Bleuzette Marshall: A Committed, Empathetic D&I Leader Building a Vibrant, Inclusive University Community

The Most Inspiring DEI Leaders to Follow in, 2023

Bleuzette Marshall, VP for Equity, Inclusion & Community Impact at the University of Cincinnati (UC) reveals that her love of numbers and passion for community service came from her parents, both of whom worked in education. Her father was a math and science teacher, while her mother was a high school secretary and community volunteer.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” – Simon Sinek

The Journey from UC Alumni to D&I Leader

Bleuzette feels grateful to her parents for providing her and her two brothers with a charmed life in a quaint, lovely multicultural and multigenerational neighbourhood. Children would play in the street, parents would join in the fun or tend to their lawns, and life revolved around trips to the library, piano lessons, community fundraisers, and antique shopping.

Bleuzette attended Walnut Hills High School, participated in a summer bridge program, and received a scholarship to attend UC. As a student, she was involved in numerous campus organizations and was a student employee in the residence halls. After graduating, she was offered a full-time position in UC’s Office of Ethnic Programs & Services providing programming to ensure students felt a sense of place.

“The rest shall we say is herstory,” says Bleuzette. “I’ve spent more of my life connected to UC than not. I spent time in advancement, which allowed me to raise money for the scholarship I received as a student, a brief time in financial aid, and became the founding president of our African American Alumni Affiliate. Because of the rich experiences, boundless opportunities, and transformative relationships with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, I’ve stayed. I want to ensure that current and future students have similar, if not better experiences than I.”

Bleuzette always felt drawn to the D&I space – from attending international folk festivals as a child and taking a minority group cultures class in high school (shout out to Mr. Joe Yoshimura), to studying the psychology of interracial relations and organizational development in college and getting involved with various community organizations.

“It was something about being around different people and learning about their cultures that excited me. These experiences allowed me to be more inquisitive, empathetic, and intentional when engaging with people. I spent the early part of my career in adjacent D&I positions that allowed me to work with a variety of people for various causes,” she recalls.

For Bleuzette, stepping into the D&I leadership role felt very natural and purpose-driven, an opportunity to be the change that she wanted to see in the world, and do her part in not only valuing but also leveraging the unique contributions of the university community – developing and driving strategy while shaping an inclusive environment where current and future generations can thrive.

“To whom much is given, much will be required.” – Luke 12:48

Empowering Students to Achieve Their Highest Potential

UC embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values that empower individuals to transform their lives and achieve their highest potential. By leveraging the talents of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, this vibrant, urban research university demonstrates its commitment to creating a community that values the contributions of all its members.

What began as a city college in 1819 has transformed into an international university with representation from 110+ countries, 48,000 students, 10,500 faculty and staff, and 330,000 alumni. The New York Times called its physical setting “the most ambitious campus design program in the country.” For the past decade, UC has been recognized with the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award by INSIGHT into Diversity magazine with the Diversity Champion designation since 2016. Most recently, Forbes and Statista selected UC as one of America’s Best Employers for Diversity.

In 2018, under the leadership of President Neville Pinto, UC unveiled its strategic direction – Next Lives Here – defining institutional priorities for the next decade and beyond with the vision of “leading public universities into a new era of innovation and impact.” Bleuzette explains that UC offers multiple pathways in three platforms (Academic Excellence, Urban Impact, and the Innovation Agenda) to help them reach their Next. In addition, there are several teams and ad hoc committees throughout the university that monitor industry trends.

As they navigated the early phases of the pandemic in a new, remote environment, a cross-functional team monitored national and state-wide trends and researched and introduced strategies to prevent a decline in enrollment. UC used data to drive decisions and was intentional in leveraging different resources and skill sets to develop and execute strategies. As a result, they were the only university within the state that did not experience a decline in enrollment.

Sparking Innovation Through Collaborative Partnerships

Bleuzette recalls that when she began her role, it was just her and a shared administrative associate. Despite her self-confidence, she knew that she couldn’t impact a community of 50,000 alone. So, she built collaborative partnerships by reaching out to deans and vice presidents and asking them to identify a person within their colleges and units to liaison with her and her office.

The purpose of this group was to: 1) provide a networking opportunity for practitioners to establish points of contact, 2) share best practices, leverage resources, and collaborate in addressing D&I priorities, 3) help colleagues “be in the know” of what’s happening on campus, and 4) provide a measure of consistency and standardization across the university.

