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Champion of diversity, retention leaves Mills

In the countdown to commencement, the campus might have gotten a bit purple, but Mills College is losing a little orange.

After nearly five years of leadership and service as the Dean of Student Life, Dr. Joi Lewis — orange obsession and all — will
leave her position on April 15 and return to the Midwest. “Whenever I see the color orange, I will think of Dr. Joi,” said Therese Leone, the College’s Vice President and General Counsel. Leone and Lewis serve on the President’s Cabinet together.

“For me, that expresses her — her vibrancy, her sometimes outrageousness, her sense of fun. And she’s not someone you can ignore. She will be heard. A flare for the dramatic even,” Leone said. “When I see orange, whether in a flower or someone’s bright t-shirt, I will always think of her and her vibrancy and her energy. I think all those words you would use to describe orange, I would also use to describe Joi.”

The move will allow Lewis to return home to her partner Joan and be closer to her family and community. Lewis will also become the Vice President of Student Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

“Leaving is bittersweet,” Lewis said. “I’m going to miss Mills a lot.”

Since becoming the College’s Dean of Student Life in August 2007, Lewis has continued her commitment to social justice, diversity and retention in higher education through The Narrative Project, The Belonging Initiative and the Soup and Substance programs. She has created strong ties to student leadership like the Associated Students of Mills College and, through her highly successful course — Higher Ed: Hip Hop and the Hood, Getting Students to and Through College — brought Mills and members of the Oakland community together. The list of contributions goes on.

“Personally and professionally, I’m so sorry she’s leaving,” said Cynthia Brandt Stover, Vice President for Institutional Advancement. Lewis was the colleague who went out of her way to welcome Brandt Stover to Mills when the latter first joined the community in 2009. “I could just burst into tears. It’s such a loss for us.” Brandt Stover’s voice broke over the phone. “I’m sad.”

Leone is sad, too.

“I’m very sad for me, and I’m very happy for her,” Leone said. “I think that she’s a jewel. She’s an absolute gem. They are lucky to get her back in Minnesota. I’m really happy for Joi and (her partner) Joan, and her family back in the Midwest. I will really miss her energy around here, her good advice. But this is a fabulous opportunity, and I’m really happy for her to be able to do some of that self care and reconnect with family back in the Midwest. It’s, as Joi would say, ‘both/and.’”

Holding contradictions

LaTasha Warmsley, a second-year literature grad student, counted off Lewis’ “awesome” sayings like, “I’m going to put a comma, not a period, so I can come back to it.” The term “holding contradictions” is another Dr. Joi favorite.

According to Warmsley, holding contradictions is something Lewis does well.

“That’s a big part of her job,” Warmsley said, “being on the students’ side and understanding that this is an institution and things are not always done in their best interests. On the other hand, she’s the administrator. She’s got a job to do. There are these guidelines that she has to abide by. How do you navigate that space when you have those two things happening?”

Last December’s staff layoffs and the student outcry that followed, for instance, were the last big news items associated with Lewis before her departure from Mills was announced in February.

On Dec. 1, 2011, Lewis stood at the podium for at least 45 minutes and took in what she called the best and most difficult moment of her professional career. Over 100 students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and their allies had gathered in the Student Union and angrily spoke out against the very woman who taught many of them how to use their voice.

“It’s always the person closest to you that you lash out at,” Warmsley said, “and I feel that Dr. Joi definitely took a lot of that backlash from the students.”

Jessica Brennan, a fifth-year student in the 4+1 Infant Mental Health program, said it wasn’t a friendly meeting.

“But I looked at Dr. Joi, and I saw a look on her face that I know and I recognize,” Brennan said. “And it was a look of pride.”

Brennan mentioned that look in a letter she sent to Lewis shortly after that difficult meeting. Lewis wrote back, saying that Brennan was right.

“Dr. Joi wrote, ‘I am proud to see these students using their voice and power, even if I have to be on the other side of it,” Brennan said.

Given her lifelong commitment to social justice, Lewis said she never imagined that she would ever find herself in a room of students hollering, “You don’t care about diversity!”

“But then to look out and see these students who would barely open their mouths or hadn’t really had a voice before, to see students with disabilities coming out in a public way, in a very proud way, about all of who they were… “ Lewis said. “I didn’t like the impetus for what brought us together. I don’t want to repeat that. It was a deeply hard and beautiful thing, all at once. It was a gift.”

Lewis said she was glad that she was able to stay and listen. She had been in rooms with angry and upset students before, but that day in the Student Union was different.

“I was fully present there in that moment,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t trying to control the outcome. I was just trying to be in the process and just say, ‘I’m not going to try to facilitate. I’m not going to explain away. I just want to be here and and hold the space, to bear witness and say as a leader, Yup, that’s fair. I can stand and hear you, and I’m going to listen — not patronize you — just listen.’”

A mentor and a friend

While the layoffs were a difficult moment, many students take with them warm memories like Lewis’ famous love for the color orange, her excitement about becoming a certified Zumba instructor (despite all else she’s accomplished!) and her singing at every event.

Ashley Grant, a 2010 alumna, laughed as she recounted a few classic Dr. Joi memories. Grant now works for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and will start law school in the fall, but at Mills she worked closely with Lewis as ASMC Co-President.

Grant remembered attending a Board of Trustees meeting once. All the top campus leadership was there, and Lewis had to update the Trustees on student retention. She eschewed the typical PowerPoint presentation for something different.

“I couldn’t imagine any other dean doing this,” Grant said, “but Dr. Joi did her presentation in a rap/poem.” Grant couldn’t stop laughing as she told the story. “I remember looking around the room at the Trustees, and there were these funny little smiles and kind of shocked expressions. I was thinking the same thing, ‘I cannot believe she rapped her presentation.’ It was pretty cool.”

Other students and alumnae highlighted Lewis’ penchant for going above and beyond, as an administrator and as a mentor. Isabel Cortes, senior, remembers how hard she had it as a first year and turning to Lewis in her time of need.

“I just cried in her office,” Cortes wrote in an email. “She listened attentively and at the end, gave me a book and a sticker that said, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ I will always remember this.”

Kehontas Rowe, junior, attested to the fact that Lewis cares deeply for students’ success. In fact, Rowe regularly heard from Lewis while taking care of a couple incompletes over winter break.

“Every morning,” Rowe said, “she’d text or call me and ask, ‘What’s the plan for today?’ Or, ‘how much work you want to get done?’ And then at the end of the day, she’d check back in and ask about my progress. Sometimes these would be personal visits.”

Rowe joked that the daily checkups were a little annoying at the time, but now she definitely appreciates that special care and everything else Lewis has done for her.

“But,” Rowe said, “Dr. Joi would do that for anyone.”