The Association of Black Faculty and Staff: Advocating through action

In a Samuel Proctor Oral History Program interview conducted in 2011, Distinguished Service Professor Carlton Davis, Ph.D., recalled the words of his mentor Professor Glenn Johnson as, in 1970, Johnson persuaded Davis to join the University of Florida rather than accept positions at other organizations he was considering.

Carlton Davis, UF/IFAS distinguished service professor. Photo by Marisol Amador

“The University of Florida needs you more than USAID [the United States Agency for International Development], or, if I dare say, the University of West Indies,” Davis recalls Johnson telling him. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think that you can have an impact on the University of Florida in terms of what you can do — in terms of breaking down barriers.”

His words had an impact, prompting Davis to interview and be hired as one of the first three Black tenure-track faculty members at UF. As Johnson predicted, Davis’ ongoing advocacy outside of his academic work was crucial to help break down the racial barriers that can impede the recruitment, retention and advancement of Black faculty, staff and students.

Soon after joining UF, Davis was named chair of the Committee of Black Faculty, which evaluated the progress UF was making in hiring Black people. He was also a member of the President’s Minority Affairs Advisory Committee and assisted in the preparations of UF’s first Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunities plans.

In 1972, Davis and Dr. Ronald Foreman Jr., who was hired at the same time as Davis into a tenure-track position, became two of the founding members of the Caucus of Black Faculty and Staff — renamed the Association of Black Faculty and Staff, or ABFS, in 1984 when Marshall Criser became UF president. Additional founding members included Rev. Thomas Wright, a visiting lecturer in education, and LaVon Wright, Rev. Wright’s daughter and the first Black financial aid counselor in the Student Financial Aid Office.

“There was a need for community, for safe spaces — for us to get together, to affirm each other, to love each other and also advocate for issues and an environment that is inclusive of Black faculty, staff and students,” said Deon Winchester, outgoing ABFS vice president and accountant for the Department of Dermatology. 

Advocacy is the unyielding theme that runs through the core of ABFS. Past members have paved the way for today’s association, working tirelessly to improve the quality of the Black experience at the University of Florida. Current members continue to move forward under the same mission, committed to leaving behind a better campus for those faculty, staff and students who follow.

“We want to acknowledge and recognize the valuable contributions of those who came before us like Drs. Carlton Davis and Faye Gary. Without them there would be no us,” said Winchester. “Just as they worked and we are able to benefit from the fruits of their labor, we continue to labor today for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community.” 

Davis and Faye Gary, Ed.D., R.N., are the only two Black faculty at UF to be recognized with a Distinguished Service Professor award.

Faculty and staff outside of the association who would like to contribute to ABFS’s mission, are encouraged to join in actively working for a more inclusive campus community.

“There’s a big push for allies, but what our communities need the most is advocacy,” said Katrice Graham, Ed.D., ABFS president and director of the Knight Division for Scholarships and Student Inclusion. “It’s great to know that you’re cheering for me, but if you can throw me the ball or get my foot in the door, that makes a much bigger difference.”

ABFS Ice Cream Social & Fundraiser at FogBoxx – February 2020

In addition to advocacy, affinity groups like the ABFS play an integral role in the recruitment and retention process by creating a sense of belonging and community space for their members. Their work also extends into the Gainesville community, with the association partnering with organizations to hold workshops and patronage Black-owned businesses. 

“It’s very overwhelming to enter a place where you don’t know everybody and you don’t know the history, or the culture, of the university,” said Rachel Grant, Ph.D., ABFS communications committee chair and assistant professor at the College of Journalism and Communications. “We’ve been able to provide that space for a lot of people, where they can navigate and understand not only the culture of the university but of Florida, and where they get to meet people from across campus and get to integrate into a more close-knit community.”

Over the years, the ABFS has continued to advocate for its members, creating opportunities for professional development and mentorship while also working internally to push for initiatives and policies centered on diversity and inclusion. Members can join several committees that tackle different issues including professional development, social networking and university affairs. 

The Professional Development committee is pivotal for members seeking to advance in their chosen fields. The committee works to expose members to available on campus trainings, provides mentorship opportunities and works with community partners for more varied development opportunities. Most recently, ABFS partnered with the UF Office of Government and Community Relations and Gainesville Black Professionals to host a mixer at the Harn Museum of Art, where attendees could network and discuss opportunities to collaborate with business owners, academics, and local and campus professionals.  

Harn Museum of Art mixer – November 2021

“It can be difficult to navigate the campus’ professional environment unless you’ve found an active mentor or sponsor to help you — someone who’s going to recommend to you leadership opportunities or inform you of HR resources like the Supervisory Challenge and other workshops that build your resume and open doors for you to move up in administrative roles — be it faculty or staff,” said Graham. 

Feb. 28 UF Black Effort town hall

Beyond mentorship, the University Affairs committee plays an integral role in advocating for policies that support the group’s membership. Committee members work directly with senior administrators to improve and advance policies and diversity initiatives that foster an environment of cultural sensitivity and enrichment while advancing recruitment and retention.

“Our University Affairs committee keeps us abreast of what’s going on across campus and helps us stay informed of opportunities to advocate for change,” said Graham. “They make sure we have representation in decision-making groups across campus.” 

When ABFS assisted the Black Students Affairs Task Force in lobbying for change to recruitment and retention practices for Black students, ABFS members presented the data gathered by the task force to the President’s office and in several town halls. One of the recommendations that came out the task force’s work was the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer in 2017.  

Other recommendations that were later implemented included the re-establishment of the Pledging to Advance Academic Capacity Together program, or PAACT, which focuses on the successful transition of incoming Black first-year students, as well as establishing the African American Studies program as its own department, which is an ongoing effort

ABFS members at the 2019 UF PAACT Mixer

The ABFS also works directly with individual members to help highlight their work and accomplishments, push their initiatives forward and advocate for their well-being. The National Pan-Hellenic Council Garden was one such initiative that recently came to fruition, honoring the campus’ Black Greek organizations. The initiative was championed by ABFS member Reginald Lane, director of the UF Office of Sorority and Fraternity Affairs.

For more than 50 years, the ABFS has worked tirelessly to continue to advocate for its members. And while a lot of work remains to be done, the group’s accomplishments to date continue to foster a more inclusive campus.

“We want to keep our members encouraged and let them know that they are seen,” said Graham. “Being able to see fellow members nominated for and winning awards, getting published, winning grants, or earning promotions and advanced degrees, gives you encouragement to believe that it’s possible and that, while you may be in the sowing season, there’s a harvest around the corner.” 

Membership in the Association of Black Faculty and Staff is open to all UF employees who identify as African-American or of African descent. If you are interested in joining the ABFS, email info.ufabfs@gmail.com or visit its website to learn more. For the latest information, upcoming events, training opportunities and more, join the ABFS on Facebook.


Explore Black History Month events at UF!

Register for the Feb. 28 UF Black Effort Town Hall to discuss Black student recruiting and retention at UF.


Resources:

African Americans at the University of Florida, by Betty J. Stewart-Dowdell and Kevin M. McCarthy (2003)

Black Student Affairs Task Force Assessment Cycle in Action: https://assessment.ufsa.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Assessment-Mini-Conference.pdf

Samuel Proctor Oral History Program interview as part of the African American History Project: https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/AA/00/06/62/09/00001/AAHP%20238%20Carlton%20Davis%2011-23-2011ufdc.pdf