This structure helped align and accelerate their inclusion efforts, sparking innovative ideas like their ‘Don’t Cancel Class’ program, a service that offered faculty an interactive D&I workshop tailored to their discipline if they had to miss class due to personal reasons or conference travel. This professional development experience allowed students to better understand fundamental concepts and relate them to their chosen profession.

Another innovative idea came from a partnership with their Digital Technology Solutions (DTS) area, to create an Equity & Inclusion App initially designed to serve as a guide for their annual conference, which went on to become an everyday resource for the university community. It’s now accessible free on Android or IOS platforms through the App Store and kept current by members of the DTS Inclusion Team. As interest grows in inclusive practices, this app puts D&I initiatives in the palms of people’s hands.

Further, through a collaboration between her office, DTS, and the College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and IT, UC launched its 12-week-long ShareIT program for high school students, with six focus areas: leadership skills, app development, cybersecurity, programming, networking, and game design. Students receive the equipment required to complete the program, are supported by mentors from the DTS team, and meet community partners successful in IT fields.

The culminating activity is when students form teams and present ideas for potential funding. Those who complete the program get to keep the equipment, including a laptop and backpack throughout college. Several students received internships within DTS and returned as mentors for younger students. By developing student talent and connecting resources across the region, the impact of this program benefits the university community as well as the IT industry.

Making College Education More Accessible & Affordable

UC’s plans include its vision of “leading public universities into a new era of innovation and impact.” As it belongs to the city, it has a special obligation and responsibility to the community. The Next Lives Here strategic direction places Urban Impact as one of its highest priorities, with collectively solving its communities’ most complex problems and pressing needs as central to its mission. UC is striving to make college education more accessible and affordable to more community members.

UC is looking at disciplines for the future and providing educational opportunities that best meet its students’ needs (in-person, virtual, or hybrid).  It’s planning to upscale dining and recreation amenities to enhance the student campus experience and be at the forefront of discovery and innovation by growing its research enterprise.

In addition, UC plans to enhance community partnerships to address systemic issues and eliminate disparities. A cross-disciplinary team developed a new definition for community engagement vetted at the highest levels of the organization to align efforts under the banner of “deliberate collaboration that is co-designed and leads to mutually beneficial, sustained impact.”

UC will also scale its inclusion efforts through the Accelerating Our Next Inclusive Excellence framework, with a future focus on its Inclusive Leadership Challenge Grant Program which provides transformational funding to support opportunity, advancement, and parity within the university community, with awards up to $100,000 per year.

Guided by the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, this two-year competitive grant program is designed to resource new and existing projects in three strategic areas: climate, retention, and recruitment. Successful proposals are advanced to a live presentation round (like Shark Tank) with DEI Council members and DEI experts who make the final selections. “Within the next month, UC will officially be part of the Big 12, so Bearcats fans can cheer our teams on to victory across the world,” Bleuzette proclaims.

The Importance of Being Vulnerable and Sharing Experiences

Given the role her office plays in the university, Bleuzette knows it’s important that her area and team model the culture they wish to see in the campus environment. As a committed leader, she walks the talk and strives to lead by example for her team, setting the expectation of becoming the best versions of themselves.

She achieves this by being approachable with no conversation off limits, honest and transparent communication, acknowledging that she doesn’t have all the answers but letting them know that together they can figure things out, being supportive, empowering them to experiment, celebrating successes, and when things go sideways, discussing what worked, what didn’t go so well, and what improvements can be made.

“As a rising professional, all the senior leaders I knew appeared to have it together,” Bleuzette reveals. “They never discussed overcoming obstacles. In retrospect, this was unfortunate because it painted a false reality when I stepped into this leadership role. I began to question why I was experiencing bumps along the way, and later realized that my journey wasn’t much different than theirs.”

Having seen the importance of sharing her experiences with team members to enhance their professional development, Bleuzette believes in being vulnerable and sharing challenges, thoughts, feelings, and decision-making strategies. She insists on accountability, owning her actions and decisions, and apologizing when necessary. “Am I perfect? Almost. Just kidding. Absolutely not. But I’m striving, and my team knows that” she quips.

Bleuzette sees roadblocks as opportunities to stretch her thinking, consider other perspectives, and sharpen her creativity. She recalls times in her journey when her ideas or strategies were not well-received or valued, but when someone from a different demographic expressed the same sentiment, they were genius. “As unnecessarily frustrating as it was, I learned to read a room and identify folks who could deliver my message for me, that would still get to my desired outcome,” she observes.

