Chandra Guinn's Path to Leading DEI at McKinney
Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Chandra Guinn, who, after 15 years, left her director role at Duke University to become McKinney's first-ever executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion. (Also, she's literally a JEDI.)
What were you before?
I was director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University, which required a whole lot of juggling: leading a team, engaging students and supporting them through their collegiate experience, cultivating relationships with alumni and community members, creating and curating programs, overseeing art exhibitions and jazz performances, assisting with styling a culturally resonant environment (including the relocation and renovation of a Julian Abele space), design building, serving on university-wide committees, facilitating trainings, acquiring art, books, games and other resources for public consumption … you name it.
What triggered your reinvention?
A desire for personal growth and professional development. I wanted to go out and experience life more fully, something my many students would return to tell me about. I wanted to enlarge my territory, sharpen my skills, and elevate my advocacy.
What did the first steps look like?
The first step was trying to wrap my head around the very idea that people would and could change jobs in the middle of a global pandemic.
When the pandemic began, I was just holding on, thinking about what might be possible once we got through it. I couldn't imagine reinventing myself in the midst of it. Then a light came on! As I was winding up another academic year—this time without being able to bask in the glow of my students' brilliance—I turned to the same advice I surely offered to more than one of them: "Go and live boldly, beyond your wildest imagination, and allow God to use you as you align with the purpose and process of realizing the potential that he placed inside of you."
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
Knowing what was next, what might be possible, where to start, and how to navigate a job search process after being in a role for 15 years.
What was easier than you thought?
The virtual interview process was similar to what I experienced pre-pandemic, so that was good. And not having to walk in heels all day, which I might have if the interviews were in person. Nothing about reinvention is easy, but life situations can make it necessary, and everything worth having is worth working for.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
Quotes and clichés are surprisingly helpful. They can keep you motivated: "Just do it." "The journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step." "Why not you, why not now?" "If God brings you to it, you will get through it." "I never lose, I either win or learn." "Your past can only define you if you let it." "Seize the day."
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
• The people I love and who love me, and who show me not just in words but in deeds.
• Special colleagues that served as references, and who've been consistent in their support over the years.
• My little puppy dog friend Max, who allowed me to rub on him when I got nervous or doubtful.
• Post-it notes on the bathroom mirror—with affirmations.
• Gospel music.
• My mindfulness practice—yes, to the Calm app!
• Taking walks outside, communing with nature.
Inspiration abounds and begins inside. Believing I deserved something different and new, in this next phase of my life, made me want to stay in the process to see what the end would bring.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
Nothing has fundamentally changed. I am grateful for the character I've developed and the nurturance I've received throughout my life. I believe in myself a little more. I trust that God will move on my behalf, and the only fear that really has room to fester is the one stoked by self-doubt and inaction.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
I am grateful for the light and peace that I now know in my life. I want only the very best for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, those whose lives I was able to touch, and those lives that touched mine.
I believe in Black culture centers and the vital role they can play in the lives of college students and the entire university community. The labor of those who nurture such centers should never be taken for granted or underestimated. It would be a privilege to work in such an institution again at some point in my life. For now, though, I want to continue to explore this new realm that is giving me life.
Tell us your reinvention song.
How would you define yourself now?
The first executive director for diversity, equity, and inclusion at McKinney. I am a JEDI: A justice- and equity-loving professional who sees the need for diversity, inclusion and belonging—always and in all ways—if we are each to do good work in the service of humanity, and to live the highest, fullest expression of ourselves through our interactions with others in the pursuit of freedom for all. I am a thought leader and partner, assisting with recruiting, retention and capacity building. I am an advocate for supplier diversity, a creative work champion, brand ambassador, and innovator of the next big DEI idea in advertising.