month: chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. 

With expertise in DEI and a background working in academia, most recently as assistant dean for inclusive excellence at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, she brings with her a wealth of experience that builds synergies among groups as well as an understanding that allyship will be integral to the work ahead.

Dr. Craig talked with AVMA News about the lessons she’s learned in her career, meeting people where they are, and what she hopes to do at the AVMA. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Tell me about your background and how it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

A. I was first introduced to this work before I knew about it at the time. I was considered a daydreamer in school. I loved to read and would think about books I wanted to read when I was not reading. If you were a teacher, it would be easy to assume I wasn’t focused in class. But I was connected to everything. 

Well, within the first few months of third grade, my parents received a note saying your child has been identified as a student who may need additional support. They thought I was being placed in the gifted and talented program, but unbeknownst to them, I was being placed with students in need of special academic attention. I immediately observed that everyone in the room looked exactly like me except for two students. 

One of our first tasks was to participate in a roundtable reading group where everyone would read a passage, I knocked my part out of the park. My teacher said out loud, “You should not be in this classroom.” But instead of her putting me back with the majority population, she developed a curriculum just for me and allowed me to help my peers read. So not only did she see me, she created an avenue for me to be successful. 

This third grade experience really cemented DEI into my soul. If that teacher had not stepped in to see me and provide the tools I needed to be successful, who knows where I would be and how I would have perceived myself. This experience propelled me to be better and to truly see people. To build bridges where there are none. To fight to change false perceptions people may have of other people. My teacher did not look like me, but she took the time to understand me and what I needed, and that really made all the difference.

Q. What is it like being involved in DEI work? What kind of skills does it require?

A. In this work, you need emotional intelligence and patience—not just with yourself but also with individuals working with you. You have to meet people where they are. It takes time, but with experience, you become better with how you communicate and how you navigate conflict or crisis. 

What has influenced me in doing this work and what has helped me is I did policy debate for four years at the University of Louisville. This trained me to look at and present things from all sides. I try to see all the parts of why someone took the position they did. Even when presenting something or helping people navigate certain circumstances, I am constantly thinking, “If we do this, this is the impact it could have. If we don’t do this, this is the message we’re sending.” You have to know what is happening and not happening in front of you and assess what that means. 

I also taught a cultural diversity course, Introduction to Pan-African Studies, for over 15 years at the University of Louisville. Being engaged with students and stepping into that space for the first time helped me see where people may struggle with this work. This insight would inform how I could help connect them to the work—and how creating a space where they could ask questions could enhance their cultural competency. 

Q. At Purdue, how did the change in your title from assistant dean for diversity and inclusion to assistant dean for inclusive excellence come about?

A. Diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot operate in isolation of one another. To take the work of DEI to the next level, you must build synergies by operationalizing—through support, empathy, and intentionally examining how well we’re doing this work. With inclusive excellence, it’s an approach to DEI where you’re constantly looking at and changing and improving your approach to the work. At Purdue, we wanted to elevate the work in all that we do and wanted the title to reflect that change. 

There are moments of DEI when you might get it wrong. You won’t get it right every time, but if you are trying, that’s what matters. What inclusive excellence does is it provides corrective measures to better serve the broader community.

Q. What did you learn from the Learning Café Series you also offered while at Purdue? 

A. The Learning Café Series was developed in the summer of 2020 after the George Floyd incident. My office received an overwhelming request for a space to engage in critical dialogue. However, we had to be innovative in the face of COVID. We were trying to figure out how to create space for people to feel empowered and connect with one another. We put together 40 DEI topics and asked faculty, staff, and students to rank their top 10 choices. We received over 200 responses in 24 hours.

People are hungry for knowledge. If you create a space for people to learn and ask questions without judgment, that’s when true learning can take place. My approach is not for me to teach at people but learn with them because folks can teach me, too. Experience is our greatest educator.

Q. Can you talk more about the importance of training and education with regard to DEI? For example, Purdue offers the certificate for diversity and inclusion in veterinary medicine in partnership with the AVMA and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

A. This was the first DEI certificate program in veterinary medicine. I think tools like it are great for introducing DEI to individuals who are interested and engaged in learning more about DEI. The key to doing DEI work is meeting the needs of where people are. Folks are on a continuum, and I want to be responsive to that. How do we keep folks engaged who have reached another level of understanding? How do we get folks to be inspired by the work and to get involved?

Veterinary professionals are busy. I think we have to be innovative in ways to get information to people quick and digest it in real time and digest it in ways that are most efficient and effective. That will be a challenge but one I’m ready to meet. The AVMA already has initiatives in place, and is launching Journey for Teams. Implementing a resource that people can access and add to their library of tools is definitely a move in the right direction. 

Q. How has the veterinary profession been impacted by having a historical lack of diversity in terms of race and ethnicity?

A. It’s all about representation, recruitment, and retention when it comes to DEI.
For representation, if the veterinary profession intends to diversify its workforce in all ways, it will have to cast a wide net and introduce the profession early to groups at all levels, including those interested students from kindergarten through postsecondary school.

The other piece of that is, while attracting and recruiting diverse talent is important, the more difficult part is creating a sense of belonging and community for people to stay in the profession. That’s retention. Areas that would be key to this would be areas of accessibility and advancement. There are ways we can learn about what current retention areas exist and if they’re working.

From my former seat as an assistant dean at Purdue, the veterinary profession has been more intentional about addressing the lack of diversity in the field. Several colleges like Purdue have focused on changing the narrative of being the least diverse profession. Those efforts have not gone unnoticed. For us in the work, we don’t want to be stagnant. We can’t change the past, but we can reflect on it to challenge ourselves. 

Q. What metrics do you hope to track at the AVMA?

A. I think part of my work, at least for the first year or few months, is listening. My process has always been to do that. What are members saying or have they been saying? What things are in place that are working that we could capitalize on? This work will require the efforts of everyone to measure progress.

Q. For people interested in doing DEI work, what do they need to know? 

A. When it comes to DEI work, you need to have the content knowledge, an awareness of the scholarship, and remain current with the literature. The most effective method is to be a true practitioner of the work, applying information learned and sharing with others the good, the bad, and the sharing of areas of where we need to improve. These are all necessary components of operationalizing DEI work. 

It is also important to be authentic, grounded, and set boundaries. The work is abundant. But in this work, you have to be realistic about your time and have a strong support system, team, and infrastructure.

At Purdue, our diversity strategic plan was invaluable because with any programming or initiative we implemented, we could look at the plan to see if this would help us meet our goals or determine how we were going to measure its success. 

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. I am certainly looking forward to working with members of the AVMA, senior leadership, and the Board of Directors. Allies will be key to success. I will need allies who are willing to help do some of the heavy lifting. I cannot do it all. I hope there will be more folks out there—and some have already started contacting me—who are willing to put in the work. The support that has already been shown truly excites me and will help me to do the work at an even faster pace and more effectively. I would like to continue building momentum and take the AVMA to greater heights where we can promote inclusive excellence in all the ways that render positive results.

A version of this article appears in the September 2022 print issue of JAVMA.