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Following The Call to Greater Action

Bleuzette sees success as a deeply personal concept that evolves throughout a person’s lifetime, a unique sense of fulfillment in striving for and achieving a goal, be it educational, familial, financial, career-related, or health-focused.

“I view success as a journey, not a destination. I developed this philosophy while realizing that the work that goes into achieving goals is as important and rewarding as the outcome. It’s the creativity, innovation, refinement, emergence of skills, expansion of knowledge, and interactions with people along the way. We can be so focused on the outcome that we miss the special moments leading up to it,” she insists.

While she’s truly grateful to those who nominated her for various awards and the organizations that extended the honor, Bleuzette holds the Marian and Donald Spencer Spirit of America Award from the Cincinnatus Association closest to her heart because both individuals were UC alumni, forged paths in education and public service, and were instrumental in opening the doors she was able to walk through.

Segregation prevented the students at UC, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, from living on campus or participating in student organizations. This didn’t deter Donald, who created a new student organization for Black students – the Quadres – while Marian met with the university president leading to the successful integration of the prom. These efforts helped advance the university’s inclusion journey. Marian later became a trustee of the university and was celebrated with a residence hall and scholarship in her honor.

“The best part is I knew them both and what they stood for. In part, the work I do today is a testament to their legacy. Receiving an award in their name meant that someone noticed similar characteristics in me. While it was very much appreciated, it was also a call to greater action and a reminder of the duty that I must serve my university and my community to ensure that everyone, especially the marginalized, would have an opportunity to live their best lives and fulfill their highest potential,” Bleuzette observes.

Engaging Students in the D&I Landscape

Bleuzette’s primary challenge is helping people to understand the essence of D&I, as most think it’s solely about counting people from historically marginalized demographic groups. “In actuality, it’s about making people count because of the value their differences bring to the organization. It’s about everyone seeing themselves as part of the D&I landscape and being fully engaged. And, most importantly, it’s the understanding that everyone is responsible for creating an inclusive environment,” she explains.

As a result, Bleuzette developed the following impact statement to provide a gist of the work her office does, so that people can see themselves and become engaged. “We work to bring out the best in our students, faculty, and staff by valuing their unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives – welcoming and leveraging individual contributions to collaborate, create, innovate, and compete in a global society. We address issues of discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, and retaliation so members of our community can work, learn, grow, and thrive in a safe and supportive environment. Ultimately, we aspire toward inclusive excellence by leading with courage and compassion, treating everyone with dignity and respect, and enhancing the quality of life for everyone with whom we connect.”

Bleuzette believes that her impact on the next generation is in being accessible to students (and rising professionals) by serving, mentoring, and employing them. “it’s said that being on a college campus keeps you young. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s inspirational to watch our students mature into young adults in what seems like a blink of an eye. Building relationships with students has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Whether it’s regularly scheduled check-ins, impromptu phone calls to chat, helping them develop their resumes, hosting mock interviews, or sending them to conferences and events to build their skills and networks,” she states.

Bleuzette has been intentional about providing meaningful assignments to the students she’s employed, so they can develop their skill sets.  One student received training on website development and updated their website, while another coordinated a conference for elementary school children to visit the campus. A major requirement for each student associate is to develop and deliver a D&I workshop for the university community. Some presented them as standalone sessions, while others were concurrent session presenters during UC’s annual Equity & Inclusion Conference.

Several of Bleuzette’s former student associates and mentees are now engaged in D&I work in some form – directing offices in higher education, managing D&I initiatives for their companies, or serving on company-wide D&I councils. A few pursued graduate and professional studies to earn their MBA, MD, and JD degrees. “It’s always an immense sense of fulfillment when I’m able to write letters of recommendation for dynamic students to help them pursue their dreams,” she admits.

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”  – Ryunosuke Satoro

Committed to Building an Inclusive Campus Climate

As VP for Equity, Inclusion & Community Impact, Bleuzette is committed to managing the university’s inclusion efforts by providing strategic leadership for the retention, advancement, and recruitment of talent (in that order), sharing practices that foster an inclusive campus climate, and building mutually rewarding relationships in the broader community.

She manages a host of initiatives, with four offices reporting to her, including oversight of UC’s Inclusive Excellence framework that focuses on DEI education, talent life cycle (students and employees), inclusive performance management, inclusion in the curriculum, alumni engagement, inclusive philanthropy, and supplier diversity. Other initiatives include developing and facilitating workshops, coordinating UC’s annual conference, and hosting its workplace giving campaigns.

In collaboration with amazing cross-functional teams, Bleuzette convenes and chairs UC’s DEI Council to monitor its progress and make recommendations; administers its Community Experience Survey to take the pulse of its students, faculty, and staff interactions; manages the Inclusive Leadership Challenge Grant Program to provide funding for innovative practices to enhance its climate, retention, and recruitment efforts; and is cataloging UC’s community engagement activities across its colleges and units.

Her days are filled with strategy development, planning, and report-out meetings, consultations with those interested in enhancing inclusive practices in their areas as well as helping those who are navigating challenging situations, facilitating workshops, reviewing data, holding touch base meetings with direct reports, and attending campus or community programs in the evening.  “I’ve been known to say, ‘Every day is a holiday because I never know what gift I may receive.’  I try to structure the days of the week based on the areas that report to me relative to meetings and activities, but that’s not always the case,” Bleuzette remarks.

“I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not shrink to a grain of sand. Henceforth, I will apply all my efforts to become the highest mountain of all and I will strain my potential until it cries for mercy.” – Og Mandino

Giving Back & Engaging in Joyful Activities

Bleuzette candidly admits that she doesn’t focus on work-life balance, as depending on what’s happening personally or professionally, the scales may tip in one direction or the other, but very rarely are they at equilibrium, and that’s okay. She does stop accepting calls or meetings at 9 p.m. on weekdays, and reserves Saturday mornings for connecting with out-of-town family, followed by civic engagement activities and personal errands, while Sunday is reserved for church and family.

“For me, the most important thing is to be mindful in the moment. When I’m working, making sure I’m present – listening, learning, growing, and contributing. The same is true for my civic engagement. But when I unplug, it’s all about finding quiet moments to just sit and be – no television, no music, nothing but the sounds of nature. For those who know me, I’m a fan of superhero fiction and will indulge in a TV show or movie from time to time. I also dabble in mixology with music and refreshing beverages,” she explains.

Bleuzette also encourages her team to pace themselves, not sweat the small stuff, and engage in joyful activities, since they work in a fast-paced environment that can quickly drain their energy. They also have the flexibility to work remotely when necessary. Several years ago, she created a Sunshine Committee that engaged in activities ranging from celebrating birthdays and watching a movie to hosting 12 days of desserts and a painting party, to foster intercultural connections and engagement opportunities with team members.

Bleuzette recalls creating a vision board to start the next phase of life with intention at a New Year’s Eve gathering decades ago. Her vision included being a senior-level administrator, having a family, and building a house. As a child and young adult, she would draw random houses, and once sketched what she called the Marshall Estates as a gathering space for her family. HGTV inspired her to remember the sketch when she “drafted” the floor plans to give to a builder (a UC alumna) for her beloved home; partly because she turned a concept into reality, and because it was built during the pandemic.

Her current and future goals are in the areas of health and well-being, community, and experience, with a focus on cooking, exercising, and adopting a better sleep regimen. Through a community organization, she hosts The Links Leadership Academy for Girls, which helped 17 young ladies graduate and enroll in college in the past two years, with four at UC. Her personal-cum-professional goal is to see them cross the finish line at graduation.

Bleuzette’s final goal is to travel with family and friends to Café del Mar in Ibiza, Spain, for the experience of listening to a DJ play its chillout genre of music to a beautiful sunset over the sea, as she’s a big fan of the franchise and music collection.

Enjoy The Journey & Pay It Forward

In her message to aspiring leaders, Bleuzette says: The world is waiting for you, so dream big and be relentless in your pursuits to make your dreams a reality. You’re here for a purpose that only you can fulfill. Do everything you can to prepare yourself for your next opportunity. Identify people who are willing to support you and be ready to take that leap or walk through the door when the time comes.

Know yourself and your non-negotiables. Set boundaries. Be your own cheerleader and motivator. Don’t seek validation from others. This is your life and your journey, not theirs. It may be possible to have “it” all, but perhaps not at the same time. It’s easy to lose yourself in your work, so always make time for yourself, your family, and your friends.

Also, don’t be in such a rush to be a leader that you don’t appreciate or remember the journey it took to get there. It’s in the journey that you gain knowledge, make connections, and build expertise to be successful in your role. It’s also the knowledge, connections, and expertise that help you pay it forward by mentoring the young people behind you and coaching the colleagues beside you.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”  – Maya Angelou